Michael Granzow – Review Essay: Industrial Ruins and Ruination

Ruination has emerged as a fashionable concept in recent discussions of post-industrial decline. Whereas ruins refers to the actual material traces of a bygone era, ruination incorporates such traces with processes, experiences and perceptions that continue into the present. Recent studies of ruination tend to focus on modern ruins – those ruins that have emerged as part of relatively recent processes of deindustrialization and are most often associated with a capitalist mode of production. In this short review essay, I assess Alice Mah’s (2012) book Industrial Ruination, Community and Place. After an overview of the text, I briefly compare it with Tim Edensor’s (2005) influential work, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality.

In Industrial Ruination, Community and Place Mah states, “industrial ruins are never static objects, but are in a constant state of change across time and space” (p. 3). Industrial Ruination is a key text in the recent turn towards the study of everyday life in contexts of deindustrialization. Situating her research within a literature exploring the ongoing transition from industrial to post-industrial economies, Mah embarks on a comparative analysis of three post-industrial contexts: Niagara Falls, Canada/USA; Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom; and Ivanovo, Russia. Each of these cities has been variously shaped by the disappearance or dissolving of capital and the loss of local jobs and livelihoods. Mah challenges the notion that such places are merely the unfortunate debris of the gales of creative destruction (Schumpeter, 1942) or the vagaries of uneven development. This is accomplished through a framing of industrial ruination as a lived process that continues in the present and has important implications for the future.

The introduction to Industrial Ruination outlines the three frames of analysis that underlie Mah’s theoretical framework: “industrial ruination,” “landscape and place” and “legacies.” Drawing on the work of Sharon Zukin, Mah proposes landscapes as socially produced spaces rather than natural settings of social action: “I define landscapes as an ensemble of material and social practices, and as symbolic representations of these practices” (p. 12). “Legaciesis introduced to guard against an overly spatial analysis, emphasizing important temporal elements of ruination. More specifically, “[l]egacies of ruination and decline are related to inheritance, historical traces, and generational change: the diffuse social economic, cultural, psychological, and environmental impacts of industrial and urban decline on people and places” (p. 13). Within her discussion of legacies Mah navigates theories of collective or social memory, carving out her own concept of “living memory,” defined as “people’s present-day memories of a shared past, as opposed to official memory or collective memory.” Mah also connects “legacies” to the residual negative health effects of industrial work and post-industrial decline. The concepts theorized and elucidated by Mah in the introduction are employed both separately and together throughout the remainder of the book, channeling industrial decline through the stories and lives of the people who continue to live amongst industrial ruins.

Part one of Industrial Ruination is comprised of the three case studies that make up the core of Mah’s empirical analysis. In chapters on Niagara Falls, Newcastle Upon Tyne and Ivanovo Mah begins to elucidate her core idea of “industrial ruination as a lived process,” finding similarities but also notable differences between each social, political, economic and geographical context.

In her analysis of the adjacent cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York, Mah identifies common themes of “ambivalent nostalgia” and “traumatic memory.” However, even these twin border cities, both characterized by industrial decline and toxic contamination, exhibited nuances that can in part be attributed to differences in national policy between the US and Canada. Mah points us to Steven High’s (2003) book Industrial Sunset, which considers the positive role of Canadian nationalism in mitigating the negative effects of rust belt deindustrialization in the 1970s and 80s. In line with High’s study, Mah found the impacts of deindustrialization and toxic contamination to be more pronounced and visible on the US side of the border.

In chapter 3 Mah turns to memory and uncertainty in Walker, Newcastle upon Tyne. A paradigmatic example of a place of ruination caught between an industrial past of shipbuilding and a hazy post-industrial future, Walker is defined by its “lack of a clear break with the industrial past” (p. 73). The prolonged decline of shipbuilding and the uncertainty of socio-economic futures as reflected in the living memories of Walker residents seem at once to accept and resist the prospect of a post-industrial future.

In her final and most compelling case study, Mah visits the post-soviet industrial textile city of Ivanovo, or the “Russian Manchester.” Ivanovo stands out from Mah’s other case studies in the degree and ubiquity of ruin, as well as its unique socio-political context. In Mahs words, “the case of Ivanovo…makes notions of market-driven deindustrialization problematic” (p. 100). It is not the vagaries of creative destruction that account for Ivanovo’s decline, but rather the collapse of the Soviet Union and the uneasy transition from communism to global capitalism. Moreover, in contrast to Niagara Falls and Walker, residents of Ivanovo continued to invest in the prospect of a return to the industrial production of textiles.

kilmahew altar
Ruins of Kilmahew altar  Photo: R. Shields CC BY-NC 4.0

The second half of Industrial Ruination presents conceptual themes that emerged through a comparative analysis of the three case studies. The section begins with a consideration of the possibilities and challenges of reading landscapes of ruination. Given that the case studies represent only brief snapshots of ruination, the question arises: How is it possible to extrapolate meaning from such fleeting and potentially anomalous moments? It is no straightforward question, and, as Mah notes, there has been little precedent in terms of how to actually go about rigorous spatial analysis. Mah chooses a multi-method approach, drawing on a combination of visual, spatial and mobile methods. Guided by intuition and aware of the dangers of slipping into voyeurism, she connects derelict landscapes with their wider historical and social contexts, while at the same time emphasizing their connection with the lived experience of residents. Through her reading of the selected landscapes, Mah identified geographies of exclusion, pointing to the ways that local processes of ruination often entail elements of social exclusion.

In Chapters 6 and 7 Mah explores “devastation, but also home” and “imagining change and reinventing place” as themes that cut across all three case studies. The former draws on the concept of “place attachment” to understand residents’ understanding of home in relation to proximal sites of industrial ruination and toxic contamination. The latter explores the importance of socio-spatial imaginaries in shaping the future of places within a context of ruination.

Industrial Ruination is an insightful and well-researched account of the lived experiences of post-industrial transformation in three interesting and unique contexts. Considered together, Mah’s case studies work to complicate deterministic views of places of deindustrialization as little more than anachronistic waste-sites. Through a theoretical framework of “industrial ruination as a lived process,” the author opens up conversations around economic decline and post-industrial transitions, highlighting the ways in which these processes are experienced differently across socio-political and geographical contexts. Moreover, Mah’s research undermines conventional understandings of industrial ruination as invariably the result of capital’s insatiable need for cheaper inputs. While capital flight is undoubtedly a major factor in the ruination of old industrial centres, Mah’s analysis suggest that there is no one size fits all explanation for socio-spatial decline, even within capitalism, let alone between divergent political economic contexts (i.e. capitalism and post-socialism). In emphasizing the contextual specificity of industrial ruination, Mah challenges homogenous and overly prescriptive visions of post-industrial futures.

Bridging binaries of structure and agency, Mah builds on Zukin’s idea of the “inner landscape of creative destruction” in order to flesh out the legacies of industrial decline. Through the concepts of “legacies” and “living memory” Mah disrupts linear understandings of time that neatly distinguish past, present and future. Each of the case studies illustrates the intimate link between industrial pasts, present day experiences and possible futures. Indeed, Industrial Ruination is in large part a book about (re)imagining the future in contexts of decline. Mah argues that top-down, homogeneous arts- and culture-led revitalization initiatives such as those heralded by “creative cities” boosters often prove inadequate in places ill-suited for smooth integration into dominant urban redevelopment regimes. While Mah emphasizes the importance of imaginaries in reinventing place, she is clear about the need for “diverse and contradictory” (p. 194) imaginaries rooted in particular place-identities and legacies. As Mah puts it, “popular imaginations of old industrial places are often based on prejudices and stereotypes which have little to do with present lived experiences and social realities” (p. 176).

Throughout Industrial Ruination Mah grapples with the difficulties of avoiding an outside perspective – an objectifying view which positions the subject of research as spectacle. This is particularly challenging when confronted with landscapes of ruin so heavily coded as otherworldly and dystopian fantasy places. It is against such a perspective that Mah emphasizes her central idea of “ruination as lived process.” Mah consciously avoids overly abstract considerations of ruins as mere symbols or aesthetic artefacts.

shields Kilmahew altar
St. Peters Kilmahew Altar – R. Shields CC BY-NC 4.0

Mah’s text holds much in common with Tim Edensor’s (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, a touchstone for scholars interested in the relationship between contemporary ruins and cities. Mah’s Industrial Ruination and Edensor’s Industrial Ruins draw on overlapping theoretical literatures to analyze the meaning of industrial ruins within urban contexts. Both authors are interested in “wasted spaces” and are weary of overly dystopic visions of ruins. For Mah and Edensor, industrial ruins are not merely spectres of past failures, but are salient to the present moment, and worthy of serious study. It is worth taking a moment to visit Edensor’s compelling reflections on industrial ruins in order to better situate Mah’s most important contribution to discussions of industrial ruins and ruination.

In Industrial Ruins, Edensor argues that ruins are important sites of difference and resistance that provide relief from the over-prescribed spaces of the capitalist city. Beyond a consideration of ruins as an allegory for the questioning of the capitalist myth of unending progress (see Benjamin, 2000), Edensor explores the ways ruins are appropriated by humans and non-humans (i.e. plants and animals) alike. Existing on the margins of urban surveillance and regulatory regimes, industrial ruins afford opportunities for underground and subversive activities to take place. As examples, Edensor notes how ruins provide shelter for homeless people, venues for impromptu raves, opportunities for play and artistic expression, as well as emergent urban habitats for plants and animals. These examples of contemporary uses of ruins lay the foundation for Edensor’s celebration of ruins as “other” spaces of disorder.

On more than one occasion Edensor cites the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s maxim, “the most important thing is to multiply the readings of the city” (1996, p. 159). Indeed, Edensor’s work is closely aligned with Lefebvre’s spatial-political project as well as that of the Situationists. Underlying Edensor’s protracted celebration of ruins is a familiar neo-Marxist critique of capitalism and its hyper-ordering socio-spatial effects. Edensor conceives of industrial ruins as a tear in the seamless fabric of capitalism – an interruption in “abstract space” (Lefebvre, 1991) affording an opportunity to reflect upon dominant regimes of regulation and control, and perhaps even hint at “ways out.”

Published seven years after Edensor’s book, Mah’s Industrial Ruination continues the project of ruin study, but from an angle often at odds with Edensor’s approach. It is clear that Mah is familiar with Edensor’s book. Indeed, there are several moments where she explicitly references Industrial Ruins. In a section on “reading landscapes of industrial ruination” Mah herself points to a major difference between her work and that of Edensor:

“Tim Edensor (2005) implores us to think about industrial ruins without focusing on their particular geographical locations, to experience their universal qualities. My research was concerned with the opposite: drawing connections between landscapes of industrial ruination and their specific contexts and geographies” (p. 134).

This difference is worth expanding upon. Edensor considers industrial ruins as a kind of transcendent archetype that exists in the context of a largely abstracted capitalism. Although actual existing waste-sites are considered to be both radically contingent and interpretively flexible, they are also presented as somewhat unified – bound together in their difference against the ordered spaces of the city. Whereas Edensor implores us to consider ruins unobscured by colloquial meanings, Mah sees such meanings as fundamental to any analysis of ruins. Indeed, Mah’s case studies are thoughtfully selected to explore the ways in which processes of industrial ruination are experienced differently across geographical and socio-political space. Her decision to include a post-Soviet example of ruination provides a particularly interesting counterpoint to Edensor’s capitalist-centric discussion. In relying on place-based ethnographic studies that focus on the everyday lives of people living within contexts of ruination, Mah rebukes overly cultural and aestheticized views of ruins, including the one outlined by Edensor. Although Edensor’s analysis clearly rejects the trope of the “dystopic sublime,” his poetic musings and recurrent forays into cultural theory work to reproduce a romanticized picture of ruins.

Both Edensor’s and Mah’s works constitute notable contributions to the still fledgling area of ruin studies in the social sciences. Where the former constitutes a highly literate and imaginative look at the disruptive and subversive potential of industrial ruins from a cultural theory perspective, the latter provides a more sociological analysis of ruins as a constituent part of people’s everyday lives. Drawing on an extensive body of post-modern cultural and geographical theory, Edensor presents a highly poetic account of ruins as spaces worthy of serious scholarly attention. However, by severing his analysis from the messiness of local context and lived experiences, he unwittingly produces a smooth and abstracted vision of ruins as inherently subversive. Mah’s granular and highly contextualized analysis of ruination illuminates the shortcomings of deterministic accounts of industrial ruins as the debris of the shift to post-industrial economies. By pointing to a diversity of experiences of ruination across socio-political contexts, Mah highlights the inadequacy of one-size-fits-all solutions to communities dealing with socio-economic decline. For Mah, the future of these places is not already determined by an overarching logic of uneven development. The future of the places and the people who inhabit them is contingent, and will vary depending on many intersecting forces. Despite Mah’s distaste for overly cultural and aestheticized analyses of ruins, she does not refute the importance of utopic thinking in imagining future trajectories of place. Her crucial point is that such utopic imaginings should not be overly abstracted from the specificities of local context.

Regarding the possibilities of future socio-spatial trajectories, Mah arguably underplays the role of governance and policy. Apart from a few minor “policy insights,” she says little about how people’s lived experiences of industrial ruination might be incorporated into policy frameworks. A number of questions come to mind in reading Industrial Ruination. For example, how might ad hoc policy frameworks help to mediate processes of ruination and economic transition? What kind of novel socio-spatial frameworks are available for rethinking the future of communities faced with economic decline? Pointing out Mah’s inadequate attention to the implications of her findings for policy is less a criticism of her analysis, than a recognition of a point of departure for further research. Indeed, this signals exciting opportunities for future research interested in exploring the potential of policy frameworks in assuaging the negative effects of shifting economies on communities in decline. 

Michael Granzow

Michael is a PhD Student at the University of Alberta. He can be reached by e-mail at granzow@ualberta.ca


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Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: Spaces, aesthetics and materiality. Oxford: Berg.

Edensor, T. (2001). Haunting in the Ruins: Matter and Immateriality. Space and Culture, 1(11/12), 42-51.

Edensor, T. (2005). The ghosts of industrial ruins: Ordering and disordering memory in excessive space. Environment and Planning D, 23, 829-849.

Edensor, T. (2005). Waste matter – the debris of industrial ruins and the disordering of the material world: the materialities of industrial ruins, Journal of Material Culture, 10(3), 311-332.

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Mah, A. (2012). Industrial ruination, community, and place. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mah, A. (2010). Memory, uncertainty and industrial ruination: Walker riverside, Newcastle upon Tyne. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34(2), 398-413.

Schumpeter, J.A. (1942). Capitalism, socialism, and democracy. New York: Harper & Bros.