The Death Cycle of Old Buildings

Thinking about the death cycle of old buildings: what typical stages of oblivion, decay, creative transformation and rebirth do buildings go through, from the point when they are first abandoned? I guess I’m thinking mainly of large, institutional or industrial buildings in urban or suburban areas, but open to wider application.

A tentative list – allowing that particular buildings may skip stages, or have their own idiosyncratic afterlives.

1.       Immediate abandonment: the building is totally shunned by ordinary citizens and becomes, if occupied at all, the preserve of those who are socially marginalised: homeless people, drinkers, drug users, ravers, graffiti artists / taggers, perhaps vandals. Also, if need supports it, marginal entrepreneurs; ie salvage seekers, who’ll  strip a building of copper, lead and other reuseable, tradeable materials.

2.       Urbex forays, usually documented in photographs, which kick off a process of aesthetic reclamation, but very much a marginal one. Urbex entails trespass, the navigation of potentially unsafe environments; but with the reward of encountering and documenting both ‘the beauty of decay’ and the uniquely charged – some will feel haunted – atmosphere of buildings from which humans have departed, leaving behind a poignant disarray of untouched memories and objects.

Urbex has an ambivalent relationship with graffiti in particular. There’s a strong anti-vandalism ethos in the urbex community – take only photographs, leave only your lens cap J – which can extend to displeasure with graffiti splurges; yet at the same time urbex photographers frequently have crossover interests in graffiti art in its own creative negotiations of marginal space.

3.       Fuller temporary occupation of abandoned buildings for aesthetic / social purposes: as creative squats, low rent artists’ studios or housing, shops and boutiques, galleries, nightclubs, performance art venues, theatres, projection spaces, all-purpose get-together venues. This range of activities spans alternative countercultures and the maverick end of the urban arts and fashion scenes, and is acknowledged as a process of gradually reclaiming spaces for acceptable occupation; the cutting edge of broader, mainstreaming shifts in the urban environment. ‘Where artists hang out, there estate agents will surely follow.’

At this point, developers or civic authorities usually take over and the possibilities are inclined to branch

4.       The building is bulldozed into oblivion, and replaced by another not nearly as well designed or built.

5.       The building is refurbished for a new purpose, with more or less acknowledgement of its former incarnation.

6.       The building is replaced by some other kind of public space or monument that consciously recalls the former use and may retain token physical traces of it. An example would be the Parc Georges Brassens in southern Paris, which occupies the site of the old Vaugirard slaughterhouse and still retains its belfry and the steel frame of the horses’ hall, plus imposing statues of bulls at the entrance.

7.       A few buildings stubbornly cling on as countercultural squats and artists’ spaces – like the aromatic Kunsthaus Tacheles in central Berlin.

One of my speculations is that the death cycle of buildings has some parallels with the death cycle of physical, flesh-and-blood bodies: namely that there is an initial stage of abject shunning and utter taboo, when the body is in active decomposition (putrefaction, the stench of carrion, maggots; the works), perhaps scavenged for food and other useful / totemic materials like teeth or bones. This is accompanied or followed by cultural rituals of mourning which mediate the reality of death for those who remain; and later by the re-incorporation and veneration of ancestral memory of the dead person into the community: the grand 19th century European mausoleum, or the archaic practice of bringing the bones of the dead back to an appointed place close among the living.

I’m most curious about the first three stages of this process: where the liminal spaces of social abjection and innovative creation merge, hinge and overlap.

And especially struck by the implications of the following observation, from Nik Gaffney via a recent post by Dougald Hine on speculative culture:

“I mean we’re in this grim, chilly, abandoned industrial building with a couple of digital signifiers to cheer us up. It’s not an accident that we’re squatting in the remnants of Victorian industrialism and blueskying and networking.”

Of course there are a few simple and practical answers to why they’re there, but it’s still worth asking what else might be brewing in these peculiar social / spatial dynamics, of the most cutting-edge cultural innovation and speculation taking place in dilapidated buildings very recently abandoned and relegated by the mainstream to the ‘dustbin of history’. What slippages into and beneath the mind? What alignments of presence and absence? Which ghosts, favouring which dreams of realization?


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