Tim Edensor - British Industrial Ruins

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In the past three decades of the 20th century, the Western world has witnessed massive industrial restructuring. New service and information technology industries have replaced the old heavy industries which saw countries such as Britain, workshop of the world and home of the industrial revolution, export its products worldwide. The buildings which house these new industries – the large retail sheds and factory units on new industrial estates – are replacing the often capacious stone and brick-built factories and warehouses which accommodated the assembly lines of mass production. These structures, nestling alongside railways and canals, are suddenly obsolete. Very often they are quickly demolished or converted into upmarket living spaces for the new middle classes, ironically the very personnel who work in the new cultural, service and information industries which are replacing the manufacturing production which was housed in the buildings in which they now live. However, across the old industrial nations, many old factories are evacuated and then left to decay. In the old industrial districts of cities and towns, derelict mills, foundries, engineering workshops and storage depots slowly crumble into disrepair. Especially in those urban areas which lack inward investment to demolish, replace or convert such buildings, these ruins linger, thwarting the attempts of city imagineers and marketers to create new visions that might help to sell their city to potential investors.

Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity, scenes of rural quaintness or the fake ruins installed in English country estates. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

These ruins are largely understood – especially by bureaucrats, city promoters and planners - as offensive to the character and aesthetics of the city. The sooner these scars on the landscape are demolished and swept away, effaced in the name of civic order, the better. They are matter out of place, a continuing rebuke to attempts to render urban space productive, smooth and regular. Imagined as sites of urban disorder, dens into which deviant characters – drug-users, gang-members, vandals and the homeless – are drawn, the imperative is to extinguish their decaying features from the urban backdrop. This website is dedicated to putting forward a different view. The following pages feature photographs and text which attempt to provoke a different assessment of these ruined spaces, and stimulate a critique of certain contemporary social and cultural processes. As spaces by the side of the road, ruins can be explored for effects that talk back to the quest to create an impossibly seamless urban fabric, to the uses to which history and heritage are put, to the extensive over-commodification of places and things, to middle-class aesthetics, and to broader tendencies to fix meanings in the service of power.

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site designed by the Design & Print Unit at Staffordshire University, for Tim Edensor, hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University
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created 8/10/2002