Metaphors for Abandonment: Exploring Urban Ruins

Excellent article posted at Archaeology and Material Culture.

An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylums, bowling alleys, industrial sites, Cold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianos and even scale models of abandonment.  This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment.  The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay.  The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.

For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms.  Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces.  For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye.  I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. …  We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.”


This is a politically circumspect expression of the explorer as a visual chronicler who records the prosaic material dimensions of abandoned material heritage.  It focuses on the power of aesthetically documenting abandonment, often to fortify a general appreciation for the breadth of heritage but not always in especially articulate ways.  Urban Ghosts: Forgotten Places and Urban Curiosities, for example, argues that its mission through such images is to underscore that “History is all around us, on every street corner.  Almost every place has a story to tell, but so much goes unnoticed, or simply pales into insignificance alongside heavy-hitting giants like the pyramids.”

The abandoned Spreepark near Berlin (image courtesy Norbert Lov).

The thorough Guerilla Historian page argues that urban exploration can produce a historical narrative that is complicated by the physical and aesthetic depiction of ruination, arguing that “Staring into the unfamiliar past, artificial environments and composites of micro-histories is a way to construct a depth perception for our own timeline.”  This focus on the experience of exploring ruined materiality is not at all novel, but the Guerilla Historian envisions this producing a historical narrative focused on people’s story-telling.  Such a people’s history of ruination is based on grassroots commitment to the details of everyday heritage that some observers believe is outside conventional academic history.  Guerilla Historian suggests that “If his­tory is writ­ten only by the win­ners, we are all losers.  I come from a place where his­tory is some­thing you can walk on and climb on, some­thing to be found and felt. Come with me.  Our past has been relegated to weighty dusty bookshelves in this culture, treated as dead weight that holds modernity, innovation and progress itself back—I disagree. Our past is always obscured behind the veil of contemporary interpretation, and this work represents mine: a world where the past is freed from rotting pages and can teach us who we are.”  Some urban explorers share a comparable vision of their historiography as a foil to mainstream narratives; this risks over-stating the conservatism of academic historians, but it does capture that much of everyday materiality is absolutely irrelevant to mainstream historians, and urban explorers (including most historical archaeologists) celebrate the everyday world even as they acknowledge the profoundly complicated histories of loss in America.

Many of these projects focus on how the photographic representation of abandonment is utterly dependent on the bodily experience of a creative, curious, and sympathetic eye moving through ruined landscapes.  Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America page has thoroughly chronicled urban abandonment, and his assessment of abandonment hinges on the physical experience of moving through these ruined landscapes, which he refers to as the “visceral experience of entering a parallel universe.”  In an Atlantic Cities article on “ruin porn,” Christopher acknowledged that “It was a case of that old cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words.’ … When I’d try to talk about the presences that seem to linger in these places, people would look at me like I should be in an asylum myself. When I showed them pictures — they’d suddenly get it.”  Many if not most urban explorers believe that a visual record of a place is uniquely documented by a photographer who thinks creatively and embraces prosaic ruination, taking pictures in ways that our sight may not otherwise have seen and stressing what Travis Parno calls “the potency of the imagination.”  Beauty in Decay, for instance, aspires to “walk in the eerie footsteps of long departed souls through haunted houses turned to dust and industrial complexes surrendered to nature,” arguing that “to understand the siren song of these places requires a certainly more poetic mindset than one might be used to occupying.  Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. … At the very point we cross the border from childhood into adolescence we cross real physical borders too. It’s the moment in our lives when we test the boundaries.”

Nike missile silo SF-91L in Belvedere California (image courtesy www78)

For some of these explorers, this is more than an exercise in taking good pictures or breaking into buildings.  The Beauty in Decay project acknowledges that with “a digital SLR camera and High Dynamic Range software it has become very much easier to take awesome photographs,” yet they do not reduce it simply to an aesthetic exploration; instead, they argue that “photography appears to be the symptom and not the disease.”  Rather than reduce urban abandonment to voyeuristic curiosity or shallow artistic vision, the Beauty in Decay project suggests that explorers “in the comfortable and over-protected ‘first world’ are living in an enforced and extended state of childhood.  They have remembered that they are capable of having unmediated experiences of reality and they welcome the fear that may (or may not) come with those experiences.  The fear itself is the gateway to go through. It’s the gateway that leads for many to ‘wonderland’. This is the world through the looking glass that in some dark corner of every soul, we are all looking for.”  This frames urban exploration as the pursuit of meaningful experiences in an over-built world that provides a false security; it is in the ruins of that very world that we encounter ourselves and our society and plumb the depths of our most unsettled sentiments about ourselves and modernity.

Many urban explorers characterize ruin as “beauty,” a romantic nostalgia with deep historical roots.  For urban explorer Jonathan Haeber, for instance, the ruined landscape provides “beauty and ephemerality,” securing its aesthetic appeal from its very ruination and the decay inevitable in all materiality’s return to nature.   The implication of this notion of beauty is that the seeds of decay are in all materiality and technology, and we acknowledge this transience through our own willingness to see that ruination all about us.  One somewhat overwrought description of the Beauty in Decay project rhapsodized that urban explorers “collectively put forth a ground cry against a modern culture that embraces the new, polished, uniform, and mundane.  Urban explorers find the beauty—layers of graffiti by years worth of writers, multi-hued peeling paint, antique objects, someone’s initials left in the dust on a broken stained glass window—and physical manifestations of memory that abandoned, impermanent urban spaces can hold.”  This views decay as traces of memory, a somewhat romantic notion of the ruin as a pleasing fantasy whose materiality haunts the present but does not invoke the future.

An abandoned building in Cork, Ireland (image courtesy slinky2000)

The most distinctive definition of the relationship between beauty and ruin is a rapidly emerging school of photographic art that uses abandoned ruins as the stark backdrop for fashion images or nudes (for a relatively SFW example, see Beauty in Decay compiler Romanywg’s facebook page).  For instance, visual artist Miru Kim’s “Naked Spleen” series depicts her nude in a variety of urban ruins, explaining that “Experiencing feelings of alienation and anxiety in the city–a city that has increasingly become more surveilled and commodified–I began to understand how many artists and authors suffered from severe bouts of depression, inertia, and isolation, which the term spleen embodies. One of the ways I escaped such feelings was to visit desolate and hidden places in the city. … Exploring industrial ruins and structures made me look at the city as one living organism. I started to feel not only the skin of the city, but also to penetrate the inner layers of its intestines and veins, which swarm with miniscule life forms. These spaces—abandoned subway stations, tunnels, sewers, catacombs, factories, hospitals, and shipyards—form the subconscious of the city, where collective memories and dreams reside. … As I momentarily inhabit these deserted sites, they are transformed from strange to familiar, from harsh to calm, from dangerous to ludic.”  This actually invokes a common urban explorers’ desire for an unmediated experience, it simply inflates the sensory dimensions of that experience and produces more jarring images by juxtaposing a nude with ruination.  Others have used urban ruins as a very different sort of backdrop: For instance, the Gakuranman site’s guide to urban exploring includes the story that one urban explorer “tells us that she has also bumped into crews shooting adult photography and video on more than one occasion, which was quite embarrassing for both parties.”

Runwell Hospital in Essex (UK), a mental hospital opened in 1937 that closed in 2010 (image courtesy howzey)

Matthew Christopher has a sober explanation for the meanings of his images of abandonment.  He somewhat counter-intuitively (if rhetorically) argues that his images have no intended moral or political lessons, arguing that each picture of an abandoned place “filters a fraction of another microcosm of loss.  This place was many things to the many people who knew it: a source of income, memories of good times with family and friends, maybe even an inspiration or an ideal. Those things are gone now. Here is the corpse left behind, which we can parade around for our entertainment, and wax philosophical.”

The specific reasons for focusing our gaze on those “corpses” reveal the complicated sociopolitics of ruination.  Brian Dillon argues that late-18th century Romanticism turned the mutilated remains of classical artworks or the fragments of buildings to a “randomly chosen instant,” celebrating decay and the ruined fragment but resisting a unified narrative.  This perspective would seem well-suited to many urban explorers fascinated by material details and idiosyncratic experiences in abandoned spaces, and their fascination with preserving the moment is reflected in the recurrently invoked “code of honour” to “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” That code aspires to freeze the moment of abandonment, merging the abandoned ruin with nature and leaving it to “natural” decaying processes.

Yet many observers approach abandonment as an exposition of the “ruins of modernity,” casting ruination scholarship as fascination with the “corpse” of a history we believed to be resistant to transience if not permanent.  This is a perspective that risks romanticizing stability, even if at least obliquely reflecting a simultaneous discomfort with modernity’s lust for “progress.”  In 1911 Georg Simmel argued  that ruination is inevitable, and he suggested that ruins emphasize the folly of political and cultural permanence.  Julia King’s fascinating study Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past has examined how contemporary historic sites have constructed “ruins” to frame historical interpretations on otherwise blank landscapes.  Her assessment of such manufactured ruins in Southern Maryland dissects the inelegant ideology of aestheticized historical ruins that borrow from 19th-century romanticization of ruins, seeking a permanence that inelegantly effaces the landscape of racism in places like Southern Maryland.  Such permanence is what Albert Speer aspired to ensure for the Third Reich in his “theory of ruin value”, which described architecture designed to decay gracefully and aesthetically.  In his 1970 memoirs, Speer indicated that during a construction project the

Speer’s Nuremberg complex has indeed been gradually overcome by nature in its present form as a memorial and a speedway (image courtesy Adam Jones, Ph.D. Global Archives).

“Nuremberg streetcar depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. One could easily visualize their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of `A Theory of Ruin Value.’  The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that `bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for.  It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past.  By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”

Despite this pronouncement coming from a Nazi, Speer voiced a common aspiration for architecture to provide a state a historical, ideological, and material presence long after its fall.  Naomi Stead cleverly argues that Speer’s caricature of the ahistorical ruin was a reaction against the relics around him that were obviously part of his social moment and testaments to its failures.  The distinction between most contemporary ruins and Speer’s idealized relics is that most of the abandoned factories, theaters, and asylums in our midst have a historical patina but are nevertheless clearly of a moment we recognize as “ours.”  Speer instead aimed to produce ruins that belied their age and merged with nature, casting these buildings as timelessly historical.

A Netherlands potato flour factory abandoned in 1964 (image courtesy Harm Rhebergen)

Matthew Christopher persistently uses the metaphor of “death” to describe his images of abandonment, arguing that “At its core, the photography of ruins is fundamentally about death. … the very basis for the entire genre is that the photographs are of abandoned–or dead–spaces.  … the key element is that what they once were created for is no longer.  Much in the same way, a host of chemical and biological processes continue in a corpse but it is still no longer considered living.”  This assessment of ruination art, exploration, and abandonment discourse focuses on the corpse of modernity retaken by nature, a gaze that can be reduced to romantic nostalgia (ironically, a central feature of modernist gaze), or it can view the ruin as an active entity that has a genuine politics revived by an aesthetic gaze.

This “death” underlies Christopher’s political argument that his images document not simply an abstract notion of abandonment and decay; instead,

“Each one represents failure.  On a micro level, this is evidenced in the building itself and the failure of the owners to fund/maintain whatever it was established for.  On a macro level, it often applies to the community’s inability to support the business, and to an even greater extent can be indicative of lost industries and economic collapse on the county and state level. I would argue that the culmination of these failures shows a trend even greater (and more ominous), that of an overall social decline leading to the fall of an entire empire.”

Abandoned seaside resort in Tianjin Tanggu (China) (image courtesy 请叫我面团)

This sober if not dystopian perspective views images as “a eulogy for the lost ways of life they represent, a statement of their emotional, spiritual, and metaphoric relevance to our everyday lives, and a sense of the visceral experience of entering a parallel universe of silence, rust, and peeling paint.”  These profoundly consequential tales of abandonment are counter-intuitively told with exceptionally prosaic spaces, but many artists of ruination and post-apocalyptism routinely depict the world’s most famous landmarks, with appearances from  Big Ben, Red Square, Cristo Redentor, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Pentagon, Harrods, and of course the Statue of Liberty.  This casts ruination into the future and places us clearly within a material and historical landscape constantly in processes of decay and ruination.

Christopher invests his politics into his images but is counter-intuitively reluctant to assume the political meanings of the pictures.  Instead, he argues that “As is often the case, I have the question–not just an idle curiosity, but a big gaping hole where meaning is supposed to be–but not the answer. …  Why does the husk of the building photographed matter? Why does the moment this image captured matter? Why does it matter that you’re looking at it now and reading this?”  For Christopher those are open questions posed by images, and it remains for us to turn them into political and policy statements that address built preservation and illuminate the structural conditions that produce contemporary abandonment.

Brian Dillon

2005 Fragments from a History of a RuinCabinet 20.

Metaphors for Abandonment: Exploring Urban Ruins

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