Shackleton in the City: Exploring Disused Urban Space

Last month saw the release of Mad Max: Fury Road – a remake of the cult seventies blockbuster [1] featuring a post-apocalyptic, dystopian desert landscape. Cinema has always had a love affair with the end times, with cities turned into dust. And in this particular incarnation, dystopian imaginings meet the classic Hollywood road movie. In a sense, such films invite us to explore the ruins of our contemporary culture, sandblasted by time (and the set designers). They invite us to explore our fallen cities.
Myths of lost cities are certainly nothing new; the story of Atlantis is curiously perennial and has captured the imagination of explorers, filmmakers, and students of literature alike. The tree of life is deciduous – and we seem to enjoy revelling in the ephemeral nature of our urban structures, the transience of life in the spaces of the city. Perhaps there is something forbidden about watching the end. Do we relish imagining the passing of social structures and spaces that constrain us? The myriad reasons for this ultimately morbid fascination are beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting to observe, however, is one particular recent expression of this obsession with fallen cities: Urban Exploration (rather wonderfully termed ‘Reality Hacking’ by one website[2]), the practice of visiting, and documenting on social media and online forums, the skeletal remains of urban structures, fallen into disrepair not in bygone millennia, but in more recent years and in some cases months; a kind of archaeology of the now. One such forum is called (demonstrating the link between fallen cities and cinema) 28 Days Later – Urban Exploration. The website can be found here:  The site’s subpages collect thousands of images, videos, and other ephemera, all documenting (sometimes mapping) abandoned buildings in cities around the UK. The most striking categories include ‘Cinemas and Theatres’, ‘Asylums’, and a page named, rather tantalisingly, ‘Underground’.
The site self-effacingly informs visitors that it is ‘a meeting-place for like-minded people’ [3] keen to share their experiences of urban space. Yet, what is really being created here is an exhaustive atlas of the re-appropriation of disused city space – usually where the state or industry has pulled out, and people have been drawn in, like animals returning to a once polluted area. The website is careful not to condone illegal or dangerous behaviour. And rightly so. However, while the practice of exploring structures that have been abandoned (usually with good reason) is undoubtedly risky, these urban explorers are taking part in the philosophically commendable exercise of urban renewal – in its most literal sense. By exploring disused city spaces, they are making the city anew. Historically, explorers, usually in the pay of the sovereign or head of state, have visited uncharted territories and produced maps, making the unknown familiar. The urban explorer has a related but inverted role: she submits the familiar forms of the city to an anthropological, documenting gaze that renders them alien and unknown.
Like nature photographers, these new explorers keep records of buildings, focusing on those on the brink of extinction. Such online visual documents of endangered architectural species are a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps one day, society will thank these Shackletons of the city for their annotated digital notebooks on our ephemeral urban ecosystem.

[1] There were three Mad Max films made between 1979 and 1985. The first film was released in 1979.
[2], accessed 01/06/15
[3], accessed 01/06/15

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