Modern Abandonment, Squatters, and Late Antiquity

This blog has always had a soft spot for stories and images of abandonment (ruin porn, as it has become known; just Google it).  In general, the recent interest in abandoned places has emphasized their desolate character of neglected homes taken over by weeds (or prairie grasses). (A recent interactive film funded by the National Film Board of Canada shows how the town of Pine Point in the Northern Territories was physically erased from the landscape). Abandoned industrial facilities appear as empty, rotting hulks devoid of orderly bustle. The abandoned libraries, churches, hotels and train stations in Detroit have become icons of the cities once prosperous past.  The neglect of many of these buildings seeks to reveal the folly of our so-called advanced capitalism and the waste prevalent in American society.

Of course, the abandonment of these buildings is in many cases superficial. With the prices of copper, many of these structures have long seen any bits of metal stripped from their walls.  A cottage industry has grown up recycling the windows, doors, fixtures, and any other (re)moveable fragments of these structures. Surely this process has parallels with ancient practices; the most dramatic examples of recycling practice appears in the systematic quarrying of ruined monumental buildings, but surely small scale acts of recycling occured on a daily basis.

One phenomenon that I have not seen explored in the recent explosion of ruin porn is squatting amidst the ruins. Of course, there have been many stories of families struggling withe mortgage crisis living on in foreclosed homes as squatters, but this hardly speaks to the role that monumental structures so hauntingly abandoned in Detroit and other major cities fit into a lived environment.  This past month, however, CNN ran a story on the abandoned Grande Hotel Beira in Mozambique. This luxury hotel was abandoned shortly after its construction in the early 1960s and since the 1980s, it has become the home to thousands of “squatters”.  These squatters have created a community amidst the crumbling concrete of this massive hotel despite the lack of running water or electricity.  The have subdivided spaces, created room for commercial activities, and established a basic form of local administration.  A Belgian documentary filmmaker, Lotte Stoops, has documented the history of the repurposing of this hotel and its community. I haven’t seen the film, but its trailer is beautiful.  (I’ll leave it to Kostis Kourelis to compare this film, Grande Hotel, to its far more famous predecessor (without the -e)).

I wonder whether the recycling of the Grande Hotel Beira reflects better the process of squatting and abandonment in an Ancient context than images of abandoned buildings in Detroit or in foreclosed American suburbs.  The creativity with which the community in the Grande Hotel approaches their physical space and organizes their world within it strikes me as a much more efficient use of physical remains than the modern tendency to discard the obsolete. While the squatters in the Grande Hotel have striped any object of value, they nevertheless still find use in the poured concrete walls and floors and rooms. I can’t help but think of the squatter community who settled in the collapsed ruins of the Roman Bath at Isthmia. In contrast, the central theme of most abandonment porn is our modern inability (for whatever reason) to make any use of even remarkable examples of architecture, and the tendency of modern society to discard a building when it has outlived its primary purpose.

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