What explains the appeal of abandoned buildings?
As the pandemic took hold, a fondness for romantic ruins grew
Checking the ranking of the top fifty books on architectural history for sale on Amazon may well seem an arcane pursuit. I did this recently, though, thinking of carefully targeted Christmas presents. What caught my eye as I checked to see if I might have missed new books on Romanesque cathedrals, Borromini and ancient cities, was a clutch of titles jostling for position with remarkably similar content or overlapping themes: Abandoned Places. Abandoned Industrial Places. Abandoned Cold War Spaces. Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World. As if to add a just a touch variety, the list offered Derelict London, Hidden London and, apocalyptically, Bunker: Building for the End Times.
While a fondness for romantic ruins is nothing new, there is something poignant in these matching and mirroring titles. Throughout 2020, buildings, streets, places and indeed entire quarters of cities that were fully alive just the previous year have been abandoned. While inquisitive urban geographers and self-conscious pyscho-geographers have made something of a cult of the exploration of abandoned buildings, especially those of recent decades, from Jet Age wind tunnels to forbidding suburban asylums, this sense of abandonment has come to affect us all. The books on the architectural history list are not so arcane after all.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Looked at, as if through a glass darkly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been something like a nuclear war, sweeping across countries as the radiation from fission bombs dropped by B-52, Bears and Vulcans and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles could have done at the height of the Cold War. While novels concerning the threats and effects of pandemics, in one guise or another, were written decades before Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Bikini Atoll, a morbid fascination with bunkers mushroomed from the early 1950s.
Where could we escape? What would it be like to live underground? How would our world, our abandoned towns and cities look and feel like when, cautiously, we poked our noses above ground? Unfamiliar, no doubt. I think this haunting sense of potential loss through pandemic or nuclear war is not wholly dissimilar from the feeling many people have had, and still experience, when once familiar buildings and places lose their purpose, are abandoned and demolished. Those left empty and in varying states of ruin come to haunt us. Those pit-heads that spoke of mining communities. Those factories where British industry once manufactured things. Those research stations testing supersonic aircrafts replaced or about to be replaced by yet more supermarkets and online distribution depots.
We abandon entire cultures even as pandemics and other catastrophes threaten the worlds we know. Aside from stories, photographs, newsreels and oral histories, what remains of them most prominently is abandoned buildings, some mummified as museums, others as lyrically haunting as the ruins of Tintern Abbey were to Wordsworth.
I do not know if there has been a recent boom in ruin enthusiasm. It has been a fascinating hobby for any number of people. Obvious hotspots include Detroit, where I lived for two years. Abandoned shells of huge department stores and multistory car parks in a recently thriving city centre, with roads like a tank training ground. Check out the poignant and occasionally riotously funny book ” The Last days of Detroit”.
Part of the appeal must be the brutal contrast with the sky high hopes for such areas. There is a 1965 documentary on the gleaming super modern Detroit and its hopes for even better times to come…. er, er, two years before the 1967 riots. And there was Motown’s shiney new mayor Jerry Cavanagh, another Irish American politician on the climb, eager to fill the Presidential shoes of the recently slain JFK. 1967 killed his political career.
One of the newer ruins in Great Britain is St Peter’s Seminary on the west coast of Scotland, eagerly acclaimed as one of the most important new buildings in Scotland, fully ready to receive hordes of eager trainee priests. Sadly, recruits to the priesthood fell through the floor after it was completed. It was abandoned to the elements after less than 15 years. The owners never succeeded in making it watertight, which is really bad news on the west coast. Ruin buffs love photographing its concrete carcass.
There is a massive concrete bunker on the east side of Reading University’s campus. Unlike the 1940s WW2 “temporary” wooden buildings nearby, this 1950s Regional Seat of Government was never needed. It deserves more visitors, but I don’t know if it is still safe to go inside and check out the WW3 accommodations.
I’d like the see the house of Lords in ruins myself but of course that’s posting a political comment on a non political article I suppose..Interesting article and I must admit I too have noticed recently a rather pronounced (obsession?) with derelict and once thriving buildings. Maybe its a Freudian longing for the past – our memories of ‘better times’?
Or a deep seated fear of the future?
I would like the House of Lords to still only be Bishops and Hereditary aristocracy instead of payback for dirty dealings; and Virtue signaling. Then it would still have the interest of Britain at heart.
But as you say, it is a non politicalish article.
I have traveled much across the solitary, or decayed, places alone and on foot, and have had a great many run-ins with these abandoned buildings. The feeling they almost always give is haunting sort of despair. I guess we feel almost a symbiosis with buildings, they being our shell we do all our living inside, taking on some living qualities, and it is disturbing to see their rotting carcass, like seeing the carcass of some once living thing.
The Bishops should ejected from the HoL without delay.
Did you not read the recent report on the CoE, and it’s lacklustre response to the rampant “bitty banditry” scandal that goes on within it?
As for its Furhrer Welby, and for that matter Carey, his predecessor, both should be placed on trial.
Would it be possible to list these buildings with a view to potential purchasers looking to convert them a la Grand Designs? Some of those I have seen converted have been amazing. If there is such a thing already then I’d be happy to know about it.
The Ghostly Ruins of Chernobyl May Soon Be Enshrined With World Heritage Status – recent article in Science Alert
The combination of Covid-19 lockdown and tier restrictions coupled with the inevitable progress of technology in changing culture and work practice will add to the rapid abandoning of public, cultural and work environments. There will be much nostalgia when it’s too late…
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe