Bloomsbury Architecture Library - Introduction
Industrial Ruins
Industrial Ruins

Tim Edensor

Tim Edensor is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Berg, 2005


Content Type:

Book chapter

Peoples and Cultures:

British (modern)

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DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 1–20

As a young boy on long summer visits to my grandparents’ cottage in Scotland, a particular ruin exerted a magnetic attraction for me. At the top of the steep, treelined country lane which led away from the cottage lay an area of extensive beech woodland. Nestling amidst the trees was a building known locally as the Haunted House, an imposing building designed in the Scottish baronial style that had lain derelict for years and was now the domain of owls, jackdaws and rabbits. It was crumbling and unstable, but I and my siblings ignored the barbed wire and the notices that warned of danger, and explored the remnants of parlour and dining hall that were now strewn with rubble. There was not much left of the building, few nooks and crannies or spaces that were not open to the sky, but at the back of the dwelling was a sumptuous wood with a collection of ornamental gateposts and a well; a wood that was the occasional venue for youths from the nearby village to carve their names on trees and drink cans of beer. The haunted house was part of a large estate that had been developed by a hugely wealthy rubber baron in the early years of the twentieth century. If you followed the road that skirted the wood, you came to the gatehouse, no modest lodge but itself a grand and exotic building which was the only inhabited part of the estate. Here lived an ancient woman who took it upon herself to maintain the estate to some degree and try to ensure that, as the signs warned, trespassers would indeed be prosecuted. With her dogs and a particularly vicious goose, she patrolled the estate in an archaic automobile, whistle at the ready to summon help and frighten intruders, especially children.

The wood adjacent to the haunted house was our way into the estate, and more importantly, to the gigantic mansion that lay in the middle of the policies. The rubber baron had gone bankrupt as his estate neared completion, and whilst the haunted house and gatehouse had been completed, the big house had not been finished inside and was bereft of plaster and furnishings, remaining thus for decades. It was this mansion that drew me towards it on most of those holiday days, despite the added fear of capture by the elderly crone or perhaps also partly because of that. A half-mile walk through the woods led to a steep decline through thick woodland and undergrowth where the big house lay. The mogul had built extensive ornamental gardens surrounding the house which, together with the buildings and stone furniture, were designed to appear far older than was the case. A walled garden contained a fountain guarded on four sides by stone lions, and grass grew in its bowl, although if the spring was especially wet, frogspawn would collect in the murky water trapped there. The fountain was etched with rather morbid inscriptions: ‘Yesterday returneth not’. Tomorrow perchance, cometh not’. ‘Today is thine, misuse it not’. Occasionally, exotic blooms would force their way through the dense undergrowth and provide a splash of bright colour. At one corner of the walled garden was a favourite haunt, a gazebo, which acted as a hide from which deer, woodpeckers and other wildlife could often be seen, for the estate had become an unofficial nature reserve. From this point, a stone balustrade led to the woodland paths, paved but largely covered now with moss and a thick mulch of pine needles. The paths had been bordered with yew and pine hedges but in the decades following the laying of the garden, these had grown and formed an umbrella of dense foliage to create magical tunnels through the woods, which shut out much light and sound. In the woodland to the side of these tunnels, barely discernible through the undergrowth, were a few statues of strange lions and peculiar humanoid figures now covered in lichens.

Despite the freedom of movement available in the gardens, the house was thoroughly barricaded against intrusion unless one broke in through a window, and any smashed windows were quickly boarded up. One day, however, after many years contentedly exploring and playing in the gardens, I arrived at the house to find that a large window on the ground floor was wide open and it offered an opportunity to squeeze through to the never-inhabited house inside, an invitation that was, of course, impossible to resist. The gloomy rooms of the house, shrouded as it was by overgrown trees, gave up a number of extraordinary sights. The oddest was the display case inexplicably containing a stuffed, two-headed calf, perhaps a treasure from an age when freakishness and curiosities were desired. In a basement room, cinema seats from the early years of film were stacked in rows, together with slot machines and games which presumably had entertained the cinema-goers. And in an upstairs room with grand bay windows, littering the floor were the skeletons of hundreds of pigeons and song-birds who had found their way into the building through a small hole but had been unable to escape. After witnessing this macabre scene, and because the creaks of the building were heightened in the general silence, I didn’t want to hang around as my imagination veered towards the uncanny and the horrifying. I left the house and went homewards to disclose my exciting adventure, and although I later regretted exploring only a small part of the mansion’s interior, there was never another opportunity to gain access.

These powerful childhood experiences have remained in my memory since that time, but distressingly, for me, the ruined gardens and house have been transformed. For the property was converted into a country park but, following the failure of this venture, presently serves as a guarded, private estate where the mansion and surrounding buildings have been adapted into expensive flats. Accompanying these developments have been the renovation of the house and the transformation of the gardens so that they more closely resemble the original plans. The lawns are neatly manicured and the stonework of the fountains, walls, balustrades and gazebo has been cleansed of foliage and blasted clean of grime. Most strikingly, the tree tunnels in the woods have been disciplined into the shape of the hedged walkways they originally served as, replacing the unique with the commonplace.

As the above account indicates, I have been drawn towards derelict and abandoned buildings since my childhood. This is partly because of the local geographies I have been familiar with but was also stimulated, I think, because the promise of extraordinary sights and mysterious experiences is built into the popular culture of children with its myriad tales of adventures in secret gardens,magical labyrinths and dense, enchanted forests. For me, however mundane they may seem, ruins still contain this promise of the unexpected. Since the original uses of ruined buildings has passed, there are limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation, unencumbered by the assumptions which weigh heavily on highly encoded, regulated space. Bereft of these codings of the normative – the arrangements of things in place, the performance of regulated actions, the display of goods lined up as commodities or for show – ruined space is ripe with transgressive and transcendent possibilities. Ruins offer spaces in which the interpretation and practice of the city becomes liberated from the everyday constraints which determine what should be done and where, and which encode the city with meanings. Accordingly, they offer opportunities for challenging and deconstructing the imprint of power on the city. For as Henri Lefebvre declares, for a progressive urban politics to be effective, ‘the most important thing is to multiply the readings of the city’ (1996: 159).

Ruins litter the industrial landscapes of the West although their prevalence varies enormously. For instance, in Britain, there are far more ruins to be found in northern and central England than in the more prosperous south. The production of spaces of ruination and dereliction are an inevitable result of capitalist development and the relentless search for profit. The quest for more profitable products, expanded markets and cheaper ways of manufacturing things, together with the inexorable quest for producing new goods and services, produces periodic crises of accumulation where surplus labour and capital drive down prices and profits. One response to such crises is to suddenly drop less profitable elements of the production process, often simultaneously moving production from one area or country to another, and then to devalue them so they can later be redeveloped. Those buildings disposed of in this fashion are thus temporarily or permanently rendered useless for industrial enterprise.

Ruins do not take one shape but are manifold in form, fashioned by the era in which they were constructed, their architectural style and their industrial function, and also partly depending upon the strategies mobilised by firms towards them after abandonment. Some are left to linger and decay for decades, turning into heaps of rubble over the years, whilst others stay for a while until the first signs of decay take hold and then are demolished, and some are eradicated shortly after abandonment. Often a ruined space is marked only by a vast expanse of concrete flooring, in which tiles, concrete and the traces of floor partitions are found. What might be at first a neat expanse of white, shimmering floor, is gradually taken over by plants, which seek out the cracks, burst through erupting concrete and gradually turn the flat surface to powder. The rate of decay also depends upon the constituent materials of the building and upon local industrial strategies. Authorities in cities that are able to attract inward investment are more likely to demolish derelict structures taking up space that might be used for new enterprises, whereas in cities which fail to attract new investment, there tends to be a greater prevalence of ruins. Abandoned buildings tend to be rapidly stripped of valuable assets and where this includes vital protective material such as doors, windows and tiles, the building is rendered less able to withstand the elements. Similarly, the intrusions of youth who enjoy smashing up windows, doors and walls erodes the ability of the building to remain insulated against the weather. The extent to which such damage is perpetrated depends upon accessibility to those who would pluck its saleable or useful contents and destroy its fixtures.

At present, there are not as many ruins as there were during the 1980s when landscapes of industrial ruination dominated whole areas of cities, as swathes of manufacturing suddenly became obsolete under economic restructuring. Several of the photographs in this book are from that era, the golden age of industrial ruination. At the end of the 1970s and through the 1980s, the right-wing Conservative government allowed ‘market forces’ greater rein than had been the case during the long era of ‘consensus politics’, in which governments of both major political parties adopted a somewhat protectionist response to the effects of industrial crisis. With the privatisation of nationalised industries and the scrapping of protectionist legislation, a pitiless restructuring of the economy rearranged the landscape of industrial zones across Britain, as old, heavy industries sited in brick-built and stone-clad Victorian and Edwardian factories fell into disuse, the demolition of large chimneys being the most spectacular sign of this replacing of one industrial template by another. The economy geared up to welcome softer industries which required different kinds of industrial structures, such as airy offices, retail warehouses and single-storey buildings which could be left behind or dis-assembled according to strategic contingency. In contradistinction, these lighter, cheaper buildings, often more comfortable for workers and staff, produced more flexible entrepreneurial spaces than those characteristic of the more immovable edifices of brick and stone-built factories. Simultaneously, an orgy of real estate speculation took off which asset-stripped buildings occupied by ‘uneconomic’ enterprises or left them vacant, awaiting an economic upturn which would render such properties more valuable. Yet despite the large scale of industrial ruination through which industries and buildings were consigned to obsolescence, this was an uneven process. Many industries housed in old factories remained active, and some structures were effaced whilst others subsided into disuse, lingering on in the urban landscape but bypassed by other flows of money, people and energy.

Although they are currently fewer in number, a journey around the old industrial districts of most British cities continues to turn up derelict and abandoned buildings. These areas of the city, typically adjacent to railway lines and canals, amongst the huddle of buildings surrounding harbours, or amidst the scattered remnants of industry marooned within swathes of terraced housing and tenements, have often not been redeveloped to the point of total transformation. Indeed, the evolution of such areas has often been decidedly piecemeal and so they remain a part of the urban palimpsest featuring the industrial buildings of successive industrial eras, with the strong imprint of Victorian Britain still enduring. Although they are not as common as they were fifteen years ago, industrial ruins are still being produced out of the restructuring processes that were largely initiated under Thatcherism, and they are often structures of quite recent origin.

This book has evolved out of my enthusiasm for visiting industrial ruins, and spans three decades, primarily focusing upon the traditional manufacturing areas of north and central England and Central Scotland. The ruins I have explored and which feature here belong to Manchester, Stockport, Liverpool, Glossop, Stalybridge, Oldham, Blackburn, Burnley, Bolton, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Grangemouth, Falkirk, Leith, Stranraer, Brynmawr, Luton, Southampton, Hull, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Sunderland and Hartlepool. This is the last time I shall refer to their location, for the arguments of the book would be less pertinent if they were accompanied by this superfluous geographical information, as I will shortly explain. As far as I was able to gather, I have toured ruins which used to be crushing mills, motor factories, garages, goods yards and depots, locomotive works, boatyards and chandlers, textile mills, tile factories and potbanks, chain manufacturers, foundries and steelworks, engineering workshops, rubber factories, dye producers and glass works, as well as numerous other indeterminate small workshops and warehouses.

One of the major objectives of this book is to contest the notion that ruins are spaces of waste, that contain nothing, or nothing of value, and that they are saturated with negativity as spaces of danger, delinquency, ugliness and disorder. I argue that such assignations point to wider social conventions through which space is endowed with meaning and function, something I have already discussed in terms of the political contexts which render spaces ‘useless’. Such common sense depictions mask the social, political and economic processes through which decisions about space and value are reached.

In a conventional reading of the urban landscape, dereliction and ruin is a sign of waste and for local politicians and entrepreneurs, tends to provide stark evidence of an area’s lack, that simultaneously signifies a vanished prosperity and by contrast, an uncertain future. According to such a conception, formerly productive spaces become rubbish, are no longer of any use, or have been used up. Clearly, the increasing rate at which ruins have been produced across the urban landscape of Britain is testament to the effects of faster modes of capital accumulation and the disembedding impacts of global capital flows, dynamic processes through which space is purchased, cleared and reassembled, deterritorialised and reterritorialised, producing practices which destroy urban space ever faster and more efficiently.

The dynamic colonisation of space by capital infers that all space has the potential to become lucrative, whether now or in the future. All space can be transformed from useless to prosperous and back again through investment and disinvestment. Ruins thus serve as a temporary rebuke to the notion that all space is abstract, the site of current or future production (Lefebvre, 1991), can be divided up, quantified and apportioned as property and exploited for profit. Accordingly, for those for whom space must have an evident function as productive or as property, such a purposive idea means that ruined space is understood as somewhere in which nothing happens and there is nothing. This kind of vision matches the concerns of property speculators. If spaces are conceived as disturbingly non-functional, they must be replaced and filled in – turned into abstract space – to remove these signs of unproductive and unfunctional blankness. Frequently, they are asset-stripped and then cleared to encourage property speculation because dereliction appears as a scar on the landscape composed of matter out of place, which must be erased and then filled in with something more ‘useful’. Where local economies are depressed however, this may take the form of leaving ruined sites alone, until a time coincident with economic upturn when their redevelopment might be more advantageous. The ruins featured in this book are situated within this period of varying duration, between abandonment and potential future redevelopment. As Doron maintains, wasteland and spaces of ruination ‘are created by suspension of new plans for an area’ a suspension which is commonly represented on maps as a blank area (2000: 260–1), an impossible designation of space as terra nullius, which suggests they are spaces of and for nothing. However, such indeterminate inscriptions open up possibilities for their non-entrepreneurial use in the often lengthy period between abandonment and development or erasure.

The understanding of space as abstract which emerges out of dominant, capitalist modes through which it is appropriated and produced, is underscored by similar conceptions utilised by bureaucratic, governmental and planning operations, whose personnel usually come to similar conclusions about the nature of derelict space. For instance, the ‘shell-ridden terrain’ of former industrial sites, according to the Civic Trust, evokes ‘a sense of lost vitality’ (1988: 8). These negative impressions are compounded by perceptions about the uses which focus upon derelict space. It is a ‘locus horribilus’ (Grunenberg, 1997: 195) in which a range of deviant acts take place, activities carried out by people commonly identified as undesirable, and which promote fears of disorder and crime. But these assumptions about what ruined space is used for are not merely concerned with identifying cultural practices deemed to be ‘anti-social’ and thus consolidating ideas about the respectable uses of the city. They are also charged with aesthetic evaluations: ‘neglected land not only looks depressing. It also tends to attract fly tipping, graffiti and fly posting, all of which “uglify” the environment’ (Civic Trust, 1988: 7).

The consignment of ruins to the common category of ‘wasteland’ necessarily obliterates the wide divergencies which exist between the characteristics of such spaces. According to such notions, wasteland is devoid of positive social, material, aesthetic qualities, or is purely an abstracted and quantitative entity technically identified by the assumed absence of activity or function. Yet ruins housed a wide range of distinctive industries, were and are sites upon which varied forms of dense sociality occur, possess rich histories, differ according to size, materiality and their state of disrepair, vary with regard to the uses which are made of them by humans and other life forms and the ghosts which haunt them.

Thus in 2003, the latest report by CABE (the government-sponsored Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), for instance, presents derelict land as a quantifiable entity that can be identified as inherently problematic ( The report declares that there are up to 70,000 acres of derelict land across Britain, including 5,000 hectares containing derelict buildings. With the ostensibly progressive intention of increasing the amount of parkland, playgrounds and other forms of public space available in communities, the celebrity-led campaign invites members of the public to nominate their grimmest piece of derelict land in Britain so that design-led initiatives and the ‘efficient’ management of space can reclaim and transform these areas. There is an explicit determination to minimise the effects of ‘anti-social’ activities in these ‘blighted’ areas, confirming that derelict land is identified with crime and ‘deviancy’, is again construed as ugly and is, moreover, indicative of a wider urban cultural malaise. It is particularly ironic that the multiple uses of ruins and derelict land as spaces of play are nowhere alluded to in the light of the avowed aim to build playgrounds since, as I will show, they serve as alternative play spaces for children and adults.

The negative notions of industrial ruination infer aesthetic judgements which widely diverge from the tradition of compiling celebratory accounts of non-industrial ruins. Highly aestheticised ‘picturesque’ representations derived from romantic perspectives have dominated writing on ruins, but rather than industrial ruins, these accounts have typically focused on classical or archaic ruins, crumbling medieval townships and castles, decrepit stately homes and the ‘fake’ ruins erected on eighteenth-century estates, and rural tumbledown cottages and farmsteads. These themes linger in contemporary depictions of these specific ruined forms so as to sustain an iconography of dereliction which largely bypasses contemporary urban ruins. Often the subject of poetic description and artistic endeavours, certain tropes resound through these representations, but these romantic themes are wholly unsuitable for accounting for the industrial ruins featured in this book.

According to the romantic aesthetic, the ideal ruin had to be ‘well enough preserved (while retaining the proper amounts of picturesque irregularity) to produce the desired mix of emotions in the beholder’ (Roth, 1997: 5). Thus the recently vacated building or the pile of debris do not qualify for such aesthetic appraisal. During the late eighteenth century, like many appreciations of ‘nature’, the representation of ruins in art conformed to specific aesthetic ‘picturesque’ conventions about which features should be foregrounded. Ideally, such representations should stress ‘variety and contrast of forms, lively light and dark interplay, rough textures, and above all, rather busy foregrounds with assorted irregular trees or rambling shrubbery in one or both corners of the picture, between which a few figures and/or animals appear’ (Hawes, 1988: 6). In paintings and engravings, this picturesque was also frequently conjoined by a conjuring up of the sublime, with stormy clouds and looming edifices depicting the requisite atmosphere of awe, or with an apprehension of the magical forces that remain unseen (see Jackson, 1988, for an in-depth discussion of these artistic tropes and Janowitz, 1990, for an exploration of ruin poetry).

These encodings emphasising the picturesque – and particularly the sublime – were allied to a sense of melancholia which saw ruins as emblematic of the cycle of life and death, symbolic of the inevitability of life passing, of a future in which obsolescence was certain and the inexorable processes of nature dispassionately took their toll of all things. And for humans, the natural world was that home to which our bodies and our buildings would ultimately return, despite any pretensions to immortality we might possess. Such a melancholic aesthetic tempered the optimism of modern industrial development, for ruins signified the transience of all earthly things despite the utopian promises of endless social advancement. The debris of the past – the ruined castles, abbeys, cottages and farmsteads – which littered the landscape of a newly industrialising Britain and was partly caused by rapid rural depopulation, displayed the brevity of existence and seemed to mock the claims of progress in the face of the inevitability of death and decay. Besides these local sites, as the classical ruins of ancient Greece and Rome became better known through the grand tour and the rise of classical scholarship, they revealed the seemingly inevitable demise of empires, a notion which pertinently quashed the hope that the spreading British Empire might establish perpetual rule over its dominions. Instead, these ruins seemed to prefigure imminent degeneration and collapse. In a context in which vast sums were being made by industrialists, such concerns were tinged with a moralism which warned of the futility of amassing riches and power. A ‘vain and obscure remembrance’ was all that remained of the great ‘classical’ civilisations and the question was posed by Comte de Volney in 1791, ‘(W)ho... can assure me that their present desolation will not one day be the lot of our country’ (cited in Hawes, 1988: 5).

The rise of industrialism and the rapid social change which it brought produced an intensified nostalgia for the past, and signs that revealed it became revered. Accordingly, ruins could be saturated with a host of imaginary romantic associations that testified to a bucolic past populated by charming characters. So profound was the cult of ruins that eighteenth-century wealthy estate owners created their own ruins as media for the remembrance ‘of departed grandeur and of the transience and fragility of that which in appearance was indestructible; tangible warning to the living of the impermanence of stone and flesh’ (Zucker, 1968: 198). In addition, these rural tumbledowns and archaic monuments served a nationalistic ideological purpose and they continue to be ‘presented as iconic of British “heritage”’ (Janowitz, 1990: 2). The visible remnants of the past which littered the British countryside could be reclaimed as ‘the physical trace of historical event’ which succoured the production of the imagined community of the nation. They seemed to materially testify to the ideological construction that Englishness/Britishness was immemorial, most specifically because they picturesquely blended in with the supposedly ‘natural’ rural realm as an expression of culture merging with the land (ibid.: 4–5). Yet again, underlying this celebration of the enduring lineage of Britain, doubts about the future of the nation crept in, since it simultaneously challenged ‘the structure of the present, and threatens to eradicate eradicate temporal difference, swallowing up the present into an unforeseeable yet inevitable repetition of the past’ (ibid.: 10).

Interestingly, Janowitz goes on to make an explicit comparison between these romantically apprehended ruins and contemporary sites of dereliction, contending that the ‘twentieth century intention to ruinate has irrefragably changed that peculiar pleasure of ruin which comes from the contemplation of the absolute pastness of the past within the aesthetically controlled shape of temporal transience’ (ibid: 1). This ‘aesthetical control’ through which such ruins are contextualised within an environment, so as to convey certain preferred sentiments and lessons is indeed not a feature of the industrial ruins discussed in this book. Neither is the contemplative impulse necessarily induced through wandering amidst contemporary ruins; rather there is an unpredictable immanence of impression and sensation. Yet intimations of transience are far from absent. Instead, the influences of the past emerge from a rather less controlled environment, one that is not devised to transmit ideological effects.

Rather than this romantic aesthetic, contemporary industrial ruins are more likely to epitomise a sort of modern gothic, part of a wider sentiment which emerges out of a ‘post-industrial nostalgia’ which focuses on ‘dark urban nightscapes, abandoned parking lots, factories, warehouses and other remnants of post-industrial culture’ (Grunenberg, 1997: 176). For a gothic sensibility, ruins possess the attraction of decay and death, and to enter them is to venture into darkness and the possibilities of confronting that which is repressed. These pleasures are of a vicarious engagement with fear and a confrontation with the unspeakable and one’s own vulnerability and mortality, a diversion which is also a way of confronting death and danger and imagining it in order to disarm it, to name and articulate it in order to deal with it. Representations of dereliction echo through resurgent popular gothic cultural forms which espouse the idea that the structures of the modern world are falling down, a notion which extends to an envisioning of the city as a disaster zone. Fuelled by millennial fears of apocalypse and the belief that a new medieval era is upon us, sentiments perhaps fuelled by folk memories and cruelties perpetrated in earlier eras, industrial ruins similarly question the persistent myth of progress. This impending decadence can be envisioned amidst a ruin where it is read as a macabre sign of what is to come, a symbolic space of darkness which prefigures future degeneration. As we will see, this topography of dismal decay courses through popular cultural forms, most notably in cinema where ruins frequently symbolise dystopian portrayals of a gloomy urban future.

While my reading of ruins is very different to these dark, pessimistic fantasies, gothic interpretations usefully foreground continuities with the romantic tradition in which ruins rebuke scenarios of endless progress, a notion that I will also explore, though as more of a critical appraisal which understands industrial ruins as symbols through which ideologically loaded versions of progress, embedded within cultures of consumption and industrial progress, can be critiqued. In addition, a gothic aesthetic ‘revels in ruins, whether it be architectural, moral, biological, ontological or psychic’ (McGrath, 1997: 154) in the sense that ruins epitomise transgression and the collapse of boundaries. For while it may veer towards the macabre and bleak, the gothic ‘marks a peculiarly modern preoccupation with boundaries and their collapse’ (Halberstam, in Toth, 1997: 89); it is concerned with the disintegration of the ordered. The gothic ‘brings into shadow that which had been brightly lit, and brings into the light that which had been repressed’ (McGrath, 1997: 156). Notions about disorder and hybridity are central to this book, although these are qualities which are celebrated for reasons at variance to the kind of dystopian pleasure which lovers of the gothic take in signs of decay.

While notions of a post-industrial gothic certainly captures some of the hybridities and transgressive spatialities of ruins, they can never escape connotations of gloominess and darkness, and tend to involve a wallowing in melancholia and sense of foreboding. It is my aim to acknowledge the blurrings of boundaries, and also the inevitability of death and decay. But I want to position this in a celebratory fashion, so that ruins are free from the gloomy constraints of a melancholic imagination, and can equally represent the fecund. They are sites in which the becomings of new forms, orderings and aesthetics can emerge rather than belonging to a ‘sinister, crepuscular world’ of death and stasis (Zucker, 1968: 195). While ruins always constitute an allegorical embodiment of a past, while they perform a physical remembering of that which has vanished, they also gesture towards the present and the future as temporal frames which can be read as both dystopian and utopian, and they help to conjure up critiques of present arrangements and potential futures.

This book is concerned with exploring the effects and uses of industrial ruins in a particular fashion. There are many alternative ways in which an account of ruins could be shaped. There could, for instance, have been a rigorous historical enquiry into the factories and warehouses visited, including details of production, industrial relations and perhaps a selection of oral histories from ex-workers and managers. Such an approach would no doubt have been interesting. However, I have not chosen such a course because I want to move away from specific forms of disciplinary knowledge and enquire about what ruins can tell us about wider social and cultural processes across urban space. In addition, I want to capture something of the sensual immanence of the experience of travelling through a ruin and my usual uncertainty about what went on within these abandoned buildings. The particular geographical locations of the ruins featured here are therefore not important to this endeavour, for assumptions about their embeddedness in imaginary geographies are likely to provide unwelcome interference with the more generic points I wish to make. That is why none of the photographs are labelled, for it is my wish that they evoke individual responses amongst readers without their being contextualised by surplus information. In addition, I hope that some of the photographs strike chords with the theoretical themes of the book – although not in any obviously illustrative fashion – but they may be utilised as an alternative source of information independent from the text.

Whilst some may point out that the themes of the book never foreground the visual as a means of apprehending and interpreting ruins, and there is therefore something of a contradiction in the provision of so many photographs, my response is to argue that photographs are never merely visual but in fact conjure up synaesthetic and kinaesthetic effects, for the visual provokes other sensory responses. The textures and tactilities, smells, atmospheres and sounds of ruined spaces, together with the signs and objects they accommodate, can be empathetically conjured up by visual material in the absence of any realistic way of conveying these sensations, other than through words and images. Photographs of ruins are also particularly valuable because whilst derelict sites are in a fluid state of material becoming, they can reveal the stages and temporalities of decay. As Roth observes ‘by fixing ruins on photographic paper, we … have the illusion of reclaiming them from the further effects of nature and time – that is, from death’ (1997: 17). Most photographs in this book along with many more can be found on my website (2002).

Two final points need to be made before I provide an outline of the organisation of this book. Firstly, in writing about ruins, it would be insensitive to ignore the images of ruination which accompany war and it is indeed a sobering thought that the twentieth century has produced more ruins than ever before. As Roth asserts, twentieth-century wars ‘have shaken our framing of ruins’ (1997: 20). The most enduring recent image of ruination has, of course, been the remnants of New York’s World Trade Centre following the attacks of September 11, 2001. I will not however, be discussing the ruins produced by warfare in this book, concentrating instead on the depredations wrought by cycles of capitalist reconstruction which either obliterate buildings or render their contents and the activities which they house instantaneously obsolete, turning solid things and places into air. Together with the effects of war, this vast scale of devastation reveals the ‘enormity of our capacity for ruination’ (ibid.).

Secondly, my travels around ruins are, to me, not particularly fraught with danger. One has to be aware of perilous structures and unsound flooring and rickety stairs, and numerous small scratches are incurred through trying to gain entry. However, I must acknowledge that for many, ruins would seem to be dangerous places, and the fear related to such concerns preclude many from entering them. Thus my gender and age are pertinent factors in making spectres of violence and predation absent from my imagination and from assumptions about what I might confront in derelict space. These factors have effectively rendered ruins accessible places for me to explore.

The organisation of the book is determined by its preoccupations. I am interested in re-evaluating industrial ruins in order to critique the negative connotations with which they are associated in official and common sense thought. Thus I am concerned to highlight the possibilities, effects and experiences which they can provide. Moreover, this reclaiming of industrial ruins from negative depiction is allied to a concern to show how they are exemplary spaces which can be used to critique ways in which urban space is produced and reproduced. Accordingly, Chapter 2 will examine the ways in which ruins are used to show that assumptions about their social uselessness, derived from assignations based on economic value and utilitarian notions of order, are groundless. I will detail the ways in which they are used as spaces for accommodation, ecological practice, adventure, play, recreation and creativity; look at how they circulate as symbolic spaces through popular cultural forms, especially cinema; and examine how they are used by non-human forms of life. Chapter 3 moves on to show how ruins, as particular spaces of disorder, can critique the highly regulated urban spaces which surround them. My argument is not that spatial order is unnecessary, but that the disciplinary, performative, aestheticised urban praxis demanded by commercial and bureaucratic regimes which are refashioning cities into realms of surveillance, consumption, and dwelling – characterised by an increase in single-purpose spaces – is becoming too dominant. These orderings are violated in the ruin which, once an exemplary space of regulation, has become deliciously disordered. Ruins confound the normative spacings of things, practices and people. They open up possibilities for regulated urban bodies to escape their shackles in expressive pursuits and sensual experience, foreground alternative aesthetics about where and how things should be situated, and transgress boundaries between outside and inside, and between human and non-human spaces. Accordingly, ruins act as spaces which address the power embodied in ordering space. Chapter 4 specifically examines the ways in which ruins can assist us in questioning normative materialities. Continuing to explore the spacing of objects, I look at how ruins are emblematic of that which is assigned as waste, and the attendant assumptions about what kind of matter is surplus or integral to the city. I will discuss the effects of the material excess which is confronted in the ruin, and how the aesthetic and sensual charge of this excess can decentre the idea that objects are necessarily discrete, especially when they are assigned commodity status. Finally, Chapter 5 is expressly concerned with the spatialisation of memory in the contemporary city, maintaining that characteristically, memory is increasingly disembedded from its immediate social context though commodification and expertise, most notably through the production of heritage. The fixings that emerge from these processes are powerfully challenged by the sorts of memories that ruins offer. Ruins are already allegories of memory, but in addition, the involuntary memories which ruins provoke and the ways in which they are haunted by numerous ghosts foreground experiences of memory which are contingent, frequently inarticulate, sensual and immune from attempts to codify and record them.

More generally, this project is concerned with opening out the ways in which the city is used and interpreted. It mobilises a dynamic ontology in opposition to an ontology of fixed, immutable forms. The spatial aporias which surround us are neglected at a cost, fuelling monological readings of the city and restricting the diversity of practices and experiences, as well as constraining the ways in which forms of otherness are confronted. Concerned with a politics of urban becoming which appreciates the mysteries of the world, I want to highlight how the contingent, ineffable, unrepresentable, uncoded, sensual, heterogeneous possibilities of contemporary cities are particularly evident in their industrial ruins