The aesthetics of decay have been well versed of late, not only within academic literature, but also mainstream media and online via blogs and other social media. We have seen an aquarium in an abandoned shopping mall in Bangkok, entire disused airports in Cyprus and an whole abandoned island used in Hollywood blockbusters. Industrial, residential, infrastructural, rural; there have been a plethora of forms of dereliction that have been recorded. The huge swath of media (sometimes labelled ‘ruin porn’) has led to the fetishization of dereliction with some suggesting that such overt ruination imagery has had damaging effects on particular places that are oft the focus of such narratives, notably Detroit.
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Recently, I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Shropshire and Cheshire countryside, and came across what on first viewing looked like an abandoned, disused factory, perhaps once used for chemical production of some kind (I had trouble recalling my GCSE chemistry lessons). Upon closer inspection, the site did indeed have a ‘ruined’ factory. The redbrick façades were punctuated by shattered windows that allowed the old pipework, and inner-workings of the factory to be exposed. Nature had clearly began to reclaim this building, as shrubbery and invader species were rife on the walls, the roofs and throughout the old passageways between the buildings. The high industrial, temporary fencing that are synonymous with ‘danger, keep out, abandoned building’ sites was stationed around the decaying buildings, and had it not been for the family waiting impatiently in the car while I indulged in ruination geekery, I would have attempted to get beyond the fencing to explore further. Other typical ruination aesthetics were in view, with the exposed metal work rusting in the damp North West climate.
But upon closer inspection, by walking further into the compound, it became clear that this deindustrialised building was only part of a wider complex; a complex that appeared to be in full working order. To my surprise I was stopped by security guards asking me what I was doing. It was then I noticed that cars and trucks were hauling in and out of a working factory. Buildings behind the redbrick abandoned shell were omitting plumes of steam, the din of whirring machinery began to fill the air, and the sillage of industrial waste began to fill my nostrils. The rest of the site was a working factory indeed. However, the site was curiously full of rusted metal pipework. Huge silos stood proud, surrounding by miles of intricate pipework with steam emanating from unsealed joints, yet there was a veneer of rust, of decay. The distinct oxidized surface (I paid attention in that particular lesson) was everywhere; the fence posts that barricaded the silos from the car park were flaking away, the bridge over the canal creaked under the strain of rusting bolts and rivets, the aluminium sheds that housed workers, tractors, fork-lift trucks and temporary cabins were bleeding orange from their tips, rusting from the top down. The pervasive rusting alluded to all the ‘traditional’ aesthetics of decay that we have become so accustomed to, yet this was anything but a decaying place – industry was thriving.
This place is a salt factory, with pipelines bringing the raw material of brine from subterranean sources to this site, where the salt is distilled from the brine (oh, and that lesson too clearly). In the process of evaporating the water away, the intense sodium chloride gets airborne rapidly and corrodes the metal, which degrades at an astonishingly quick rate. The security guard told me that so far, rather than spend gargantuan amounts of money on safeguarding permanent buildings from corrosion, it makes more sense to put up temporary structures, let them rust away and simply build new ones and let the others decay (such as the machinery in the red brick building). The pipelines are serviced but only as much as they are needed to be to carry the brine into the distillation chambers. The rust is a continuous and permanent part of the site.
The juxtaposition between the obvious, traditional aesthetics of decay (and the ruination imaginary that it espouses), with the antithetical industrial vivacity of the site belies many of contemporary cultural geographies of ruination. The prevailing narrative of decay that bloggers, photographers, journalists and academics have been so keen to fetishize was being subverted by the industrial activity going on there. The site is owned by one of the largest multinational companies on the planet, Tata, so is clearly very much part of the global capitalist system. Yet, narratives of ruination often speak to the absence of capital, those places which accumulative economic globalisation has forgotten, discarded or suppressed. Nothing of the sort is going on here.
So, this little foray into the Cheshire countryside has indicated that while ruination and decay can be gazed upon as the forgotten places of our contemporary globalising world, such aesthetics can sometimes be misleading.