Tim Edensor - British Industrial Ruins

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Despite their position in the margins of the city, ruins are spaces where people can carry out activities without the surveillance of police or the increasingly ever-present CCTV cameras. Although we are warned to keep out because of unspecified danger, ruins accommodate a wealth of activities and are used as unofficial resources by city-dwellers.

Most obviously, derelict buildings are a place to shelter, and can house communities of homeless people who, finding dry and windproof space amidst the rubble, can set up temporary home, free from the attention of the police and other citizens. Sheets of tarpaulin and bits of old sofas can be arranged to create temporary homeliness. Ruins also provide a space in which to carry out forbidden or illegal activities. They can become a venue for sexual adventures of all kinds, offer a place in which to drink and to consume drugs, and provide a space to which criminals can retreat to investigate their ill-gotten gains. Ruins also provide a huge free canvas for the activities of graffiti artists who are able to carry out their designs unhindered. Graffiti of all sorts, from teenage doodlings to the large expanses created by more adventurous creators can add to the allure and atmosphere of unoccupied buildings.

Derelict sites thus serve as playgrounds for many activities that would be frowned upon if carried out elsewhere. Mountain-bike enthusiasts and skaters may ply their skill across the rubble and the often vast empty floorspace of large emptied factories and warehouses, and the surrounds act as an ideal venue for motorcycle scrambling. In larger spaces, stolen cars can be driven and then abandoned or set on fire. Children are apt to create dens and impromptu adventure playgrounds, erecting swings and chutes. Whilst investigating a derelict rubber factory in South Wales, I was pelted with small pebbles by a gang of kids who knew the building so well that they were able to remain hidden from my attempts to track them down. The expanses of overgrown surroundings, previously well-pruned gardens and verges of factories, serve as realms in which plants can be grown, ranging from vegetables to cannabis. Outside the usual routes designated for pedestrians, there is also the chance to walk amongst un-manicured space, with dogs and other companions, whilst unregulated space can also be utilised for grazing horses and parking cars.

Ruins are also places that because they are unused and slated for demolition, provide opportunities for pleasurable destruction and spectacular acts of vandalism (often called ‘mindless’). Certain materials such as glass and porcelain urinals seem to attract particular attention for the agreeable ways in which they dissemble when assaulted with stones and iron bars. Disordered, unkempt and unpoliced spaces lend themselves to carnivalesque celebrations where youth can create big bonfires, smash things to watch them splinter, enjoy making visceral explosions of noise and tipping over slimy industrial substances, and in other ways revel in the joy of being able to act out of control.

Moreover, ruins act as a storehouse for all sorts of useful materials that is free. Very often, shortly after buildings are abandoned, the informal lead merchants, scrap iron freelancers and stonemasons move in to rescue valuable stuff which can be sold on. Buildings get picked clean of their tiles, windows and doors, contributing to the speed and process of decay. People find new uses for old bits of machinery and all sorts of found objects. I met a man in a derelict Hanley pottery who had plundered antique pottery he discovered in cellars, and then collected tiles and sections of wooden wall to build a shed. Although designated as rubbish, the bits and pieces which can be retrieved show that the apparently useless can be recycled, that commodities and other objects have an afterlife whereby they can be sources of value once again. As in the rubbish tips of poorer countries, trash is reassembled and restored in other contexts, highlighting how waste can be socially used and become economically dynamic.

An adventurous use of an abandoned site was the instance of the Guinness Distillery site in London – designated for yet another supermarket development - being taken over by environmental protestors and labelled 'Pure Genius', mocking the Guinness advertising slogan.. Creating allotments, innovative temporary dwellings, sculptures and other artworks, rituals and community structures, the site attracted much press interest and became a minor tourist attraction. While short-lived, the venture provided an experiment in alternative living and was an exemplar for an ecologically conscious urban lifestyle.

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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