project . 2008 - 2011 . Closed

Ruins of the Twentieth Century

UK Research and Innovation
Funder: UK Research and InnovationProject code: AH/F015992/1
Funded under: AHRC Funder Contribution: 212,913 GBP
Status: Closed
30 Sep 2008 (Started) 29 Sep 2011 (Ended)

Ruins of the Twentieth Century is an investigation and appreciation of places built and abandoned in the last hundred years / most of them in the UK and Ireland, but also further afield. They include derelict factories, outmoded military installations, defunct holiday resorts and neglected Modernist buildings: the kinds of structures that we all know and habitually ignore. These are not romantic ruins, such as are prized by heritage organizations and visited by thousands of people each year. But these unloved sites tell us more, sometimes, than we care to acknowledge about the taste, culture and history of our own recent past. In their decayed state, they remind us of the fragile nature of progress and recall futuristic dreams that are now consigned to the past.\n\nMy approach to such buildings and places is first of all that of a creative writer, and second that of a cultural historian. Many poets and novelists (from William Wordsworth and John Ruskin to Samuel Beckett and J. G. Ballard) have written about ruins, both ancient and modern. The ruin has been a rich source of metaphors for personal grief, the passing away of civilizations and the melancholy fact of universal decay. I am interested particularly in what happens to writing / to my own writing / when it comes face to face with the remnants of the recent past, which are not so easily consigned to the realm of the picturesque. This project aims to discover a new way of writing about landscape and architecture that will do justice to the strangeness of the ruins of the last century.\n\nThe writing itself is to a large degree the basis of my research. I will produce a book and essays that mix history and memoir, poetic description and architectural appreciation. My focus throughout will be on how my own skills as a writer can develop in response to the physical reality of the ruins in question. Behind this productive and reflective level, however, two other fields of inquiry will open up. First, I will make extensive field visits to the ruins themselves, and follow those up with archival research and investigations in the surrounding communities. Second, I will need to study the history of ruin appreciation itself, as it has developed in literature, architectural history and the visual arts.\n\nThis last category is crucial, because for some decades now the ruins of the twentieth century have been an abiding theme for artists: Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Susan Hiller and Tacita Dean have all made works that circle around this subject. To some extent, my project is a way of discovering how the ideas and methods used by these artists, when confronting such places, might inform the work of a creative writer. I intend to widen the scope of my writing and research beyond the literary world to engage with contemporary art and to collaborate, in my own presentation of my chosen ruins, with artists and photographers. The research, in other words, will constantly cross disciplines and question my own expertise, asking what it means to try to describe something as enigmatic and multifaceted as a ruin.\n\nThe main result of this project will be a book entitled Ruins of the Twentieth Century / a work of 'creative non-fiction' that conjures up the atmosphere of these places, accounts for their dereliction and tries to imagine what future use they might have. I will also write a shorter volume, aimed at a more academic audience, that addresses the philosophical aspects of the subject of ruination. Other offshoots of my research will appear in the form of essays and articles in literary journals, art magazines and newspapers, as well as in the form of talks at museums and galleries. I hope that such publications and events will encourage a wider public debate about what is to be done with the ruins of the twentieth century.

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