Contaminated Architectural Space

Contaminated Architectural Space

Just as landscape architecture and painting tame and order unruly nature, so too do the architect and builder frame material and space, creating a place of imaginary wholeness and order. Since an imaginary order can not literally be revealed in a material world, the white blank surface of a building’s walls becomes a mask concealing difference and disorder, concealing all that is unsightly. Similarly, a building’s structural integrity hides its susceptibility to time, change and decay.

Sometimes, however, these pristine spaces of architectural rationality become contaminated, either through deliberate destruction when the buildings are no longer wanted or needed or through the passage of time and benign neglect. When buildings become contaminated with dirt, rust, garbage, rotting timbers, and pools of fetid water, they reveal the disorder and disintegration that remain present in human affairs, irrespective of any fantasies of order. I am most interested in spaces which are abandoned, decaying, condemned or demolished. I am attracted to the uninhabited and my photographs of buildings are an exploration of the poetics of space that these disintegrated places engender.

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen (diptych)

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienberg, Germany

My photographs emphasize the peeling paint, rusted metal and cracked boards of contaminated architectural space. In abandoned, condemned and partially demolished structures, the mask of ideal order has been ripped apart and the buildings’ rationality destroyed. Conventional architectural design with its emphasis on order and efficiency dissolves in the face of time and nature’s inevitable encroachment. Sometimes fragments of order remain in abandoned buildings, though, reminders of previous occupants and their lives. While on a recent trip to Europe, I visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 35 kilometers from Berlin. In addition to following the path outlined for visitors to the site, I also explored areas of the former camp off-limits to visitors. Here the buildings are in an advanced state of decay; some, such as the SS troop theatre, are in the process of being refurbished, presumably for later display. Here paint peels off the ceiling and walls like burnt skin.

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienberg, Germany

The troop theatre still retains some traces of its former grandeur with its rows of windows leading the eye to the stage’s edge.

Green Monster Casino, Sachsenhausen

Green Monster Casino, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienberg, Germany

Other buildings, such as the Green Monster SS troop casino, molder in ruins. In here the ceiling’s collapse has allowed nature in; the floor is stained with water, leaves, bits of paper, and random filth. In between rotting boards, puddles of oily water reflect the sky. The crude graffiti defacing one wall remains surprisingly vivid, given the condition of the rest of the building.

Urinals, Prisoners Barracks, Sachsenhausen

Urinals, Prisoners’ Barracks, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienberg, Germany

In the prisoners’ barracks, the grimy urinals sit mutely against the wall. The effect these contaminated spaces had on me was striking; coldness, desolation and a deep sadness.

Shed Number 5, Burrard Dry Docks Building

Condemned Building, Burrard Dry Dock, North Vancouver, Canada

Burrard Dry Dock Series

Sometimes condemned buildings are beautiful in their emptiness. In North Vancouver, Canada, where I grew up, the old Burrard Dry Dock buildings which used to house a thriving shipbuilding industry have been demolished; before the demolition was completed, however, I snuck into some of the structures and recorded their emptiness in the soft, dusty light.


Condemned Restaurant, Richards and Davie, Vancouver, Canada

A former restaurant at the corner of Richards and Davie streets in Vancouver, just around the corner from where I live, has been torn down to make way for a park and urban renewal. All that remains of it are piles of rubble and a large ladder. While these ruined buildings do not have the sinister past of those in Sachsenhausen, they evoke some of the same feelings, although in a much more muted way. In my photographs I try to imagine the lived experience of these structures and the ghosts of their past; the buildings’ abandoned disorder is, to me, evocative and haunting. It speaks to me of humanity’s essential fragility.

To view the installation of Contaminated Architectural Space at the Kootenay Gallery of Art, History and Science, click here.

To view the installation of Defining Spaces at the Burnaby Art Gallery, click here.

Defining Spaces catalogue