The economic downturn presented the Irish people with a new diversion: a fascination with vacancy and dereliction. The terms ‘ghost estate’ and ‘vacancy’ entered everyday discourse, as plans for wholly new towns and suburbs, and schemes for towers in Ballsbridge and the Dublin Docklands fell through. Photographer Anthony Haughey’s haunting twilight images of unfinished estates and abandoned cement factories stared out at us from the pages of the Irish Times in November 2011, under the heading ‘Ireland in ruins: the height of folly, the depths of misery’.i
Ruin photography is certainly not new; the same Times article mentioned the 18th century Romantic fascination with ruins as ‘melancholic reflections on the transience of past glory.’ Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn studied ancient ruins through their sketches,ii while Hitler’s architect Albert Speer wrote about ‘ruin value’.iii Ruin photography has more recently received bad press giving rise to the term ‘ruin porn’: images which are metaphors for financial hardship and poverty were, some believed, used without regard to their context.iv
In truth, many of the initiatives looking at vacancy and dereliction in Dublin are important first steps towards solving the social and environmental problems that come with it; reusingdublin.ie is one such example, charting ownership and suggested uses for underused spaces. But what is it about decaying buildings that we find so alluring?
The urban exploration (urbex) movement may offer some clues about this, with the rise of disaster tourism signifying how mainstream this movement has become (each time there is focus on the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a corresponding spike in Google searches for ‘Chernobyl tours’ follows).v Urbex is often about trespassing, but it is not about vandalising or damaging structures. As Bradley Garrett explains in his 2013 book Explore Everything, urbex is driven by ‘the spontaneous search for and discovery of the unexpected,’ and a desire to observe the impermanence of the world around us. Buildings in decay are living records of time and nature: ‘We get glimpses of nature doing its slow but relentless work: ivy creeping through windows, mould taking down walls, trees pushing through floorboards, rain slowly pecking at roof tiles or snow piling up until the whole thing slumps over in an architectural cardiac arrest.’vi
As they decay, buildings begin to exhibit qualities of the natural world which are often lacking in cities: the opportunity for unexpected encounters with people and wildlife, environments which grow and change, and an element of danger. These are things which are naturally found in wilderness and consciously or not, we are hardwired to need them. Attention Restoration Theory teaches that our minds are drawn to ‘strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things’ and that this ‘involuntary attention’ helps balance and restore the ‘voluntary attention’ needed for focussing on tasks.vii Being in green spaces which naturally provide this kind of stimulation has been shown to improve the symptoms of ADDviii and dementia,ix and this in turn has spawned a whole ‘green therapy’ industry.
Architecture Ireland’s very own Ekaterina Tikhoniouk recently highlighted how children have watched their playspaces being slowly eroded over the past few decades, leaving them with few opportunities for unregulated play.x But in the concrete jungles that are our cities, we could all benefit from a little more wilderness, whether it be in the form of architectural ruins, or dense green spaces for fostering wildlife. Untame urbanism may be the way forward.
i O’Toole, F. (2011 November 12) Ireland in ruins: the height of folly, the depths of misery, The Irish Times p. W9.
ii De Silva, S. (2015) Beyond Ruin Porn: What’s Behind Our Obsession with Decay? – ArchDaily. Retrieved 4-6-2015 from <http://www.archdaily.com/537712/beyond-ruin-porn-what-s-behind-our-obsession-with-decay/>
iii Minkjan, M. (2014 February 12) The Poetry of Decay – Failed Architecture. Retrieved 4-6-2015 from <http://www.failedarchitecture.com/the-poetry-of-decay/>
iv Leary, J. (2011 January 15) Detroitism – Guernica Magazine. Retrieved 4-6-2015 from <https://www.guernicamag.com/features/leary_1_15_11/>
v See https://goo.gl/hQrrWw
vi Garrett, B. Explore Everything. London: Verso, 2013, p. 50.
vii Taylor, A. et al, “Coping with add: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings,” in Environment and Behavior, vol. 33, no. 1, p. 54–77, 2001.
ix Elings, M. ‘Effects of care farms: Scientific research on the benefits of care farms for clients’, Plant Research International, (2011) Retrieved 4-11-2014 from <http://www.carefarminguk.org/sites/carefarminguk.org/files/Effects_of_care_farms_Elings.pdf>
x Tikhoniouk, K. (2015 March 23) The Shrinking Playground of Dublin – AI Extra. Retrieved 4-6-2015 from <http://architectureireland.ie/the-city-the-shrinking-play-ground-of-dublin-the-1950s-versus-now>