Staring at Hell

The aesthetics of architecture in a ruined world

s
a
l
v
o
s

When I was an eleven-year-old child struggling with nascent mental illness, I received some perhaps ill-considered advice from one of many therapists: “Knowledge is power.” The idea was that by learning more about the things I feared, I would become less scared about them. In some ways, this worked. Researching the murder rate for our small town (zero murders) and the statistics of prepubescent heart attacks (extraordinarily rare) quelled some of my more ungrounded fears. This prescription for knowledge, however, was contraindicated by an existing condition of mine: morbid fascination. Why someone with clinical anxiety would spend a great deal of their time reading about the abject man-made horrors of the world—from industrial accidents to engineering catastrophes, from transportation accidents to public health crises—is a question I have asked myself for years. While perhaps less popular than horror movies and true-crime podcasts, the spectacle of catastrophe is nonetheless fascinating to the millions of people who spend their evenings binging Seconds from Disaster or Chernobyl.

A special subset of disaster porn is what we might call infrastructural tragedy: bridge collapses, oil spills, toxic waste dumps, nuclear meltdowns, industrial accidents of all stripes, and, on a slower timescale, the left-behind, dystopian landscapes of post-industrial decay and blight. From William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” to Koyaanisqatsi, from the photography of Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Misrach, and David T. Hanson to Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier’s fascination with grain elevators, the impact on the arts made by the horrors of production and the landscapes they’ve left behind—arguably necessary evils that make our contemporary way of life possible—spans disciplines and centuries.

What makes industrial landscapes unique is that they fascinate regardless of whether they’re operating. The hellish Moloch of a petrochemical refinery is as captivating as one of the many abandoned factories one passes by train, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean, though, that all industrial landscapes are created equal. Urban manufacturing factories are considered beautiful—tastefully articulated on the outside, their large windows flooding their vast internal volumes with light; they are frequently rehabilitated into spaces for living and retail or otherwise colonized by local universities. The dilapidated factory, crumbling and overgrown by vegetation, now inhabits that strange space between natural and man-made, historical and contemporary, lovely and sad. The power plant, mine, or refinery invokes strong feelings of awe and fear. And then there are some, such as the Superfund site—remediated or not—whose parklike appearance and sinister ambience remains aesthetically elusive.

Ancient Quarrels

Humans, in other words, are enamored with ruin porn. And though our contemporary predilection includes new media developments such as YouTube videos and Instagram posts, the discourse of preoccupation with ruins and what they say about conceptions of beauty and nature (human or otherwise) can be traced back to the eighteenth century, long before the crumbing of automobile factories. The core of this debate first took place at the Royal Academy of Architecture in France in the 1670s and 1680s, when the Academy’s first director, François Blondel, penned his Cours d’Architecture. Basing his text on the three principles of architecture—firmness (structural soundness), commodity (usefulness to its client), and delight (beauty) laid out by the Roman architect Vitruvius—Blondel claimed that beauty was universal and absolute, defined by perfect harmonic proportions achieved by the architects of Greek and Roman antiquity. In a lecture he gave in 1671, Blondel proclaimed: “Through our study, work, and manner of noble, generous, and unselfish devotion, let us restore the name of architecture to its ancient luster. And let us make known by our works that this beautiful art was with justice honored among the ancients, where it was held in a scarcely imaginable esteem as far back in time as the Sacred Books.”

This did not sit well with one of Blondel’s contemporaries, an engineer, physician, and part-time architect named Claude Perrault, who is most famous for designing the Third Wing of the Louvre, notable at the time for its adventurous proportions, structural engineering, and use of paired columns. Perrault, asked by the Minister of Finance to King Louis XIV to produce a new translation of the works of Vitruvius, explained his design in the footnotes of the work: “The taste of our century, or at least of our nation, is different from that of the ancients and perhaps it has a little of the Gothic in it, because we love the air, the daylight, and openness.” By acknowledging that ancient architects bent their own rules, Perrault suggested that such rule-bending could likewise apply to current architecture. Further, he proposed that there were in fact two types of beauty: “positive,” which consisted of general principles of design that were consistently appealing, such as symmetry, and “arbitrary,” or notions of beauty that were tied to one’s cultural customs. This debate came to be known as the “Ancients versus the Moderns” and would lay the groundwork for later Enlightenment thought on the subject of aesthetics. Blondel’s absolute beauty and Perrault’s relativist aesthetics would continue to spark considerable debate among Enlightenment thinkers. David Hume took a page from Blondel by positing that beauty is universal not because of eternal Platonic forms but because of the shared psychological makeup of the human brain; John Locke’s empiricism rejected the concept of innate ideas and proposed instead that all knowledge came from sensation followed by logical reflection; and “sensationalism,” or the idea that knowledge came from the senses, opened up a world of discourse about aesthetics enabling philosophers to explore ideas that went beyond whether beauty is absolute or relative.

The dilapidated factory, crumbling and overgrown by vegetation, now inhabits that strange space between natural and man-made, historical and contemporary, lovely and sad.

Two aesthetic concepts of British empiricism continue to cause fights today: the picturesque and the sublime. Both are deeply relevant to our post-industrial landscape, which at any given time falls between these terms and beauty. When Edmund Burke penned A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1756, he could not have predicted that the term he used to describe the power of the Alps would be used centuries later to describe dye factories and steel mills. Burke was infamously conservative, believing that the only good thing about the French Revolution was how violent it was, but in this essay, he was taking a break from politics to turn to aesthetics.

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Burke described this new emotion by way of several categories, the most important being greatness of dimension (scale); infinity (seeming endlessness); magnificence (“A great profusion of things, which are splendid or valuable in themselves, is magnificent”); difficulty (requiring immense amounts of labor to construct or engage with); and light and darkness (specifically the transition between them and the extremes of both). In Burke’s time, many of these qualities could only be ascertained in the natural world: the scale of the Alps, the infinite expanse of the ocean, the magnificence of the stars in the night sky, the difficulty of climbing mountains and excavating quarries, the blinding brilliance of the sun on snow, and the pitch darkness of a lampless night. During Burke’s time, with perhaps the exception of the Gothic cathedrals, the sublime remained primarily the domain of nature—at least until the Industrial Revolution, when human beings changed the face of the world itself.

If beauty and the sublime existed on opposite sides of a spectrum, equidistant between them was the concept of the picturesque. The picturesque originated as a response by British painters and gardeners to the rationalist garden designs of the French, which laid out plantings and paths according to mathematical rules and in deference to sacred harmonic proportions, all in service to absolute conceptions of beauty. The British, on the other hand, concerned themselves with trying to recreate the specific feeling of aesthetic fulfillment one has when encountering a natural stream or woodland unscathed by human interference or mathematical rationale. They understood their designs as recreations of the “picture” one sees during these natural experiences. One of the originators of this idea was William Temple, a diplomat under Charles II, who made several trips to Asia. In an essay from 1692, Temple praised (in true Orientalist fashion) the gardens he saw there:

Their [the Chinese] greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed: and though we have hardly any notion of this sort of beauty, yet they have a particular word to express it, and where they find it hit their eye at first sight, they say the sharawadgi is fine or is admirable, or any such expression of esteem.

Recent linguistic debate has concluded that “sharawadgi” is most likely a word Temple made up or misheard. Still, the concept denotes a way of simulating “naturalness” through asymmetry, irregularity, and freedom from the proportional restrictions of rationalist design.

Perhaps a more successful elaboration of picturesque theory comes from the 1794 Essays on the Picturesque by Uvedale Price. Building on Burke, Price describes two characteristics of beauty—smoothness (likened to a grassy open down) and gradual variation (a gentle transition between two things)—and thus defines the picturesque in opposite terms: roughness and abrupt variation. To make his point, Price uses the example of a Grecian temple:

A temple or palace of Grecian architecture in its perfect entire state, and its surface and colour smooth and even, either in painting or reality, is beautiful; in ruin it is picturesque. Observe the process by which time (the great author of such changes) converts a beautiful object into a picturesque one. First, by means of weather stains, partial incrustations, mosses, &c. it at the same time takes off from the uniformity of its surface, and of its colour; that is, gives it a degree of roughness, and variety of tint. Next, the various accidents of weather loosen the stones themselves; they tumble in irregular masses upon what was perhaps smooth turf or pavement, or nicely trimmed walks and shrubberies; now mixed and overgrown with wild plants and creepers, that crawl over, and shoot among the fallen ruins.

Of particular interest is the fascination with ruins by landscape designers and aristocrats in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Inspired by the “Grand Tour”—a cultural pilgrimage to Greece, Rome, and other ancient sites taken by well-to-do chaps in the seventeenth through nineteenth centurys—and the widely published descriptions of the ruins of Greece and Rome, wealthy landowners across Europe paid architects and landscapers to build fake ruins on their estates. Paul Cooper, writing in The Atlantic, described the process as a delusion of grandeur: “The wealthy aristocrats of old Europe often used these monuments to imagine themselves as a new kind of God, remaking the world as they wanted and creating a false impression of a history that never was.” He posits that the building of sham ruins was a product of its time, especially considering that the traumas of a nightmarishly destructive twentieth century, which brought about real devastation, rid our culture of the romantic notion of ruins as picturesque.

Bringing together these strands of Enlightenment thinking, we can begin to understand the scope, scale, and quality of industrial architecture and its ruination—or, more to the point, we can judge ourselves by our responses to beauty, the picturesque, and the sublime. Beauty, we find, is often met with preservation or imitation; the picturesque invites fetishism; and the sublime most of all demands confrontation.

Preservation and Imitation

Before there is industrial ruin, there must be industry. In 1721 the Derby Silk Mill, the first textile factory, appeared in England. Immediately recognizable as a factory, it stood five stories tall, its brick rectangular structure divided into bays by regularly spaced windows. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century developments in textile manufacturing technology, such as spinning and carding machines, combined with the dawn of the age of steam power, saw the factory expand as an archetype, spreading to urban areas. Production of goods, and therefore work itself, once individualized and practiced in the home, was corralled into a single building full of contraptions the workers did not own. Time, once the domain of nature, was now tethered to the factory whistle; labor, once the fruitful output of individual creation, became divided into a series of monotonous tasks completed at breakneck speed. The quaint waterwheels of the early mills were replaced by coal-powered steam, and the skies became infamously blackened. Almost 150 years after the Derby Silk Mill was built, Karl Marx wrote Capital.

Despite these revolutionary changes in labor relations and the resulting environmental damage, several factories at the time of their operation were in fact considered beautiful. The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, built in stages in the 1810s, were a landmark of industrial development. Credited by historian Joshua B. Freeman with being an early prototype of the system later known as “mass production,” they were held by such luminaries as Charles Dickens as being the opposite of the “dark Satanic Mills” of England. Bucolic, neatly arranged, and full of young female workers, they offered young women in rural towns opportunities for well-paying seasonal work and the tantalizing promise of independence. In the words of Freeman: “By promoting a vision of the mill town as a morally uplifting and culturally enlightening community, and developing a system of cheap, standardized manufacturing, Lowell spread the idea that both economic and social betterment could be achieved through technically advanced industry.” It is perhaps because of this unusually positive reputation and the quaintness of its New England setting that in the 1960s—a time when the environmental ills of the factory were more pronounced than ever—Lowell was chosen to become a historic cultural park, preserved in perpetuity as a museum. Not only were the mills’ quaint brick buildings of vaguely Georgian character rehabilitated as architectural treasures, the industrial buildings became the site of exhibitions about the history and culture of industry itself—a prescient choice during a time when the transformation of the landscape from industrial to postindustrial had only just begun.

Beauty, we find, is often met with preservation and imitation; the picturesque invites fetishism; and the sublime demands confrontation.

But was industrial infrastructure, and the landscape it created, beautiful? As early as the 1850s, architects and artists were commenting on modern life and the materials of industry—in this case, iron—which were already seen as remaking the world in dramatic and exciting ways. Critic and architect Gottfried Semper said of the wood and iron construction of bridges: “Thus far it has been taken up only in a technical sense and spirit, but it might be possible to pin our hopes for the future of art on it. Our building style will once again meet the standards of monumental forms.” Charles Baudelaire coined the term flâneur to describe the city dweller who basks in the visceral forms and queasy dread that came with living in the new landscape of a modernity. Debates on the nature of authenticity in art during an age of industrialization raged throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the pages of Walter Benjamin to the work of the Italian Futurists. In architecture, however, the elements of industrial building—then considered at worst the sites of social anxiety and at best infrastructural necessities—were elevated to the status of art.

A photograph by Jeremy Blakeslee showing a ransacked room in Detroit’s abandoned Cass Technical High School.
Cass Technical High School (demolished), Detroit © Jeremy Blakeslee

In the early twentieth century, American industrial vernacular architecture, such as the daylight factory and the grain elevator, was likewise understood by the European architects, known by history as the fathers of modernism, to have achieved the qualities of “the beautiful.” The era of “form-follows-function” International Style architecture had dawned. In A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, historian-theorist Reyner Banham cites a number of examples of the lavish praise these juggernauts of modernism appended to places that were previously sites of storage and toil. Gropius famously compared the monumentality of American industrial buildings to the “work of ancient Egyptians.” Le Corbusier called them “the first fruits of the new age.” Erich Mendelsohn was so awestruck by the grain elevators of Western New York that they haunted him in sketchbooks and passionate fever dreams. Banham concluded: “The forms of factories and grain elevators were an available iconography, a language of forms, whereby promises could be made, adherence to the modernist credo could be asserted, and the way pointed to some kind of technological utopia.” The bare-bones structural elements that made up the industrial buildings of the era—posts and beams, slabs and frames—inspired some of the most revolutionary works of architectural practice, including the five points of architecture elaborated by Le Corbusier and the design for the Bauhaus in Dessau by Walter Gropius. Industrial buildings were powerful metaphors for a modern way of life distinguished by mass production, an emphasis on technology, and above all, efficiency. The home itself became a “machine for living in.”

But what about the factories themselves, rather than their metaphorical iterations reified in the works of high architecture? Two specific forms of industrial architecture are esteemed even to this day: the cast-iron industrial loft and the daylight factory. In the nineteenth century, garment and paper manufacturers in New York City colonized a formerly bourgeois residential neighborhood south of Houston Street. Working with limited parcels of land and in the industrial mode du jour known as vertical integration, they built several three-to-five-story loft buildings distinguished by their large windows and cast-iron architectural detailing in the Italianate style. Despite the dwindling of industrial uses by the early 1960s in the area soon to be known as Soho, the buildings were spared from several Robert Moses-era urban renewal plots. At first this was not because of their architectural heritage; it was due to fear of the loss of industrial jobs held mostly by minority populations. (The historic architecture would enter the debate by the late 1960s.) Industry itself, however, began to leave on its own volition because of the constraints imposed on twentieth-century manufacturing by nineteenth-century buildings, as well as the allure of larger parcels of land outside the city.

A photograph by Jeremy Blakeslee showing an abandoned police station in High Park, Detroit. A file cabinet stands open, papers litter the floor, paint peels from the walls.
Abandoned police station in High Park, Detroit © Jeremy Blakeslee

The spaces they left behind, lofts open and full of light, would be the site of a new pattern of post-industrial urban economic revival: the arrival of artists. The work of the artists who moved into Soho lofts in the 1960s and 1970s established both a well-worn pattern of gentrification as well as the still-popular “loft aesthetic” defined by minimalistic, white-painted, expansive spaces. Working and living illegally, the artists rehabilitated the buildings and fought for their right to live and work in them simultaneously, transforming what was once considered a wretched industrial slum into a hip neighborhood. Soon after their hard work revitalizing the buildings, their architectural detailing earned them a designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as a historical landmark in 1973.

The history of the daylight factory is a story of both preservation and imitation of the industrial aesthetic. The daylight factory came into its own by way of American factory architect Albert Kahn, who in 1905 completed the #10 Building for Detroit’s Packard Motor Car Company. Kahn’s design was revolutionary: by using steel-reinforced concrete frame, flooring, and roof plates, the structure could support immense internal loads, and the strength of the construction allowed for the use of large windows which let in air and light. Recognized routinely by watchdogs of gentrification, daylight factories offer the standard form of “urban loft living”; the interesting architectural detailing on the outside, combined with vast internal open spaces flooded with light, made these buildings equally appealing to modernist architects, factory owners, and condo developers. The aesthetic, co-opted by adaptive reuse projects of cities everywhere, became so popular that new development has begun to imitate it. In Baltimore, a post-industrial city by any definition, this daylight factory imitation began with the development of the first City Arts building in 2008-2010. City Arts, an affordable housing project specifically for artists, borrowed its aesthetics from the nearby industrial buildings, including the daylight factory known as the Annex, which is now itself inhabited by artists but was once auxiliary space for the Crown Cork & Seal Company. Another example, on the more luxurious side, is Remington Row, a development of high-end retail and apartments completed by neighborhood developer Seawall in 2016. With its brick structures and large bays of windows, Remington Row looks like the spitting image of a historical daylight factory—except it’s entirely new. The allure offered by the artist colonization of Soho and the adaptations of daylight factories by universities and developers was dependent on the architecture of the spaces themselves, so much so that capital has determined these buildings to be incubators of success and urban change. The infernal proletarian workspace of yore has been wholly appropriated, aesthetically speaking, by neoliberal urban sensibility.

The Picturesque: Ruin Porn

If beauty warrants preservation or imitation, the picturesque landscape of crumbling ruins situated around nature—genuine or ersatz—provokes fetishization. Since as long as they’ve existed, ruins have been ruminated upon by poets and artists, architects and gardeners. Rose Macaulay succinctly summarized the various impulses that lie at the heart of ruin fetishism in the introduction to her comprehensive 1953 work on the subject Pleasure of Ruins:

Since down the ages men have meditated before ruins, rhapsodized before them, mourned pleasurably over their ruination, it is interesting to speculate on the various strands in this complex enjoyment, on how much of it is admiration for the ruin as it was in its prime . . . how much aesthetic pleasure in its present appearance . . . how much is association, historical or literary, what part is played by morbid pleasure in decay, by righteous pleasure in retribution (for so often it is the proud and the bad who have fallen), by mystical pleasure in the destruction of all things mortal and the eternity of God (a common reaction in the Middle Ages), by egotistic satisfaction in surviving—(where now art thou? here still am I)—by masochistic joy in a common destruction.

What separates the fetishization of industrial ruin from efforts like the preservation of Lowell is that the latter’s restoration was a celebration of the history of science and its culture—its contributions to society rather than a masochistic joy in the mill’s failure. With ruin fetishization, there is no desire to restore the decaying structures to their original state, for the pleasure comes from their destruction.

In previous centuries, this fascination with ruin was cloaked in an enduring faith in progress and the supposedly forward march of history—all conjured by dwellers of modernity against the failed societies of yore. In recent times, though, with the immense shocks caused by two World Wars, the space and nuclear arms race, environmental degradation and climate change, our sentiments of romanticism have become post-apocalyptic fantasies of jingoistic cunning and survival in the face of annihilation. At the end of the twentieth century, the fall of communism and the departure of industry created landscapes that screamed “fallen world.” Indeed, for many, including those who were cast into poverty and unemployment, not to mention the tens of thousands that perished from the collapse of the health care system during the fall of the Soviet Union, the world had ended. The fall of modernity, at least as understood by the postmodern turn, was universal—bridging both capitalist and communist societies. As Tong Lam put it in Abandoned Futures, his book about photography and posthumanism: “in a way, we are already post-apocalyptic.”

Just as the landscape painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created scenes of dramatically lit dismantled columns nestled amongst brooding woods, the artists of our time, with their ruin-porn coffee-table books such as Soviet Ghosts and The Ruins of Detroit, offer the world a glossy, anesthetized image of abandoned infrastructure in places ranging from Chernobyl to Detroit. The aesthetic galvanized by early aughts photo books of Cold War science-fiction-tinged Soviet ruins and heavily processed, gritty panoramas of American industrial decay remain popular today through the medium of Instagram, where over forty-two thousand images have been tagged #ruinporn. In its most recent turn, ruin porn has even found its way into wedding photography. The superficiality of such representations has led to criticism. Owen Hatherley described the gritty Instagram peddlers of abandoned Yugoslavian monuments as “concrete clickbait.” Writing in Guernica in 2011, John Patrick Leary criticized the ruin porn of Detroit for its ignorance and exploitative characteristics: “[Ruin porn] aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”

The artists of our time, with their ruin-porn coffee-table books such as Soviet Ghosts and The Ruins of Detroit, offer the world a glossy, anesthetized image of abandoned infrastructure in places ranging from Chernobyl to Detroit.

A consistent theme of the picturesque is the ravaging of the manmade by nature. This theme has fascinated both painters of Greek ruins and photographers of overgrown parking lots alike. By the nineteenth century, the young men of the European “Grand Tour” expanded their sights from Italy and France to focus more on travels to Greece, and even Asia and Egypt, in order to see the historical landscapes left behind and the nature that engulfed them. A similar impulse can be found in the proliferation of ruin tourism, perhaps most notoriously, the tours of the ruins of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl captures the popular imagination for several reasons. To begin with, it conjures, at least symbolically, the Cold War and its attendant nuclear arms race. The site itself has become synonymous with the demise of Soviet communism and the hubris of building a total society. The cultural fascination with the atomic age and the lethal horrors wreaked on both bodies and the environment by the atom bomb and nuclear power, endures in television, film, and policy. The eerie landscape of the town of Pripyat—rapidly abandoned, overgrown, and left to rot in Chernobyl’s wake—has become the default aesthetic for post-apocalyptic and horror films, and it is this cinematic “quality” that drives visitors to brave both the dangers of radiation and the travails of the visa system. These visitors to Chernobyl transform themselves from tourists into brave survivors of the end times, marveling at the growing, irradiated grass.

In a similar vein, landscape parks like the Gas Works Park in Washington State and Emscher Park in the Ruhr region of Germany cultivate the poetic image of industrial modernity being overtaken by nature. These sites preserve some of the structures of industry—whether gas works or steel and mining industries—clean up the pollution, construct aesthetically complementary buildings, and then let the sites, with carefully curated maintenance, appear subsumed by nature. Through curated natural reclamation, the ills and horrors of industrial production are cleansed, erased by the slow gradation of a present into a past. Like the daylight factories and lofts of Soho, the blood and sweat of labor and misery are aestheticized and gentrified, leaving us comforted that such things are mere relics. The visual scars are not permanent. Both parks are tremendously popular.

The Sublime: The Realm of Confrontation

Fascination with industrial disasters and their resulting landscape would be familiar to Edmund Burke, who met Gothic cathedrals and the sea with similar feeling. If the picturesque applies to ruins of the industrial past and their reclamation of nature, the sublime describes those landscapes that still haunt us. Just as humans were inspired to scale the Alps by their sheer mass, the sublimity of the massive factory inspired Marx to write Capital. The landscapes of modernity stirred Godfrey Reggio into filming Koyaanisqatsi. The enormity of the problem of climate change spurred writer William T. Vollmann, in his two-part series Carbon Ideologies, to immerse himself in a mind-numbing mass of statistical minutiae.

Humans have always stared into hell, and before our sheer domination of nature through technology, nature itself offered such perils; one has always been tempted when faced with a large mountain or cliff to imagine the horrific outcome of falling from it. Meanwhile, the danger of industry—from coal-choked nineteenth-century skies to cancer clusters—awes humans who both benefit and are waylaid by its taming. We are often startled by the appearance of a petrochemical plant or oil refinery alongside the highway—its mass of twisting arteries, spewing flames, and towering, eerie, glowing, city-like forms remind us that the way we currently live has consequences. Unlike the steel mills and mining infrastructures that have now exited from the sublime and entered into the realm of the picturesque ruin-park, the petrochemical world is alive, present, and evil. Its landscapes, so poignantly captured in the photographs of Richard Misrach, force us to confront the overwhelming power of economic forces and the disdain for life, both human and nonhuman, inherent in fossil capitalism. That confrontation can come in the form of political action or creative production. In every case, the problems are so vast, the imagery so grotesque, that the attempt to apprehend the scale of power and destruction requires active pursuit. Though fascinating, this is rarely a pleasurable task, unlike the revelatory perusal of picturesque ruin porn.

Yet the sublime gets far stranger when we consider Superfund sites, those hazardous and polluted Tarkovskian zones designated for long-term cleanup by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). For many visitors, Love Canal in Niagara Falls looks like a banal smattering of grass and trees behind a chain-link fence, no different than any city park, and certainly a contrast to the sprawling wasteland of its poisoner, Hooker Chemical Company, a handful of miles away. Unlike images of nature’s reclamation of Chernobyl, there is no righteous, morbid, fetishistic pleasure to be found in Superfund sites whether or not they’re remediated. In a secular world free of mysticism, they are perhaps the closest approximation to what it means for a place to be haunted—by invisible poisons that destabilize communities and the bodies that inhabit them. Remediated sites, with their empty, ersatz nature mottled with the uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification, offer no decaying buildings or strewn-about gas masks to aestheticize. Often, the only titillating feature is a humble sign attached to the fence dutifully informing the observer that what they are looking at is indeed a Superfund project. The rather mundane reality can be underwhelming—we want to see visual symbols of death and decay caused by our misdeeds against the land. It is unfair that poisoned earth so often looks like the perimeter of an airport.

Viewing such images, the sensation of pain and danger is compounded with another feeling we’re coming to know: environmental grief.

Some spectacle can nevertheless be found in the un-remediated sites, which are frozen in time by the photographs of David T. Hanson in his book Waste Land. His photographs, which were taken in the mid-1980s, show landscapes marred by tar-black oil lagoons, rusting structures, mountains of carcinogenic asbestos, and seeping pools whose toxic contents one can only imagine. In the introduction, Hanson makes a biblical analogy, likening what we have done to the earth to the Fall of Man and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and lashes out at America’s public-facing fetishization of “virgin” natural landscapes and the senseless, permanent desecration we have wrought: “Remaining deadly for more than 250,000 years, this legacy of ours will last for 10,000 generations into the future. (To put this in perspective, Homo sapiens in its present form has been on the earth for 60,000 to 100,000 years.)” A similar sentiment can be found in Jason McGrath’s “Apocalypse, or, the Logic of Late Anthropocene Ruins”: “The posthuman gaze at modernist ruins reminds us that, no matter how many new objects we produce, consume, and discard, those objects will in many cases far outlive us and the purposes to which we put them.” Of course, this observation directly contradicts the romantic picturesque notion of the ephemerality of humankind and the inevitable ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust triumph of nature as a cleansing power. Viewing such images, the sensation of pain and danger is compounded with another feeling we’re coming to know: environmental grief. Even so, this grief is nowhere near as powerful as the indescribable bereavement that grips the communities—often poor and nonwhite—who grapple with the fallout of capitalism’s wasteland every single day.

Maybe it’s only in this grief that we reckon honestly with what we have done to the world. There is no future without beauty, no present without a past, and no progress without confrontation. But without these there is hell on earth.

Kate Wagner is an architecture and cultural critic based in Washington, DC. She is the creator of the blog McMansion Hell, which thoroughly examines the phenomenon that is the McMansion, and uses it as a tool for architectural education and humorous cultural remarks. Kate has written about architecture, design, and culture for numerous publications including The Baffler, The Atlantic, CityLab, and The Nation and is an opinions columnist at Curbed.

You Might Also Enjoy

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.