During the summer of 1755, a young Scotsman wandered among the ruins of ancient Rome.  He sketched the baths of Caracalla, picking his way through collapsed arches and fragments of temples, gradually absorbing the essence of Classical architecture.  He was taking part in the Grand Tour, heading to the other side of Europe to explore urban dereliction – always with an eye for its aesthetic qualities.

I mentioned the modern love for ruins in a previous piece, and spoke about its antecedents – Richard Nickell and John Harris are two – but the pursuit of dereliction is a far older preoccupation.  Its lineage stretches far into the past from John Piper, who avidly photographed and painted the bombsites of World War 2, through the pastoral watercolourist Cotman, to Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of the Carceri and views of Paestum still ignite the imagination.  That lineage also includes the young Scotsman, a chap by the name of Robert Adam who went on to design a few rickles of his own…

Ironically, modern explorers chide each other for being mere “tourists”, visiting only the most popular sites, such as the Sinteranlage in Duisburg, the Papeteries Darblay outside Paris, Millennium Mills in London’s Docks, the Forges de Clabecq in Belgium, or the Cokerie Zollverein in Essen.  Yet travelling around Europe today to exercise an aesthetic appreciation for ruins is no different to joining the Grand Tour of the 1700’s.  Then, young men of independent means visited a set of prescribed destinations in order to soak up the atmosphere: but where the 18th Century mind was taken up with the ruins of the Classical world, the modern spirit is obsessed with the decline of the Industrial Age.  Beyond that preoccupation, there is little difference in our emotional response to the symbols of a “gone world”: nostalgia, tristesse and even a certain ennui with the way of life which replaced the ruined one.

Many books about modern dereliction have been published in the last few years, and the best include Henk van Rensbergen’s “Abandoned Places”, and Marchand & Meffre’s “The Ruins of Detroit”.  Both feature locations which are well known, such as Clabecq and Du Parc Hosiery in the former, or the Grand Central Terminal and Packard factory in the latter.  There are many similarities between them, and each is essentially a collection of coffee table photography with a brief, valedictory foreword.  They have spawned many imitators, which adopted the same format but cut corners on paper stock, origination or sometimes demonstrated a failure of publishing nerve.  “Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era” which accompanies an exhibition recently hosted by the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, offers something different.

The format of Kombinat is closer to Paul Virilio’s “Unknown Quantity” – an extended photo essay which remains one of my favourite books – than to an exhibition catalogue, which it effectively is.  It tells you much more about the world we live and work in than a conventional architecture book because it both represents, then discusses how things are represented.  Visually, Kombinat uses strong colour and understated graphics to make its point: there are no gimmicks to detract from the photographs.  Likewise the locations in Kombinat are fresh to Western European eyes, and the text is deeper than other titles which have come out recently to cries of “dereliction porn”.  They have too many images of lonely chairs stranded in corridors and moody shots of peeling paint.  By contrast, Serban Bonciocat, the photographer of Kombinat captures the industrial ruins of Romania using a topographic approach.  Rather than isolating details of them, he sets former foundries and chemical works into a derelict landscape, or shows their juxtaposition to the “live” world: not only does that set them into today’s context, it also helps to explain the book’s subtitle, “Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era”.

Both words and pictures discuss the unavoidable politics of the former Eastern Bloc, and one essayist touches on a couple of interesting conflicts – there is a concern that showing the rest of Europe that Romania has some ruined factories will make them think less of the country, perhaps even put people off visiting.  In fact, the hidden history and monumental scale of these places makes it more likely that some will visit especially to seek them out.  The Golden Era referred to was the expansionist phase of the Eastern Bloc countries, both during the Constructivist dawn of Communism, then the Heroes of Industry decades presided over by Stalin.  Over that period, increasing industrial production was the thing, and certain regions became centres of excellence for particular industries.  What remains is still heroic, even in its death throes.

That last point crystallises the other issue: tourism destroys because it introduces a large number of people who may have little understanding or sympathy for the place.  The rare and beautiful – because sometimes small treasures lie amidst the ruins – is corrupted by grinning fools who only want to go home with a souvenir, and a camera full of photos to prove that they visited.  It is, as Mike Harding pointed out in his book “Footloose in the Himalaya”, a Mondo cane approach to the places we visit as tourists.  It may be that an exhibition, with an accompanying catalogue like this, can help.  Yes, it alerts us to these places, but it also explains what they represent, hence offering us a chance to consider rather than merely consuming them visually.  It also marks out Romania as having foresight enough to record these ruins before they disappear, and in doing so, to weigh their worth.

With thanks to Simona Nastac at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.

“Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era”
Photos by Serban Bonciocat
Essays by Augustin Ioan, Anca Nicoleta Otoiu, Liviu Chelcea, Gabriel Simion – in Romanian with English translations.
Published by Igloo Media, 2007
ISBN – 9789738839809

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