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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Romantic Aesthetic of Abandonment

The following is a selection from my architecture thesis proposal.

Industrial sites like the one at Duisburg-Nord on the left, and INAAP on the right serve only temporary functions, but gain a distinct aesthetic because of that reality.

Across the internet, in galleries, and in published works an interest in urban decay photography has grown over the recent past. This is indicative of the inherit beauty that many find in architecture that has lost purpose. Many of these works not only focus on, but rely upon the status quo. That is, if one finds beauty in dilapidated buildings, historical preservation or adaptive reuse could sometimes be viewed as problematic. Despite the architectural interest in preservation that has continually grown over the past decades, a similar interest that feeds off of the forgotten aspects of our historical infrastructure has also grown. In writings, architect Hugh Hardy specifically discusses the unique architecture of the industrial revolution, and how its purpose has expired. The beauty, he concludes, is based upon the mystique of buildings that no longer have a programmatic need:

"The aesthetics of these abandoned sites may seem unusual today because their building shapes were dictated by function, not conventional architectural forms. It was the machines and processes they housed that determined their configurations, molded to purposes known only to those who used them." 1

A parallel between a conceptual architectural problem and an inherit, romantic quality of beauty is difficult to reach. The fact that beauty exists for many could be viewed as a solution, in one sense. However, a personal interest has developed over the past few years as I began to celebrate and spread the beauty that I find through the media of photography. I began a website, and was amazed at the amount of interest people had in photos of abandoned buildings. I started to receive more and more questions concerning the history of the buildings I had visited; what their original usage was, when they were built, and who had let them fall into decaying conditions. The more I researched abandoned buildings the more I sought architectural reasoning behind abandonment, and solutions that could either theoretically prevent the process, or in the cases it was too late, capture the romantic qualities in existence.

The conclusion of personal observations over time is that vacant and abandoned buildings plague urban areas throughout the American Midwest, and many of these buildings are historical and unique works of architecture that are often overlooked. Decades of population shifts from dense urban areas into low density suburbs, as well as outmigration from Midwestern cities altogether, coupled with a decline in manufacturing and industry in the United States overall has been a driving factor in the decay of urban, industrial neighborhoods. This problem inherently leads to underutilized infrastructure and architecture. Over time, this architecture is left to decay, open to the elements, transients, and vandals. This state of disuse is characterized by a unique but unprogrammed function, that leads to a similar aesthetic style that can be described as a modern industrial ruin. Only within the past decade have architects begun to consider the unique, almost startling aesthetic associated with this as an element of intrigue.

This vacant architecture comes in many forms and exists in many locations. From urban industrial neighborhoods to rural factory complexes, forgotten buildings dot the landscape of the American Midwest. These buildings were most often designed to perform a single task, making their potential for reuse in modern times limited. For this reason, the aforementioned aesthetic quality develops over time. For example, the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant in rural Indiana is a massive, sprawling complex that has been forgotten in modern times because its specific design lends itself to one primary function: the production of massive amounts of ammunition for a mobilized militaristic force. Since this function has ceased as a necessity, the buildings have decayed into their current state of abandonment. However, the ammunition plant and similar industrial architectural works stand as an important part of human history that is often overlooked. In many cases, this is a problem of design - rarely are industrial ruins approached as architectural elements that, while difficult to reprogram, aren't impossible to include in design schemes.2

Within the realm of the concepts of adaptive reuse and historical preservation there is a plethora of research and publication. However, the problem inherent with many works of the Industrial Age is the lack of historical significance - or rather - a lack of appreciation for the historical significance they possess. Only recently have works been published that focus on the aesthetic and character of industrial ruins, and the importance of capturing those aspects when designing in their presence. As these writings have found a niche in the architectural community, some designers have taken to exhibiting similar interests in both theoretical and realized architectural projects. Since then, the concept of capturing the aesthetic of industrial ruin has expanded from a small niche to slightly larger audience. Several finished projects have been reviewed in major journals over the past decade, and the practice of approaching abandoned industrial sites with this newly formed conceptual idea is not unprecedented.

Architect and critic Hugh Hardy (of the firm H3 Collaborative) discusses the "Romance of Abandonment" in an article from the fall 2005 journal Places. The focus of the piece is on the aesthetic and experiential qualities possessed by the "plants, mines, mills and factories" of the Industrial Age. Importance is placed on the historical legacy such works of architecture have, as well as the subjective, yet dominant and startling beauty. In discussing the nature of reuse and development, these focal points are clearly represented. However, the piece proceeds to make other observations, such as the point that innovation is easily sparked by allowing remnants of the past to survive. Hardy concludes that there is value to reuse, not only in terms of revitalizing communities and returning profit, but also with regards to culture; local urban life, community, arts, and heritage are all greatly affected by reuse of abandoned industrial places. The case is made that through explaining the past, architects and developers can foster innovation, and the "rich history and offbeat aesthetic," of industrial sites are catalysts for that process.3

Similarly to Hardy, Tim Edensor, a researcher and professor at The Manchester Institute of Social & Spatial Transformations, discusses the "space, aesthetics, and materiality," of forgotten industrial architecture. Edensor focuses his book Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality on the abstract program that is so often possessed by abandoned architecture of the Industrial Age. Through both photographs and convincing narrative, Edensor shows how neglected sites accommodate certain activities that "over-designed spaces of the city," are incapable of supporting, and it is the disordered and fragmented sensuality of such places that leads to this. It is the ambiguity and surprise that makes industrial ruins an important cultural element, he argues. In the book's introduction, Edensor presents this statement: "I want to highlight how the contingent, ineffable, unrepresentable, uncoded, sensual, heterogeneous possibilities of contemporary cities are particularly evident in their industrial ruins." While the author stops short of suggesting best practice examples, it shows that there exists a certain character of importance with regards to industrial ruin.4

In a work that is mainly artistic in nature, and based around a powerful collection of black and white photographs, author and photographer Harry Skrdla begins to explore the attractive draw that abandoned buildings have on many people. Through Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture, Skrdla shows a wide audience what they would otherwise never see. The book focuses on historical storylines and explaining current conditions, but its importance lies in the authors motivation and the expected reactions of the readers. The simple fact that there is a work published that possesses the sole intention of highlighting the ambiguously attractive nature of abandoned buildings shows some merit behind the concept of focusing architectural interest this nature. Skrdla's narrative and accompanying photographs are a clear example of the subculture hinted at by Edensor, and is the epitome of the character abandoned sites possess that should be preserved through smart architectural interventions.5

Aside from the abstract and ambiguous concepts of romantic aesthetic, there are concrete and objective issues associated with abandoned industrial sites. In a recent book compiled by Niall Kirkwood, a professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, some of these issues are studied and presented while the qualities of aesthetic and character are kept in mind. This is described in the introduction by Kirkwood, who states that "Two central themes of the book are the range of emerging technologies and design strategies used in reclaiming waste and contaminated urban sites and the creative alliances of technology and design that result." He continues throughout the book to discuss modern technology and how it specifically allows designers to approach industrial sites that are often contaminated. Kirkwood, with the assistance of several other contributors, points out several examples that are deemed successful in terms of the two main focus points of the book. Peter Latz, a landscape architect and contributor to the book, discusses a certain industrial ruin that was restored as an attraction within a park. He states that "The idea to develop the future out of human destruction has obviously existed for some time..." and continues, "We have to ask ourselves which spaces from among the dilapidated and redundant places we want to use and occupy, and which of those have to be changed by the mark of a cultural intervention or the remediation of historical contamination." Overall, Kirkwood and his contributing authors present a cohesive strategic guide for approaching abandoned industrial sites from a design perspective.6

Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord

Landscape Park at Duisburg-Nord, photo by Karl Raats.

The example discussed by Peter Latz in Manufactured Sites lies in the northern Ruhr Valley of Germany, and is the site of one of the most massive revitalization projects that has taken place anywhere in the world. Over 100 projects occupying nearly 600 acres have been undertaken as part of a massive framework plan that has a focus on not only bringing new life into the blighted area, but also on preserving the character and unique beauty of the industrial infrastructure that is characteristic of the region. The redevelopment that can be seen here is important in that creates a link between contemporary cultural and economic needs and the industrial past of the blighted remains. Rather than the popular approach of remediating blight, the formerly existing conditions of the Ruhr Valley were used as design. From the onset of the design process, a certain beauty was perceived amongst the ruins of industry, and this perception helped to guide designers.

The scope of the work at Duisburg-Nord contains elements of economic, social, and environmental sustainability; in fact these concepts are all inherent in the nature of reuse. From an economic standpoint, land and buildings that had ceased to operate entirely have now been returned to a use. Through fees, donations, and volunteer efforts the park itself can operate successfully, while the grander impact on the surrounding community is even greater. The hundreds of thousands of annual visitors have also contributed to new growth in surrounding business areas. Nearby housing, as part of the larger framework plan, has also contributed to economic growth. From a social standpoint, eliminating a massive, unproductive site in close proximity to neighborhoods contributes to the success of the social environment. The environmental benefits of such a project speak for themselves. Large amounts of chemical contamination that would have otherwise slowly dissipated into the environment causing adverse affects on the surrounding communities were instead dealt with in a way that would cause the least amount of side effects.7 To summarize, the overall framework plan instituted in the Ruhr Valley has created semi-urban spaces that have performed successfully over the past twenty years. The combination of some surviving industry, new housing, renovated housing, and business districts were critical to the success of the park areas that have become iconic tourist attractions. The interaction of these community elements is what has allowed the overall framework plan to perform successfully.

The High Line Park

Map of the High Line Park in New York City.

Another project of note is The High Line Park in New York City. In and around the West Side of Manhattan, urban renewal of outdated industrial facilities was a common occurrence. However, a unique piece of industrial infrastructure existed in an abandoned elevated freight rail line that ran through the city. The rail line, which no longer could function as carrying freight by train to and from buildings that had ceased to operate as industrial sites, had become overgrown and forgotten. However, a private investment, and eventually a public match, sought to capture the unique aesthetic and opportunity that was presented by the High Line (as it was historically known). In an effort that both provided community greenspace as well functioned as a tool to encourage development, the High Line was adaptively reused as a park.8

The funding and development strategies observed at the High Line are interesting, and could be applicable for any similar project. The mix of private and public funding, with the intentions being preserving historical character and seeking a return on investment, respectively, has worked well for this precedent example. The program, while helped by the density of New York City, is one that creates a destination, both for locals who visit multiple times a week, and tourists who visit to experience the place a single time. While the park is successful, the amount and depth of the architectural interventions made are significant. The balance between adapting and preserving (as mentioned by Peter Latz earlier) could be justifiably questioned. However, there are three main observations of the High Line that are significant and applicable: the creation of a space that preserves some of the historical character of abandoned industrial space, the creation of a destination, and the investment that has occurred in the vicinity because of its success.

The overall concept illustrated by the selected readings and precedents is the preservation of the unique aesthetic and character of abandoned industrial ruin, while producing a new program that works selectively within the context of that abandonment. That is, to accept what is considered by many as blight, and preserve that quality as not only an aesthetic characteristic, but also a historical symbol. To summarize, the key intentions of the previous examples are as follows:

  • Adaptive reuse of abandoned and decaying industrial sites,
  • Preservation of the aesthetical quality of those sites,
  • Selectively mixing that quality with new program,
  • Architectural interventions that allow for that program,
  • Interventions that not only respect the aesthetic of abandonment, but allow visitors to experience it and form a unique phenomenological reaction.

By approaching the often overwhelming architecture of industrial ruin with an understanding of its ephemeral ability to function programmatically as well as an understanding of the aesthetic and historical qualities it often possesses, adaptive reuses can be applied to sites that are seemingly not conducive to reuse. Abandoned architectural infrastructure can be thought of as is - decaying urban blight - and become successful through thoughtful design consideration. Architects can identify applicable buildings and neighborhoods, make architectural intrusions, and allow places to function with a balance of open, public spaces that surround both industrial ruin and newly programmed space. Industrial ruin can be approached from a design standpoint in order to show how buildings can exist as functionally dead pieces of architecture that not only have a positive effect on surrounding urban areas (as opposed to a negative effect so commonly attributed to vacant and abandoned buildings) but serve as public remnants of the transitory nature of civilization. That is, thoughtful design can both preserve the romantic aesthetic of abandoned industrial ruins, and create a space that is physically, economically, and culturally contributive to the surrounding context.9

Specifically, a proposal for approaching large scale sites of industrial ruin should include a few key factors:

  • Site and region-wide framework plan for approach,
  • Localized program studies,
  • Mixed use program in existing and new structures,
  • Public greenspace that contributes to the community,
  • Public greenspace that reflects the industrial nature of the site,
  • A balance between preserved, removed, and adapted structures.

An important part of the methodology involved with designing for such sites is research into the engineering difficulties associated with contaminated sites. Any of the grand ideas discussed earlier must take into account the necessity of site remediation, which can become a driving force in programming as well as the decision of which buildings to keep, renovate, or destroy. Aside from the overarching strategies that must be understood, a local study and inventory of any proposed sites mush also be undertaken before an informed architectural solution can be proposed. While there is an interesting aesthetic that is somewhat common amongst the typology of industrial buildings, most place were uniquely designed and engineered to function very specifically, and thus that specific design must be understood in order to properly propose new architectural uses that not only preserve the aesthetic, but also the historical and functional character of the space. There are both specific but global and specific local areas of study that must be understood before proposing design solutions for sites of industrial ruin.10

Aside from these two major fields of focus, the key point of study (the aesthetic of abandonment) is perhaps the most important to study, with remediation strategies and localized history acting as supporting elements. The art of photography plays an important role in understanding and appreciating the aesthetic, as it is the primary and essentially the only way in which the general public experiences the views that very few ever have. It is the subculture of urban explorers, and the even smaller sub-subculture of urban explorer photographers that find, capture, and spread the unique look of abandoned buildings. While photographs speak to the aesthetic, there is an inherent phenomenological quality that is possessed by abandoned buildings, especially the massive constructs of industry, that is only deliverable by visiting such sites. It is an architectural intervention, the application of a program, and the creation of a destination that will allow this experiential quality to reach a much larger number of people, and it is photography that will instigate an interested response upon viewers.

To take advantage of the aesthetic and experiential quality associated with it, a master site and regional plan will be developed to outline a framework for approach for a large scale abandoned industrial site. The master plan will be phased, and the initial phase will be a specific design intervention that consists of mixed use development. The primary component will be new light industry and warehousing facilities with improved access to transportation. While future phases will call for housing and business areas, the initial phase will primarily be industrial in nature, and provide a quick return on investment. However, this will be balanced by the inclusion of public greenspace, that can be linked easily to adjacent parks. The program of park and industry will allow for an eco-industrial development that begins to apply a new concept to the term "industrial park."

The specific goal of such a development is to provide for new warehousing and modern industrial needs, while preserving historical and aesthetic character. The results will be a balance between new industry, existing reuse, and buildings preserved as artifacts, visitors centers, and museums of the industry they once supported. Modern industrial parks need to occupy sites that currently posses infrastructure that supports such activities, while respecting the history of both industry and general and from a localized perspective. Similarly, the places where industry meets greenspace will be thoughtfully carved and serve as destinations, rather than leftover space.

INAAP aerial image

Aerial image of the INAAP site.

The site of this development, the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant in rural Indiana (abbreviated as INAAP), is important on a number of levels. The site itself is massive, occupying over 10,500 acres and consisting of over 1500 individual buildings. While a few are still utilized today, the vast majority sit abandoned and decaying. Originally built by the United States Government in the early 1940's, the plant has ceased operations entirely and has recently been sold to private landowners. The original construction included access to the Ohio River, dozens of miles of rail yards and spurs, and a limited access highway with direct connection to Louisville and the future national Interstate system. The current owners have expressed an interest in using the site, as well as the now entirely overbuilt infrastructure to support modern industrial needs. However, the current strategy has been to clear cut and demolish all existing landscape and architecture. In some places, best use may involve demolition of most or all existing buildings, however as development reaches the most historic portion of the site, which also happens to border a state park, alternative uses begin to be attractive.11

INAAP view

A view of the ammunition plant from atop one of the power plants.

It is in this gray zone, the buffer between industry and state park, that the architectural intervention begins to clearly reflect the balance between old and new, abandoned and active. The site strategy is to maintain this balance, some areas reserved for new construction and some places preserved as industrial ruin. The niche between these places then becomes the focus point of the site strategy. Through program and design of the site, the aesthetic of certain buildings can be put on display, much like a photo, by the formation of directed views and locations of functioning spaces within the context.

The most important goal however, is to preserve the aesthetic and provide for the instigation of a phenomenological response by users. This is the goal that is encouraged by the photography of the urban explorer subculture. The goal is to bring the experience of exploring a forgotten part of recent human history to anyone who wishes to experience it; to preserve not only the history of the place, but the history of how quickly architecture can cease to function, and how quickly, in modern times, people can forget and leave it behind.

Much like the Landscape Park at Duisburg-Nord functions and has achieved over time, a similarly successful result could be reached at the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant site. The overarching goals of providing a framework for mixed use program in existing and new structures, as well as mixing them with public greenspace that contributes to the community and reflects the industrial nature of the site, conclude upon the goal of designing for a balance between preserved, removed, and adapted structures. A similar character exists at Duisburg-Nord, and authors and architecture such as Hugh Hardy and Tim Edensor discuss that character and methods for achieving it. At The High Line Park in New York, a somewhat different approach was taken that involved a much larger intervention into abandoned space, and more directly scripted views and activities. The goals of the project at the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant lie beside the two projects, but take some elements from each.

In conclusion, the result of the project will be a balanced site that focuses on the aesthetic and experience of abandoned, decaying industrial ruin, while maintaining a function as an eco-industrial development and community. The project will not be completely unprecedented, but it will add to discourse in that its focus is on a realistic and balanced concept that simultaneously provides economic benefit, while contributing socially and physically to the local community. While doing so, it will bring into mainstream the starting and forgotten attractiveness of industrial ruins. It will be a destination for tourists and locals alike, a workplace for the community, and a provider for the region.

  1. Hardy, Hugh. "The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks." Places 17.3 (2005): 32-37. Print.
  2. Schreckenbach, Claudia, and Christel Teschner. Emscher Park - A Beacon for Approach. Technische Universitat Dresden, 2009.
  3. Hardy, Hugh. "The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks." Places 17.3 (2005): 32-37. Print.
  4. Edensor, Tim. Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Berg Publishers, 2005.
  5. Skrdla, Harry. Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.
  6. Kirkwood, Niall. Manufactured Sites: Re-thinking the Post-industrial Landscape. 1st ed. Spon Press, 2001.
  7. US EPA. “EPA: Emscher Park Case Study | Brownfields and Land Revitalization,” October 7, 2009. http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/partners/emscher.html.
  8. Friends of the High Line. “The High Line,” 2009. http://www.thehighline.org/.
  9. Hardy, Hugh. "The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks." Places 17.3 (2005): 32-37. Print.
  10. Kirkwood, Niall. Manufactured Sites: Re-thinking the Post-industrial Landscape. 1st ed. Spon Press, 2001.
  11. Cahal, Sherman. “Indiana Ammunitions Depot.” Abandoned Online, 2009. http://www.abandonedonline.net/.


Gordon Bombay said...

So the other day I had to work security at the Cyclones game and they put me backstage, guarding the locker room. Needless to say I was bored as hell and had nothing to do, couldn't see the game. So I pulled this up and read the entire post on my blackberry. Very well written and a good read. I don't think anyone has ever looked into the topic of why such urban decay is so appealing to visual artists as detailed as you have. At the very least it's an interesting topic to ponder, but you're writing makes it very easy to read and understand.

Could use a story about Columbian VCR smugglers though.

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