150516_TALK_NOVA/VACCARI CERAMIC FACTORY
As part of a research programme led by Stefano Boeri
called Uncertain States of Europe or USE the text we prepared reads as
"On Tyneside, near Newcastle, a vast territory of abandoned coal mines has unpredictably become through word-of-mouth grass roots development the centre of a system of leisure and sport activities. The re conquering of the mines by the families and off-spring of the miners who had worked in them for many years, occurs as a result of the piecemeal instalment of a series of micro-infrastructures: pigeon-shooting grounds, football fields, small nature reserves and lakes for sport fishing, a free falling and parachuting club and artificial ski slopes, connected by intricately woven bicycle paths along the lines of the old railroad tracks. These transitory and intermittent incursions within the territory of the old coal mines suggest how the ruins and voids of industry could be used to create, even in the absence of a unitary and centralized project from the part of the public administration, a “rescued” territory apt to host temporary and self-organized activities. A new and unforeseen phase of reuse has, in this way, been opened up in the industrial territories of North East England after the decline of the traditional industry and the privatization and eventual closure of the mines."
The case study stated that this form of spontaneous and fragmented repossession represented - in the Ruhr, in the Po valley, in the old French industrial areas - the only efficient strategy for the recuperation of the abandoned industrial regions of Europe. With the benefit of hindsight, how has the perception of the post industrial reclaimed landscape shifted and what new insights can be gained from looking at the study once again so that we may indeed test if this is ‘the only efficient strategy’? To shed light on this question I have looked at the writings of two thinkers on landscape; Robert Macfarlane who reflects on the notion of ‘The Living Mountain’ and Tim Ingold whose thoughts on Mounds places the slag heaps and spoil heaps of the cola mining in a new perspective.
The Living Mountain
In mining the ‘hewer’ is the man at the front of the coal seam whose job it is to dig away at its surface at the coal seam front, digging away rhythmically. There is a muscularity to the work going on wherein the world is seen through and in the body.
Just as then in the depths of the mines or ‘pits’ as they are known locally, and the rough work that went on there so too now the bodies of the young are at risk from the new recreational mountains that have taken hold on the old mounds of waste, slag heaps and pits.
There can be a somewhat macabre fascination with the risk taking and even the dead of these hills; the parachute that didn’t open when skydiving, the boy who fell down a mine shaft when on his bmx or mountain bike. These are mirrored too in the past and there are many more stories of trapped and crushed miners, collapses of tunnels and great efforts to get them out again alive.
Yet if the body is at risk in the mountains, it is also the site of reward, as Robert Macfarlane describes it in his book ‘Landmarks’. The hills and mountains are ‘a fabulous sensorium - and the intellect’s auxiliary’. ‘What can be meant by ‘The intellect’s auxiliary’? In the mountains as well as deep in the mines, a life of the senses is lived so purely that the body may be said to think. “This embodied experience familiar to the phenomenologist, exposes the raw world as not the enchanting object presented to us by the natural sciences, but instead as the endlessly relational whereby we are co-natural with the world and it with us - but we only ever see it fleetingly”, and often when in moments of peril or near death.
One could say the use of the wastes of the coal mining industry is nothing less than a continued belief in bodily thinking, where the recreational landscape, rather than only seen as a thin skin overlain on top of the wastes, is a reminder that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world - its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits. Those continuing this way of engaging with the mounds, through their recreational activities, are finding a way of literally staying ‘in touch’ with living all the way through and along, to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. Macfarlane describes how, if you manage to do this then you come, briefly,…the soil of the earth’ and ‘one has come in’, into the mountain as it were.
In his chapter ‘Round Mounds and Earth Sky’ in his most recent book titled ‘Making’ Tim Ingold draws out a difference between making a foundation and building up a mound, or as he says, if you heap stuff up over a period of time, always adding to the top of the pile and allowing it to settle of its own accord , it will generally form a mound, roughly circular in pan and conical or bell-shaped in elevation.They often result from human activities and the North East of England is scattered with such mounds, the left overs after coal has been sorted out from the aggregate dug out of the ground or the waste from burning coal. These mounds of cinders and ash have come to be known locally as slag heaps.
The mound can be built up because material is added to it continually by letting it fall from above onto it. Seen from a distance as it grows it appears to be a perfectly formed cone, when intact, seen closer up, the surface is alive with movement and shifts. It is anything but an architectural edifice and neither does it form a foundation for any such construction. Whereas the architectural edifice is deemed to be complete, the mound is never finished. It carries on in its mounding as one can always add new materials. Neither can one say with any assurance where the mound ends and the earth on which it rests begins, for the mound is as much ‘of ‘ the earth as ‘on’ it. Indeed its emergent form bears witness to the continual process wherein the accretion of material converts deposition into burial. Today’s deposit becomes tomorrow’s substrate, buried under later sediment. the slag heap, as a mound, is ‘becoming earth.’
Looking back to the USE study it would appear that it is these ‘becomings of earth’ that have been adopted by the self-organizing recreational activities and they have never stopped becoming. They are ,as mounds, continually being shaped and added to, with new layers and surfaces that speed up or slow down one’s movement along and across or above them.
Formed in the process of life, of making, the mound can be regarded as a growth or swelling, manifested as bump on the ground surface. But it is not an edifice erected upon it. Like the mounds of the past, burial mounds and waste heaps from pre-history, the mound is not built but grows. In the burrowing animals, the roots of trees and above all the weather and rain, all shape it on the inside and outside, in the pattern of drainage and run-off. Crucially these organic and hydrological processes continue in the present as they always have done in the past. As such they cannot be classified as monument as are many older examples of mound. They have been adopted in a piecemeal self-organizing way and each mound tells its own story. Can these mounds then, in their carrying on, ever be part of the archaeological record of the past? If we value them for their ability to grow, to keep on mounding as things followed through in their temporal trajectories, from past to present, should we not think then more critically about the meaning of artificially arresting their ageing, about fixing them in their state as they are to be found now?
In the North East of England there is now a tendency to make monuments from the new mounds resulting from ongoing open cast mining. They are designed to be remembered as such and certainty is the aim. Attempts are then made to fix the form and the life of the mound. What USE as a study helped to give insight into was the realisation that rather than creating, through land reclamation, an artefact, it was the ability of the mound to carry on a long history of instability, self-regulation and slow-paced transformative processes, and it was this going-on of the mound that meant that the public private relationship could be sustained.
It is worth looking back at the broader aim of the USE research project. To reclaim uncertainty as a characteristic that is proper to European territorial transformations. a condition that has been historically present at the side of every project that tried to govern the future, use as a study, made it clear that we must learn to map and comprehend locally emergent tendencies for transformation.
“They are energies which can coagulate locally, or flow over geographical space. They are sometimes produced as unforeseen results of institutional policies. or as in the case of Tyneside a series of small scale sectorial and expert rationalities -commercial localisation strategies, infrastructural networks, tourism organisations, which are often completely independent one from the other and from the overall geopolitical system.”
The aim of USE was to bring into evidence these processes observing the friction that the physical territory imposes on them.
In carrying on its mounding the post-industrial land reclamation of North East England is not unlike the mounding described by Tim Ingold.
For me, the reclaimed landscape has been a place of intellectual research testing out ideas on self organization following political uncertainty in a post industrial era. But for those retired miners that have lived through the period of land-reclamation, miners such as William Hudson, Joseph Hope and Bernard Maughan, they are wary of the gaze and intrusion of those who have come back for a brief visit to see their patch. They are to be found walking along and on top of the reclamation mounds of the old collieries, gas works, power stations and ship-yards. Now the industrial hardware has been dismantled they are unsure of the new role they have inherited.
Three young golfers sharing a single putting iron turn away, camera shy. Others are more evidently willing to show off. Free falling 8000 feet a couple of skydivers strapped at the waist, ride wind shears, risking life and limb, before coming down to land in the drop zone. This is the remains of the spoil tip belonging to the old Shotton Colliery, its top now levelled as an improvised airstrip for light aircraft. Another former spoil tip is now re-used as a dry ski slope to a dozen enthusiasts learning the art of Telemark skiing during a Nordic Ski weekend. Tiny fountains of water moisturize the plastic surface reducing friction between ski and ground.
There persists a belief held by the land reclamation operators that in fixing the landscape and placing it ‘on hold’ free from its mounding they can stage the conditions necessary for ensuring the participation and engagement of the inheritors of these sites.
They need only look around them at the diversity of the signs of appropriation that animate the many still abandoned sites. Local lads playing on their bmx bikes, others testing their 4 wheel-drives on the steep and dangerous slopes, ponies tethered to the common ground, trusts and clubs that are taking an interest in the wildlife that is of itself regenerating the ground and in so doing keep alive the mounds in their mounding. It is clear we must seek new means by which to value these self-ascribed roles where the ordinary goings on are forming an open non-bounded public landscape, unfettered by political claims and social segregation.
Like the work you are doing here at Vaccari, restoration does not necessarily mean going back to a former physical state but can be taken, instead, to mean more a continuity of ways of being and doing things that carry on and are passed on from one generation to the next. For those taking responsibility for this it is their task to help in creating an understanding of this act of passing on, if not to give it shape. As the USE research has shown a shift from looking at things as artefacts to one of understanding them in terms of their temporal strands of lines of becoming can help to do this.
The true mark of a long acquaintance with a place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge but things must remain unknown and beyond our imagination, waiting to be explored and upon which light may be shed. So, when looking at new public private relationships for the Vaccari factory, as elsewhere, it may not be to the masterplan that we must look to create, but to the gaps of uncertainty that may emerge allowing for local initiatives to be served by private investment, in order to sustain restoration and reclamation.
With thanks to Lara Conte at Progetto NOVA for asking me to give the talk at the old Vaccari ceramic factory.
Also my thanks are to Stefano Boeri, John Palmesino and all those who were part of the USE work.