Urban exploration

Somewhere, sometime, people made all the machines that made all the artifacts and buildings that make up all cities. Somewhere, sometime, everything made has answered to a purpose. But try one day to walk, or be driven through, any section of any city—the older the better, but new will do—under the aspect of an alien or an artist; try, if you can, to notice everything—the strange knobs and wires and pipes, the bits of metal, the shapes of concrete, which make part mystery of every structure. Can one know what every knob and lever is for? There are devices on the old buildings that are remembered only by scholars. No one comes to fix them; no one comes to check them.

It must be a bracing and bewildering thing for those who were part of the great world-spanning, ceaselessly and frenetically active age of dawning industry—that age, in glories and horrors, so much belonging to the spirit of youth and youthful strength—to realize that the world is not, in fact, made anew with every generation; that time may carry forward their works, made in unquestioning faith in the future, until they have become all they were contemptuously meant to supplant: not just old-fashioned or obsolete, but quaint and curious; artifacts lingering through time, inscrutable relics brought out from the strange country or planet of the past.

And it has happened. Young people armed with flashlights and cameras crawl over and among the picked bones of Leviathan-industry. This is not the archæology of labels and measurements and excavations; nor the piracy of the past that first sunk shafts and cut tunnels into the immemorial streets of Pompeii; nor the romanticism that would bring young Englishmen to Italy to roam over and around old marble and fancy that a statue might drop its staff and admit it had only been pretending. They make me think instead of some mediæval Italian shepherd—for such there must have been—who uncovered the door into, or just fell into, some lost grotto dedicated to a god he never knew nor would know; who must have shivered and wondered at such a place, sensibly sacred though unholy (by his teaching); who withdrew and covered it again, only having marked its ceiling with the smoke of his fuming lamp. Such there must have been; such there are.

An urban explorer seeks context, not knowledge. Among the great machines on the factory floor they want to know what each is for, nor how they worked. They are satisfied to see the buttons and levers; they do not need to know which does what. They are satisfied to know where to stand; they do not need to know what to do. They take the pictures for their walls or accounts; they do not need to know the names of what they contain. They are not designers, planners, scientists, engineers, even artists—I do not think you could satisfactorially paint an abandonment. Only the unaffected lens can capture the appeal.

Of all the pictures I have seen brought out of abandonments—not that many, but enough to form a taste—one is unrivalledly the best. It was taken by one Marc Reed, at Bethlehem Steel. I am not an urban explorer, so I confess that I would like to know what is in them—but that would be missing the point and appeal of the photograph. It is not knowing, and it is not not knowing; it is not ghosts; it is not even the beauty of patination or of ruins; it is the sight, the memory of the sight, that the photograph stands in for. The ruin of Bethlehem Steel does not reach the part of the brain that assays the arts. It follows a different way, reaches something deeper. One wanders and delights in abandonments for the same reason one wanders in the forest: the beauty of these ruins-to-be is only the beauty of nature, an analogue of nature humanity makes and has made for itself. For the deepest part of the brain the old abandoned factory and the dense, spooky wood have the same appeal.

When I was a boy my father took me to see many old forts, too many to remember. They have run together in my mind; unilluminated tunnels branching from the lighted tourist-track; huge rooms with massive doors and the knowledge that were they to be closed you could starve or suffocate here unheard; condemned outbuildings of weather-striated concrete, darkened by late rains, overgrown and seen through screening leaves; that low fence (you know you could climb it) in front of the sight-passing vaulted tunnel, the paled and rusting sign bearing a now-indecipherable warning, the same leaves under your feet lining the floor of the tunnel—I know the urge. I was a boy, and did not climb. I am glad others have done it, grateful that they have let me share at lens distance.