Wandering Our Downtown Spaces Without A Destination
From the Nest, Issue 4
by Michael Allgoewer
In 1929, Man Ray, the surrealist artist and photographer, took a photo in a derelict corner of Montparnasse in Paris, France. It showed a blasted tree trunk and the iron skeleton of an abandoned piece of furniture. He entitled it Terrain Vague.
The concept of “terrain vague” has since come to encompass those seemingly empty, desolate plots of urban land found in every city. The Spanish architect and historian, Ignasi de Solà-Morales took this notion and, in an essay from the mid-90s, expounded upon it to encompass these urban spaces as areas of freedom and possibility.
For many years now, I have been walking everywhere, especially in the downtown core of Hamilton and its adjacent natural spaces. It is only by being on foot, by wandering the streets and alleyways, the brownfields and empty buildings, that I have come to really know the intimate details of my immediate environment.
As I walk the urban core, I find these interstitial spaces everywhere. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago now, I started to view these places in a new light. I began to document them in an ongoing series of photographs, which I call Bastard Landscapes. Victor Hugo first came up with the idea of the “bastard countryside” in his novel Les Misérables—it is the liminal space between urban and the rural, man-made and the natural, beauty and ugliness.
I often wander the city without a destination. It leaves me open to possibilities, to explore these strange places at will. Usually they are empty of humanity, although the vestiges and detritus of occupation are everywhere. There is trash, the cast-off pieces of electronics stripped of their heavy-metal components, and the signs of the itinerant taking shelter where they can. Most people would find the in between terrain vague of Hamilton ugly and intimidating in its abandonment and decay, but I find a strange and lonely beauty in it.
Often the natural world, when given the opportunity and time, begins to break down and encroach on the remains of the built environment. Concrete cracks, and trees and plants grow up, water seeps out of the buried streams and pools in the derelict brownfields, forming small wetlands.
Graffiti is everywhere.
As I wander, I reflect, as did Solà-Morales, on the tendency for our city planners to advocate for the “re-incorporation” of these places into reconstructed spaces. The desire seems, always, to remediate, to demolish, to repave every last metre of the landscape; to obliterate the resurgent life seeking to fill the voids.
I walk, and I see that evidence of life everywhere, in the smallest vectors of the terrain vagues, here in the middle of the city. In the long-abandoned brownfields the geese are nesting among the overgrown rubble, a coyote crossed a road in front of me not long ago and disappeared into an abandoned factory site. Not long ago, rabbits were everywhere amongst the old derelict warehouses, before they were demolished to build the latest condominium monstrosities on the Bayfront.
It may be a romantic sensibility on my part, that there could possibly be other ways to approach the “bastard landscapes” of an urban area. When I wander into some of these lost, forgotten places, they can emanate an uncanny, uncertain feeling, where the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present. There is beauty amongst the ruin and some of that beauty and mystery could be retained. The need to explore and walk on something other than a sidewalk or a well-trodden path is strong within me and the terrain vague fulfills that need, without ever having to leave the city.
The Ruhrgebeit of Germany, once its industrial heartland, a vast landscape of slag heaps, abandoned factories and mining tunnels, is a terrain vague. It was a landscape that in many ways, resembled the post-industrial face of Hamilton. Rather than razing everything to the ground, flattening the slag mountains and deconstructing all the iron structures, most of it has been reimagined as a locus for art, for adventure, for nature.
On the slagheaps are sculptures, a Richard Serra sheet of corten steel rising to the sky, in the mineshafts are installations, the old gas towers become sites for light sculptures. Old derelict factory walls have become climbing walls and plants have been allowed to take over the old rusted boilers.
As I walk, I think about the possibilities here in downtown Hamilton, how the brownfields of Barton Tiffany, the broken dreams of long lost stadiums, do not have to become parking lots . Not every field or plot of abandoned industrial land has to be designated for a new business park or condominium.
I like the idea of the “fallow city”. I want to wander past the row of houses and the old corner store and enter a terrain vague at the end of my street, where there is always graffiti and bird life in the undergrowth. Let nature take back some of the city at its own pace and let’s live with it.
The portfolio of bastard landscape images I have collected while walking the city, now number approximately fifty and none of them show a human being. But they all share a commonality; in them all, the natural world is taking back the city, slowly, but surely. I like it that way.
Ignasi de Solà-Morales said, “Void, absence, yet also promise, the space of the possible, of expectation…this absence of limit precisely contains the expectations of mobility, vagrant roving, free time and liberty.”
Michael Allgoewer is a Montréal-born artist, who lives and works in the Central neighbourhood in downtown Hamilton whose work consists mainly of assemblage-based sculptural components, which form larger installations; he is a member of the artists’ collective, The Assembly, at Redchurch Cafe + Gallery