Abandonment Documentation Theory

Ruins and Ideology

by Michael R. Allen

A new online journal of urban exploration, Liminal City, is in the works. The first issue is not yet published, but the site hosts an engrossing essay by Michael Cook entitled “On the Excavation of Space and Our Narratives of Urban Exploration.” His essay takes aim at the “endless cataloguing of the picturesque” by documentary photographers and writers who study ruins as well as the restoration of ruins. Cook wants more narrative and less science in the representation of urban exploration.

Not surprising, then, that Cook critiques my essay “Narrating Abandonment” (see page two of his essay) and finds my arguments too hostile to mystery and awe. However, his description of my essay’s larger point as a call for “a politics of urban exploration that would build a radical counter-hegemonic discourse” is the best summary I have read. Cook seems opposed to “civilized time,” which is all well and good except the stance side-steps every social problem ruins pose. I can’t apologize for looking at an abandoned building and thinking that it is resource that people need for shelter of lives or activities, and that the architecture of an abandoned building is socially beneficial and should be restored and conserved. The social imbalance caused by capital distribution hardly afford most people the romance of the picturesque. Exploring abandoned places is exciting, but mostly depressing; and abandoned factory reminds me of the structural un- and under-employment of our times, while and abandoned house reminds me that affordable, clean housing is scarce in this nation. Ruins can be aesthetically and experientially stimulating, but rarely to those people who live amid — or inside of — them. What some people call “scientism” others might see as steps toward resolution of great social problems. Rehabbing a vacant building often creates expensive housing, but also creates affordable housing and jobs. Romanticism is an ideology with resonance among the middle and upper classes.

Or, to put it simply for those who have been following Ecology of Absence: I once enjoyed exploring derelict buildings; now I live in one. That is an oversimplification, but it’s not far from the truth. Cook raises good points, but from a framework at odds with mine, which is driven not by my own desires but by the needs I see around me as I live in a city recovering from de-industrialization and massive decay.