Industrial Ruins Revisited

More Industrial Ruins

Perhaps we should compile a ‘Tourism Guide’ for people wanting to visit industrial ruins. There are certain elements which contribute to good pictures of a derelict site; however, no photograph can really convey the feeling of silent emptiness that one experiences when standing in a vast, abandoned warehouse. There is something eerie about a workshop that, instead of being plunged into gloom, is filled with light from great holes in the roof. An abandoned thousand-litre storage tank, reflected in a puddle near the end of a cold day, can evoke a poignant mood…

It seems that this kind of industrial desolation has a peculiarly British character; the writer Roy Foster published a book describing the transformation of Ireland during the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Reviewing that book in The Telegraph, Leo McKinstry comments that Foster:

“… also points out, interestingly, that Ireland has gained from never having been through the process of industrialisation so, unlike in Britain, the economy has not been encumbered by the rusting burden of manufacturing decline.” (From a review of Luck and the Irish, R F Foster)

Fortunately, the rise in online journalism has provided opportunities for amateur historians to draw attention to the delights of abandoned factories. There are several websites dedicated to the study of industrial ruins; of particular interest to British readers is a forum called ‘Derelict Places – Documenting Decay’ in which individuals contribute pictures (with varying amounts of background information) of various dead factories. Two of the entries which caught my eye were those by ‘Woodsy’, who submitted a catalogue of pictures of the British Cellophane works; and the post by ‘Clebby’, whose page includes images – with some evocative captions – of the Edison Swan Cable Works.

The Cellophane factory pictures seem to be entirely mechanical: a stern regiment of girders keep watch over grey empty spaces. Occasional splashes of colour create a stark perspective – yellow handrails – but most of the images are flat and lifeless.

Magritte would have been proud of one image; a forest of galvanised metal pipes huddle together in the midst of a vast empty yard, where occasional weeds break through the forgotten concrete. This yard space was obviously designed for human activity on a grand scale, with pallets of storage drums being loaded onto wagons by stacker-trucks. The whole yearning desolate vista is crowned by a perfect sky with just the right amount of careless white froth pinned to a pale blue wash.

In contrast, the Edison Cable Works have a human feel – doorways and staircases have been carefully fashioned (in gleaming mahogany) to provide elegance and comfort to the firm’s senior executives. In one picture, a tide of dockets serves to blur the margins between the present and the past, an image vaguely reminiscent of those Serbin photos where an abandoned ballroom merges with the beach. These dockets are the cards which record the hours worked by individual members of staff, so each one represents perhaps forty hours of a person’s life. How many arguments and achievements are hidden in this flood of paper leaves?

(‘Derelict Places’, Copyright Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd)

For many students of industrial architecture, the connoisseur’s choice of author is Tim Edensor, whose 2005 book ‘Industrial Ruins: spaces, aesthetics and materiality’ gives a detailed and sympathetic analysis of disused factories.

And in the US, as one would expect, industrial decay takes place on a vast scale. A fascinating essay by Tom Vanderbilt, ‘Pleasures and Pathos of Industrial Ruins’ discusses the monstrous, sprawling relics of the Bethlehem Steel Works. The article itself triggered a flood of responses, with people eager to share their experience of visiting ruins or (their more refined cousins) industrial museums. (Pleasures and Pathos of Industrial Ruins, Observatory: The Design Observer Group online Forum)

And in 1932, George Orwell composed a poem exploring the desolation sparked by a brand-new factory: “On a Ruined Farm near the HMV Gramophone Factory”

As I stand at the lichened gate
With warring worlds on either hand —
To left the black and budless trees,
The empty sties, the barns that stand

Like tumbling skeletons — and to right
The factory-towers, white and clear
Like distant, glittering cities seen
From a ship’s rail — as I stand here,

I feel, and with a sharper pang,
My mortal sickness; how I give
My heart to weak and stuffless ghosts,
And with the living cannot live.

The acid smoke has soured the fields,
And browned the few and windworn flowers;
But there, where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —

There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel —
There is my world, my home; yet why

So alien still? For I can neither
Dwell in that world, nor turn again
To scythe and spade, but only loiter
Among the trees the smoke has slain.

Yet when the trees were young, men still
Could choose their path — the winged soul,
Not cursed with double doubts, could fly,
Arrow-like to a foreseen goal;

And they who planned those soaring towers,
They too have set their spirit free;
To them their glittering world can bring
Faith, and accepted destiny;

But none to me as I stand here
Between two countries, both-ways torn,
And moveless still, like Buridan’s donkey
Between the water and the corn.


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