The Spectre of Property Vacancy: An introduction to ‘Ghost Developments’

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“At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

WG Sebald, Austerlitz

 

States of Vacancy is dedicated to an exploration of the spaces and structures of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Specifically it has been set up as a research blog to investigate, challenge, and take inspiration from a much maligned, discussed, though increasingly ignored aspect of Ireland’s newly built environment- unfinished housing estates and vacant commercial property.

 

This site does not aim to solely critique these spaces from a socio-economic or political perspective, but instead it is a project that seeks to think of the social and artistic potentials of property vacancy, and imagine new ways of looking at our built environment. Primarily States of Vacancy will focus a lens on one geographical area (the Northwest and Midlands regions of Ireland) as a paradigm for interrogating interest in themes of dereliction, abandonment, ruination, marginalisation, community engagement, and artistic social reproduction. The counties of Longford, Leitrim and Roscommon- subject as they were to the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme initiated by the Irish government over a decade ago- provide an unique canvas to draw out these themes, as they are home to vast swathes of unfinished estates; what some commentators have referred to as the ‘new ruins’[i] of Ireland, and known as ‘ghost estates’ in the popular lexicon.

 

However, a focus on unfinished housing estates alone does not account for the seismic changes in the physical landscape of the region over the last two decades.  States of Vacancy will venture among what will here be referred to as ‘ghost developments’:  the disused warehouses and factories, light industrial units and abandoned hotels, shopping centre complexes that never saw the light of day, empty shop fronts and stripped rental units, half-built infrastructures and the countless long-term ruins that litter the landscape.  In doing so, we will begin to imagine, often drawing on historical narratives, the social life of empty spaces- to adapt William H Whyte’s famous term[ii].  In his exploration of British industrial ruins, social geographer Tim Edensor describes how industrial ruins become spaces that are utilised for unregulated play and adventure, underground cultural or artistic expression, or for the flourishing of alternative ecosystems[iii].  Given the sheer number of Ireland’s derelict sites, there is a distinct possibility that all around us exists an untapped source of creativity, conviviality, adventure, experimentation, and perhaps, social transformation. How then do we begin to utilise these potentials, to rethink vacant property not as an investment gone wrong, but as a resource for new forms social reproduction and expression? What role can academics, artists, activists, filmmakers, different communities and social actors, play in remoulding our built environment?

 

The principle geographical focus of States of Vacancy is Ireland, however ruination and dereliction are not exclusive to Ireland, therefore in the future there will be pieces that explore the built environment in other countries and regions. Furthermore, the economic processes and public policies that effect changes in the built environment- gentrification/regeneration (depending on who you are talking to), property speculation or tax incentivisation, economic migration and industrialisation- manifest differently in different regions along varying timelines and histories. States of Vacancy is interested in how these external phenomena impact on the local, the community, and the individual. How can we represent these structural systems in the context of the experience of our immediate built and/or social environment?

 

States of Vacancy will likely privilege the experiential over the structural. But as a blog, as a communication, it is also a representation. The aim should be to find ways of representing our environment, to seek different voices to express these representations, new means by which to frame them, to experience them. Here an active engagement of other perspectives is sought; we need a myriad of voices and worldviews.  We hope to depart from the purely academic, the solely artistic, the doggedly political, and the merely colloquial in order to imagine a space where all of these communications have equal footing and where none have primacy. States of Vacancy aims to be such a space.

 

 

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[i]See Kitchen R, O’Callaghan C & Gleeson J (2012) ‘Unfinished Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’ NIRSA Working Papers Series 67, University of Maynooth. Available here: http://www.nuim.ie/nirsa/

 

[ii]See Whyte, WH (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces The Conversation Foundation, Washington DC

 

[iii]Edensor, T (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, aesthetics and materiality Berg, New York, Oxford

 

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