AMERICAN RUINS

American ruins1.jpg

In our latest photo essay, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre travelled across America taking photos of abandoned buildings. Edward Carr finds an unlikely beauty in their dilapidation...

Abandoned buildings are in mourning. They grieve for the lives that their damp and empty rooms have left behind. In their prime, these monumental breakers, lead works and turbine halls presented a public face to the world. They were the arena where men and women toiled and enterprise ended in success or failure. Now they are shut away, left to mourn in silence.

The columns and pilasters of these immense buildings recall a more assertive past. In that foreign country, powered by coal and steam, the 20th century was young and dynamic. The future held an intoxicating vision of progress. Now the future has arrived and that promise has been left strewn across the tarmac, mingled with broken glass, rusting iron and the encroaching scrub of the woods.
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the photographers who took these pictures (slideshow left), have built their professional lives on ruins. Both born in the 1980s, they started photographing derelict buildings in the outskirts of Paris, where they grew up. Since then they have shot America’s abandoned cinemas and its empty office blocks. At first each had his own camera; now they use just one. “Often”, Marchand says, “we cannot remember who took which shot.”

Marchand and Meffre tend to show their pictures in Europe but take them in America—especially Detroit, the metropolis created by the automobile in the first half of the last century. But, they point out, the car also sucked the life out of downtown Detroit, which has lost more than half its population since its zenith in the 1950s. The ensuing decay is the subject of their book, “The Ruins of Detroit” (2010).

In 2005 they began to take pictures of the rusting hulks of American industrial heritage, much of it, like these buildings, in the north-eastern states. They were drawn by the towering scale of what they found. “We felt like archaeologists in temples,” says Meffre. “Even though the buildings are not religious, they express a belief in the future and in the system. They are their cathedrals. They have a sort of naivety, a dream, an awareness of destiny that is a bit like religious belief.”

The most elegant building, the Peters Cartridge Factory in Ohio, was built in 1916. The tower, with a P emblazoned at the crown, was for dropping molten lead from on high into water to solidify into shot for the war raging in Europe.

Richmond power station, built in 1925 on the banks of the Delaware at Port Richmond, Pennsylvania, supplied electricity to Philadelphia. The turbine hall is said to have been modelled on Roman baths. Electricity was a novelty then, and some local historians speculate that the architect chose a monumental style to convince the people of Philly that this new invention was here to stay. Others argue that it was to see off the threat that the Philadelphia Electric Company might be nationalised.

The youngest of these buildings is the Huber Coal Breaker, built in 1938 in Ashley, Pennsylvania, to crush the coal from the nearby anthracite mine. The breaker is designed to separate out impurities of slate and stone and to grade the coal from chunky steam coal for boilers, right down to pea coal for stoves. It was abandoned in 1976.

How did that happen? With a whimper. The buildings were commissioned in a fanfare of progress but, at the end, their owners crept out of them. In the instrument room of the Richmond power station, paper litters the floor. In the loading tower, the operator’s seat is waiting.

All these buildings passed through a half-life. The three power stations featured here served as the backdrop to Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi film “Twelve Monkeys”. After the Peters factory stopped making ammunition, it was a store for RCA’s vinyl records and, later, booze. All the while, the wilderness has been creeping up. Unless people step in, it will take over and something beautiful will be lost.

When we think of progress we like to look forward. The German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin considered what you see when you look back. Inspired by the painting of Paul Klee, Benjamin described his vision of the Angel of History: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Edward Carr is editorial director of Intelligent Life and foreign editor of The Economist