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Ecology of Absence

by Michael R. Allen

And so if perforce we must study disease let us study it systematically. I cannot indicate to you the precise nature of that constitutional social disturbance of which our architecture is symptomatic; but little by little I will reveal to you the hidden causes and make clear and palpable to you the aspects and nature of the malady.
– Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats

There is so much empty land that in some places the city seems to have ceased to exist.
– Camilo Jose Vergara, The New American Ghetto

This project documents the disease of abandonment of the built environment and its treatment. We aim to reveal the odd interaction of social and ecological forces that lead people to build, abandon and reclaim buildings and structures. Thus, we draw upon the fields of history, urban archaeology, ecology, sociology and architecture to investigate the troubled urban areas of the Midwest.

Ecology of Absence originally was supposed to be a book about the social and ecological lives of abandoned places in the metropolitan area of Saint Louis, Missouri. The project quickly grew into the present website, which presents visual and textual information in an attempt to present abandonment as a systematic occurrence that is shaped by political decision-making, economic circumstances and natural forces. Ecology of Absence also documents the recovery and demolition of buildings, as well as other matters pertaining to architecture and development in and around St. Louis, East St. Louis and other cities that we will begin to cover in the future.

We are interested in developing a critique of the contemporary condition of American cities, and thus transcend each limit that we set. Setting out to photograph and write about interesting abandoned buildings, we realized that such documentation — like each building itself — lacked urgency without being set in its context. We did not want to capture only the beauty of decay, but provoke people into addressing the massive and unsustainable decay of a city like St. Louis.

Ecology of Absence aims to provide an information source for people who envision cities as sustainable places where people’s needs are met. Thus, the project promotes ecologically-sound building practices and the recovery of abandoned sites for public welfare while opposing gentrification, land-banking and the further destruction of inner cities. We document abandoned places to pinpoint that moment of disuse before which these places are transformed again through restoration or destruction. At this moment, buildings and structures are full of information (things left behind) and ripe for contemplation.

Yet the moment of disuse is also the moment at which these places can be reclaimed. The question of who gets to reclaim these places is a political one, and we do not shy away from investigating this question as part of our research of each site. All architecture is the containment of space and is fraught with political decisions from the start: Who contains the space? Which space gets contained? Who gets to inhabit the contained space? The current crisis in older American cities demands that any meaningful documentation invest itself in these political questions. Our documentation carries with it a bias in favor of the people who are being left behind by and forced out of the speculative reclamation of cities.

In the end, Ecology of Absence may become a comprehensive project on the abandonment and reclamation of certain Midwestern American cities. For now, it remains deeply engaged in the investigation of the particular places that we encounter in our daily lives.

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