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«Space and Culture Industrial and Human Ruins of Postcommunist Europe Anca Pusca Space and Culture 2010 13: 239 originally ...»

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Space and Culture


Industrial and Human Ruins of Postcommunist Europe

Anca Pusca

Space and Culture 2010 13: 239 originally published online 28 April 2010

DOI: 10.1177/1206331210365255

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of Postcommunist Europe sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1206331210365255 http://sac.sagepub.com Anca Pusca1 Abstract With the former industrial cities of Eastern Europe in ruin—once the pillars of these economies— the attention of both investors and academics has shifted toward capital cities and their new political and economic potential fueled by the rise of new governments and new foreign direct investment.

The failed attempts to privatize many of these former industrial spaces has left entire cities in ruin and despair, forgotten by all but artists and preservationists, who see these spaces not only as aesthetically inspiring but also as charged with redemptive potential. This article puts forward an alternative exploration of the Eastern European postcommunist transition through these ruined spaces, arguing that the aesthetic dimension of change is key to understanding the human impact of the transition. Focusing on two former industrial sites—the Hunedoara Ironworks in Romania and the Vitkovice Ironworks in the Czech Republic—the article seeks to understand the rhetorical and material relationship between these ruined spaces and the workers who once inhabited them as well as the effect that different practices of representation—mainly photography—and preservation have had on these spaces.

Keywords postcommunism, industrial ruins, aesthetics, Romania, Czech Republic Introduction Perhaps the sorest sight for the traveler through the Eastern European countryside is that of industrial ruins, surrounded by cities and communities that now lie in equal ruination. Yet this sight need not always be sore, for abandoned ruins in particular, even industrial ones, have long served as inspiration for artists, writers, and performers who saw in them not only great aesthetic but also redemptive potential for those who still lived within these ruins. Bringing back the human element that is always connected to the otherwise purely material construction, these artistic efforts of representation1 and preservation serve as important explorations of the emotional, rhetorical, and human investment in buildings such as industrial complexes that once Goldsmiths, University of London, London, UK

Corresponding Author:

Anca Pusca, Goldsmiths, University of London, Department of Politics, Warmington Tower, Office 604, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK Email: a.pusca@gold.ac.uk

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were at the heart of entire communities. Using the Hunedoara and Vitkovice ironworks as material metaphors of transitions and change, this article seeks to provide a different take on the

eastern European postcommunist transitions: one that privileges the aesthetic and human dimension of change over the economic and institutional one. The article thus serves a double purpose:

first and foremost, to provide an original exploration of transition and change through an analysis of industrial ruins and aesthetization practices connected to them, and second, to suggest the possibility of such alternative approaches to students and scholars of postcommunist transitions.

Industrial ruins are certainly not your usual entry point into the study of postcommunist transitions. The closest attempts to theorize them in this context have generally come out of the privatization literature that saw these ruins as a direct result of failing economic practices or ingrained corruption (Iatridis & Gary Hopps, 1998; Kirk, 2003; Thirkell, Petkov, & Vickerstaff, 1998), as well as, to a lesser extent, the democratization literature that explored industrial sites as the birth place of the revolutionary ethos (Dahrendorf, 1997; Havel, 1992; Kaldor & Vejvoda, 1999; Tismaneanu, 1991). Outside of the Eastern European transitions and democratization literature, industrial ruins are studied mainly in the urban and cultural studies, political geography, and architectural design literature, where emphasis is often more abstractly placed on construction and destruction practices fueled by particular understandings of the role of place, space, and the city (Boyer, 1988; Graham, 2003; Hayden, 1997). Although there have certainly been attempts to bring in theories of space, place, cities, and everyday life into political theory and more importantly Eastern European studies (Boym, 2001; Buck-Morss, 2000; Heller, 1970), these remain to a large extent marginal. The more recent Aesthetic Turn in International Relations (Bleiker, 2001; Der Derian, 2001; Shapiro, 2006; Weber, 2006) promises to open new avenues for such analyses, although the turn has for the most part been focused on representation practices of war within the West, with a few notable exceptions (Bleiker, 2007;

Moore, 2006).

Despite this poor academic record, at least in the particular context of Eastern Europe, the fascination with (industrial) ruins dates back to Eugene Atget, Andrieu and the photographers of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune (Luxenberg, 1998), Georg Simmel (Simmel, 1959), and Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1982). They have inspired contemporary writers such as Tim Edensor (2005b) to consider the relationship between materiality and human emotionality in the context on industrial ruins, which, as he argues, are particularly imbued with ghosts, memories, and spatial practices of resistance that serve not only as a reminder of the damaging effects of change but also of the continuing capacity of these spaces to challenge the spatial and emotional forms of organization that have followed them.

Industrial ruins in Eastern Europe are seen to represent, perhaps more so than anything else, the hard shell of communism: the last remains of a now past era that are littered around the postcommunist landscapes, often empty and abandoned, stripped of any recyclable material to a point where their previous role becomes unrecognizable even to those who used to work there.

Attempts to revive these sites through privatization have more often than not failed; the success stories having only been able to salvage a very small part of the industrial plants that once stood there. As the debate around these former industrial sites is moving ahead with the recognition that many of them are not salvageable and will remain nothing but empty and decaying shells, attempts to aestheticize and museumize them are opening up new ways of engaging with these spaces by taping into their emotional and redemptive potential: their ability to provide both hope and a new sense of purpose to the communities that surround them. Decay need thus not always symbolize the death of a particular utopia but also the breeding ground of new hopes and utopias.

Downloaded from sac.sagepub.com at Goldsmiths College Library on August 17, 2010 Pusca

Space, Utopia, and Dystopia Space, and the built environment in general, has always been connected to certain notions of human utopia, whether social, economical, or political (Buck-Morss, 1995; Sennett, 1994). Decayed spaces such as industrial ruins can thus, by correspondence, be connected to a certain notion of dystopia. If, as Susan Buck-Morss eloquently explains, spaces and buildings were used to visually inscribe the communist utopia into people’s minds, the ruination of these same spaces can be directly connected to the dismantling of that utopia. Along with the buildings, it was not just an ideology—mass utopia or dreamworld as Buck-Morss calls it—that went crumbling, but also a particular collective and individual identity, a social order that sustained life both physically— through the industrial platforms and the cities surrounding them—as well as emotionally—through the communities and solidarity that emerged within them.

This collapse has often been examined under the concept of disillusionment—understood as the loss and destruction of particular collective illusions2—a concept however that has been rarely connected and explored through the prism of space and spatial destruction. Academics were quick to investigate postcommunist disillusionment through interviews and polling techniques and attempt to theorize it in light of notions of social disruption and economic need, yet most ignored its spatial representations in postcommunist cities: the sudden (physical) collapse of all industries;

the destruction of local government buildings, monuments, and stores; and the emergence of so-called temporary architectures—open markets, make-shift bars, and kiosks—that resembled partial ruins more than construction.

Dystopia—and the collective disillusionment that went along with it—was clearly marked in the physical collapse of cities, especially industrial cities, whose infrastructure relied almost exclusively on the industries that created them in the first place. Thus, heating, water, gas, and electricity distribution began to collapse, resulting not only in further infrastructure decay but also in a continuous decay of the bodies inhabiting the cities. Accidents such as gas explosions—as a result of replacing water heating with gas heating using make-shift secondhand boilers—became more and more common in industrial cities throughout Romania, whereas suicide rates in industrial towns skyrocketed along with unemployment (World Health Organization, 2006).

The ruination of the human body—both physical and psychological—went hand in hand with the ruination of space. As industrial spaces were slowly emptied out—through the theft of all recyclable materials—so were the industrial cities connected to them: this was marked by mass migration toward other cities and sometimes the countryside—which provided at least a means of subsistence through agriculture—as well as migration toward Western Europe—rings of trafficking as well as illegal workers can often be traced back directly to such failed industrial towns (B. Iancu, 2006; C. Iancu, 2007; S. Iancu, 2007; Ioan, 2006). The rate of decay was quick: within 2 or 3 years industrial horizons became unrecognizable, collapsed in a pool of dust, regrets, corruption, and, more important, a sense of self-destruction and futility that directly challenged discourses of progress and positive change.

Just like the utopia of communist industries was built both on the physical space itself as well as on a certain discourse of worker emancipation, the dystopia emerged not only through

the physical destruction of these space but also through the replacement of their symbolism:

the revolutionary symbolism, imbued both by communist propaganda as well as the 1989 revolutions—the majority of which originated on industrial platforms—was quickly replaced with a symbolism of disruption and threat—as industrial cities collapsed and workers rebelled, often disrupting the fragile order of the years immediately following 1989. Ruined industrial spaces thus became a testimony of change, as well as a testimony of the human ruination that followed.

Downloaded from sac.sagepub.com at Goldsmiths College Library on August 17, 2010 242 Space and Culture 13(3) Yet many of these ruins lay, often conveniently, outside of major capital cities and could thus be easily disregarded as nonrepresentative of the general experience of the postcommunist transition: They were the “minority” losers of the transition, while everybody else stood to win. This kind of discourse erased not only the agonizing pain of millions of people but also the extent to which postcommunist change was at least equally founded on destruction and ruins as it was on construction and images of positive change. The erasure of ruins, both physically as well as metaphorically, denied former workers the possibility of positive engagements with their former work spaces and the rest of the population the ability to identify with their plight.

Spaces and Bodies As Richard Sennett argues in Flesh and Stone (1994), the body and the built environment have always lived in close symbiosis throughout history, with notions and understandings and space and construction often being directly derived from knowledge of the body, organs, and blood circulation. The traditional, Roman city, according to Sennett, was designed to function very much like the body: with a center that pumped “blood” into the city and peripheries that served to feed the center. Community life was created through particular designs of the city that brought individuals together in central squares during the day and dispersed them in individual and family accommodations during the night. If the central squares, the heart of the traditional city, generally housed churches and parliaments, modern cities and communist industrial cities in particular, replaced these with industrial platforms: the latter becoming the productive heart of the city, the place where the community gathered under the watchful eye of the state.

Like most modern cities, communist industrial cities were often artificially created from scratch: people and construction and production materials were uprooted and brought in from different parts of the country, appeased by the promise of an urban lifestyle—family flats, cinemas, schools, medical centers—and the security of a stable job for each member of the family.

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