ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Ruined bodies and aging buildings: architecture, oblivion, decay

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 2
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Laura Major (University of Edinburgh) email
Alberto Goyena (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro / University of Aberdeen) email
Norman Prell (University of Aberdeen) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel links current debates around materials and their properties with studies of the ruin, decay or restoration of buildings and bodies, in order to critically consider enduring Enlightenment notions of time, change and duration.

Long Abstract

In architecture, the Enlightenment brought not only a particular style, but a great redefinition of ideas around building, 'un-building', and inhabiting. Together with a belief in reason as a means to ensure human progress, the political climate of the 18th Century entailed a profound questioning of established public architecture, including houses, markets, roads and monuments. This came about as a result of, and in tangent to, changing understandings of the 'material world' and human bodies. Numerous demolitions took place as a new order of things was forged, through which to live and age as well as remember and forget.

This panel seeks to examine the continuing impact of those changes, as they move through a contemporary world, particularly as the preservation and conservation of material remains of the past has gained increasing salience, and as the scholarly study of these politically contingent processes, (heritage studies, for instance) have burgeoned.

Situating these connected processes within current debates around materials and their properties, we particularly welcome papers which focus on buildings and bodies in a condition of ruin, decay or restoration, as well as contributions which look more broadly at the relations between architecture and the human or non-human body-mind, in order to critically consider enduring Enlightenment notions of time, change and duration which continue to be taken for granted.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Cracks in Enlightenment certainties: dealing with seismic forces of ruination in Van (Turkey)

Author: Marlene Schäfers (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper argues that earthquakes, through their forces of ruination, can cause (literal) cracks in enlightenment certainties about the passivity of material objects, and investigates how residents may seek to reestablish an attitude of modernist superiority over the materialities surrounding them.

Long Abstract

On 23 October 2011 the city of Van (Turkey) was hit by a devastating earthquake, which not only killed over 600 people and left thousands injured but also destroyed large parts of the city's material fabric. In a matter of seconds, the city was turned from a dusty, booming border town into a depopulated, ruined settlement. Cracks came to mark the walls of nearly every building, rubble to pile the streets.

This paper argues that Van's sudden ruination by seismic forces literally shook modernist certainties about the passive quality of material objects and forcefully reminded inhabitants of the active potentialities inherent in seemingly inert matter. Based on ethnographic material I seek to show how this blow to enlightenment certainties made Van's residents develop an outright suspicious attitude towards the built environment and how notions of the uncanny came to dominate their relations with ruined buildings.

The paper moreover argues that this ethnographic situation can be taken to mirror recent trends in anthropological theory in their similar "suspicion" towards enlightenment notions of human superiority over non-human objects (e.g. Gell, Ingold, Latour, Miller). By focusing on the ways in which Van's inhabitants sought to cover up the cracks and repair damaged certainties during the post-earthquake period, however, this paper proposes that what easily goes missing in such anthropological attempts at restoring agency to objects is an account of how our interlocutors might well seek to maintain and reestablish an attitude of modernist superiority over the materialities that surround them.

Deliberate debris: strategies of spacial repulsion in a Beirut neighborhood

Author: Samar Kanafani (University of Manchester, UK)  email


This paper attests to the ways a neoliberal urban regime co-mingles with religious identity in the socio-political configuration of a post-colonial Arab city, where the deliberate ruination of urban properties by their owners serves to repel a religious other deemed encroaching and unwanted.

Long Abstract

Religious sectarian politics and the liberal economy, which are foundational to Lebanon as a nation-state, have made for a patchy influence of Western Enlightenment philosophy in Lebanese political and social affairs. In this troubled post-colonial setting, aspirations for modernity co-mingle with religious tradition in both social and spacial configuration. A neoliberal urbanization regime regulates construction and rationalizes land acquisition and development. Meanwhile, rival religious sects deploy this regime to compete over property, while an increasingly clamorous though powerless heritage preservation discourse seeks to salvage "traditional" houses and neighborhoods from the oblivion urban transformation produces.

Based on ethnographic research among Sunni Muslim inhabitants and owners of near-derelict houses in a lower-income mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in Beirut, this paper examines the ways deliberate neglect of ruined domestic spaces are deployed as strategies for repelling potential occupation by an unwanted Shiite Muslim other. I argue that empty flats and sections of houses left piled with clutter and dust-coated debris are not the product of abandonment but an instrumental act of repulsion: not only making them uninhabited, but conveniently uninhabitable.

Contrary to the well-meaning vision of local heritage preservationism, the material priorities (aesthetic and economic) of owners of "traditional" properties are not an investment in national heritage writ large in the vacuous arena of a fragmented nation-state. It is for the preservation of family inheritance and the kinship group enfolded in its religious sect, struggling to maintain socio-political ground in the heavily contested capital.

Bodies, bricks and Rwandan memorial architecture: an analysis of the merging of architectures of brick building and transformed bodies of the dead in the creation of the Rwandan genocide memorial

Author: Laura Major (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper considers the Rwandan genocide memorial as a structure given meaning by the merging of the architectures of brick building and of bodies of the dead. Understanding how these things work together to produce the memorial is important in understanding why and for whom this form is pursued.

Long Abstract

The twenty years that have passed since the Rwandan genocide have been populated by an intense gathering together and "conserving" of the histories of the genocide. This paper concerns itself with a particular architectural aspect of this conservation process, focusing on memorial crypts containing bones of the dead. These bones, in their tens of thousands, are frequently stacked on shelving and in coffins in piles divided by type. The intention is that the genocide be writ upon them despite the little narrative linkage between these mortal remains and the lives of the deceased. This act of inscription is especially intriguing because it requires a determined act of destruction and of recreation of the corpse take place prior to interment. Through exhumation, disarticulation and depersonalisation these collectives offer a new kind of body in both material form and presence. Discussion will examine this process and the space of the memorial itself as a structure whose meaning is defined by a merging between inanimate brick and a reanimate dead. Understanding how these things work together to produce the memorial is important in understanding why these ends are pursued and for whom they are significant.

Negotiating decay: exploring the temporal and material paradoxes of heritage conservation

Authors: Sian Jones (University of Manchester)  email
Thomas Yarrow (Durham University)  email


This paper explores the temporal and material paradoxes of heritage conservation. It is shown to be a complex process involving diverse temporalities of practice and competing visions of the object of conservation ‘in’ and ‘out’ of history.

Long Abstract

The modern conservation movement emerged in response to new ways of relating to the past in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whilst, significant destruction of historic landscapes produced a desire to secure and even restore material remains, the Romantic Movement led to a preoccupation with ruination, decay, and the historic monument as temporal 'witness'. In Britain, enthusiastic restoration in the first half of the nineteenth century was replaced by an ethos of 'preservation as found', which became the foundation of conventional conservation philosophy. However, the relationship between material remains and temporal processes of change and decay remain a fundamental problem.

In this paper, we explore how the paradox of securing the past whilst changing it is dealt with in conservation practice. Drawing on collaborative ethnographic research with Historic Scotland, we argue that conservation is a complex process in which practitioners grapple with the stability and instability of the objects they work with. Conservation principles pre-suppose an ontology of monuments and buildings as stable unified objects of intrinsic value. However, unruly forces of erosion and deterioration, as well as complex histories of modification and former campaigns of conservation, provide sources of instability and disorder that practitioners are acutely aware of. Relations between past and present thus emerge as a central problem in regard to both the objects of conservation and the practices surrounding them. We examine how diverse temporalities of practice are negotiated, and show how competing visions of the object of conservation 'in' and 'out' of history co-exist.

A pilgrimage to Ipswich

Author: Richard Irvine (University of Cambridge)  email


What would it mean to be on pilgrimage to Ipswich in the 21st century? Taking a major medieval pilgrimage destination as my focus, I explore the impact of ideals of progress, reflecting on urban continuity after attempts to change the order of things have succumbed to decay and abandonment.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the making, unmaking, and remaking of urban space in the context of different ideals of progress. The primary historic and ethnographic focus will be the town of Ipswich, England. While Ipswich was the site of substantial civic and commercial redevelopment in the 1960s, by the 1970s much of this redevelopment had been abandoned and demolished. Such urban transformations were only a small part of a much broader plans to make Ipswich a 'new town' - plans that never saw light of day. The town is therefore an interesting case study allowing us to see how attempts to change the order of things succumb to decay and abandonment. Yet it also is an interesting place to ask questions about historic continuity and memory. I will examine the nature of remembrance and forgetting by asking a particular question about the legacy of an earlier programme of progress: In the Middle Ages, Ipswich was a notable East Anglian pilgrimage centre, its Marian shrine second in appeal only to Walsingham. In the context of the disenchantment and rationalisation of Ipswich's urban space in the centuries following the Reformation, what characteristics of Ipswich's sacred identity as a pilgrimage site can be said to remain - beyond a plaque on the wall admist the shops? What would it even mean to be on pilgrimage to Ipswich in the 21st century?

Lord Glasgow gets a Brazilian: graffiti as a restoration procedure for historic buildings

Author: Alberto Goyena (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro / University of Aberdeen)  email


Though frequently considered as merely brutal, the task of destroying or vandalizing a national “heritage” is here explored in its material and symbolic complexity. This paper brings considerations of an anthropological research conducted on the grounds of a Scottish medieval castle, considering its most recent and polemic interventions.

Long Abstract

In 2007, a Scottish aristocrat commissioned four Brazilian street artists to spray graffiti on the walls of his private residence: a listed medieval castle. The polemic result has given rise to aesthetic and legal discomfort among local heritage institutes, as well as triggered debates regarding restoration procedures, meanings and purposes of ancient castles in contemporary Great Britain.

On the one hand, this paper looks at the controversies involving the act of graffiting a protected architectural structure. Although often regarded as “vandalism”, the intervention is here studied through what it can tell us about the definitions and expectations deposited on buildings that ought to represent a certain memory and authenticity. On the other hand, the paper deals more specifically with the actual images depicted on the castle’s façade. The presence, in the Scottish west coast countryside, of Amerindian mythical characters and northeastern oneiric figures among other elements of Brazilian urban art provides an opportunity to question some established relations between the national heritage and a castle’s particular biography.

'Ana al Hay': living with the ruins of modernity on the margins of Casablanca

Author: Cristiana Strava (SOAS, University of London)  email


This paper investigates the intimate link between a mythical neighborhood of Casablanca and its inhabitants through a phenomenological approach that brings together humans and buildings, by exploring the mutual traumas through which lives and the spaces in which they unfold become textured.

Long Abstract

Built on the gaping holes of a colonial era quarry, Hay Mohammadi, formerly Carriere Centrale, has become a mythical neighborhood in the history of Morocco.

Home to North Africa's oldest and largest slum still in existence today, Hay Mohammadi served as a laboratory for experimentation with social housing at the height of the modernist movement.

Sixty years later these visionary projects stand as monuments to ruin and decay, victims of a toxic blend of political and economic circumstances. Home to a dynamic labor union scene that played a crucial role in the anti-colonial struggle, the neighborhood fell into disfavor during the reign of King Hassan II whose response to protest and contestation was machine gun fire and the creation of an infamous torture prison in the neighborhood. While an official reconciliation process is underway, everyday lives continue to be touched by the more banal wounds of poverty, pollution and decrepit living spaces. My paper will show that as industry and buildings fell into oblivion, workers and their families were also ruined by factory accidents, cancer, asthma, and unsanitary living conditions, which they see as a reversal of a once promising modernity.

Based on fifteen months of fieldwork that combine a variety of sensorial and multi-media methodologies, this paper will present an experiential account of how everyday lives and the spaces in which they unfold are enmeshed in an intimate web of historical, material and sensorial aspects which exist in tension with current artistic and heritage efforts centered on the neighborhood.

The politics of decay: materiality and regeneration in a Nairobi council estate

Author: Constance Smith (University of Manchester)  email


Taking decay as a political as well as material process, this paper interrogates the affective properties of decaying architecture in a Nairobi council estate. Threatened with demolition, its materiality generates practices of history-making which provoke alternative visions of urban regeneration.

Long Abstract

Urban decay is regarded as anathema to the modern city, a material and social failure undermining the linear upward trajectory of human progress.Yet this simple narrative of decline belies the powerful affect of decaying architecture for generating not only practices of relating to the past but ways of imagining and constructing the future.

This paper explores the politics of decay in Kaloleni, a colonial-era council estate in Nairobi. Designed as a model suburb for elite Africans, it was subsequently an important site of nationalist politics. But the estate has gradually been neglected: successful inhabitants have moved elsewhere, the municipal council no longer fulfils its maintenance duties. Neat paths have crumbled to dust, tiled roofs have fallen in, families are getting poorer. In the minds of today's residents, this material and economic decay is far from natural or inevitable. Amid an official rhetoric of 'Vision 2030' and the reinvention of Nairobi as a 'world-class metropolis', Kaloleni is awash with rumours of demolition and redevelopment.Tenants suspect the council of deliberate neglect in order to condemn the estate and evict them.

Though threatened with the estate's material and social obliteration, residents do not reject redevelopment outright. Instead of forcing the developers out, they hope to force their way into the process: to be participants not bystanders, disrupting official visions of urban decay and regeneration. Etched with personal and political histories, the deteriorating architecture itself generates new practices of historymaking, provoking alternative narratives of tenancy rights and national heritage.

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The language of material ruin in the former Gulag periphery of Magadan

Author: Norman Prell (University of Aberdeen)  email


The isolated region of Magadan has experienced the end of the Soviet Union as a historic breakdown, separating the region’s heroic construction in the past from its chaotic post-Soviet decline. This paper tries to understand the experience of historical collapse through the language of material ruin.

Long Abstract

After the discovery of gold at the upper Kolyma River in the late 1920s, the isolated region of Magadan (Northeast Russia) developed into one of the country's enormous industrial construction sites that had initially been planned under the rule of Joseph Stalin. A crucial part of the discourse of the region's heroic construction has evolved around the famous Kolyma Road, the region's most important industrial infrastructure that had originally been built by Gulag prisoners under Stalin. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the local narrative of construction suddenly started to lose its legitimacy. Since then the region has continuously suffered from economic decline and emigration, most visible in the abandoned settlements and ruined industries along the Kolyma Road.

In this paper I want to explore the experience of historical collapse with regard to the effects of a cultural landscape that had been eagerly built up over several decades only to fall back into a kind of abrupt and enigmatic ruin that often took people by surprise while leaving them without historical agency. Concentrating on the construction and destruction of the Kolyma Road itself, I examine the ways in which temporal narrative changes under the effect of sudden material ruin. In particular, I want to show how the post-Soviet road, considering its material and non-material properties, relates to an interpretative space that provides well for a critique of the overwhelming narrative of development and progress.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.