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Rough cut: when abandoned buildings meet architects

Eleanor Young

Eleanor Young on her uncomfortable relationship with ruins and suppressing the urge for inhabitation

The jagged edges of an abandoned pillbox by the River Frome in Somerset.
The jagged edges of an abandoned pillbox by the River Frome in Somerset. Credit: Neil Owen

Ruins have a jagged edge for me. The pricked fingers from picking aside brambles and barbed wire on the scramble in, pocked concrete expanses, the scrapes of clambering through broken boards, skirting dark slurry puddles and rusty machinery.

I trespassed once or twice to a nearby abandoned farm building as a child, the fear of the scurrying unknown and of a red-faced, shouting farmer far outweighing the more obvious dangers. It was my kind of wild. My imagination and a hundred stories told me that it was also a refuge. Here on a pallet and some straw you could open your back pack and unfold a thin blanket, arrange your torch on a ledge and savour a small square of chocolate. I would map it out. Inhabit it.

I still do.

I squeeze through the protected, low, double entrance of a riverside pillbox – a remnant of the strategic stop lines built in the Second World War across southern England to resist invasion. It heavy walls are punctured by embrasures. I peer out at the tiny framed landscapes that luckily escaped the fate of ground combat. The low-level whiff of urine and scattered drinks cans spells out what it is used for now. And I think of hiding here with a thermos in a storm, or clearing it out and dragging in old mattresses to make a den. There might even be cushions eventually.

In seeking shelter, or embarking on a refit, we change the raw nature of the ruin, and smooth those jagged edges’

It is a strange tension between domesticising a space and appreciating it for what it is. In seeking shelter, or embarking on a refit, we change the raw nature of the ruin, we inevitably smooth those jagged edges. Thinker, teacher and writer Robert Harbison travelled to folk museums and found the fabric of recovered, rebuilt buildings at odds with an appreciation of age. ‘The slippage of its stones was the building’s antiquity, that has been taken away,’ he wrote in his book Ruins and Fragments. He – and the Tomb Raider game – were more taken with the wilderness crawling over the ancient temple of Ta Prohm in Cambodia than the other more archaeologically tidied up and  protected temples of Angkor Wat.

I want to draw in links with a series of houses and buildings that build with the ruins of old dwellings: Witherford Watson Mann’s Stirling Prize winning Astley Castle, the Corten planes of Carmody Groarke’s Studio in a Ruin and most recently the winner of the RIAS Doolan Prize, and RIBA House of the Year longlisted Cuddymoss in Ayreshire, by Ann Nisbet Studio. Brilliant, characterful spaces. But they are rebuilt reminders at best.

Ruins have to stay ruined, with all their jagged edges and certainly no cushions, to maintain a sense of danger and their wildness.