People like ruins, against all logic. A broken down old building, in the right setting, can attract millions of visitors. Angkor Wat, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, Machu Pichu. Or on a smaller scale, old churches and abbeys, ruined monasteries, remains of medieval hospitals and chapels.
On the other hand, deteriorating buildings create slums. We don’t like areas where houses aren’t maintained, where cold and wet gets into buildings and pulls them apart.
So what makes some kinds of deterioration attractive and not others? At what point does a run-down old building become a romantic ruin?
In Kiruna we’re unlikely to find out. Although most of the town will eventually be affected by subsidence, the local mine’s policy is to knock down any buildings before they show signs of deterioration. Buildings are either lived in, in good working order, or they’re gone.
When you think about it, this must be a hard goal to achieve. There needs to be negotiation with the owner and purchase of the building in a reasonable timescale. In addition, not everyone in a street will necessarily sell up at the same time. In some cases houses will become available for the mine to purchase from as soon as the offer is made, while others may take a year or two. No-one wants to live in a street of deteriorating empty houses, and the mine doesn’t want us to see them. An empty house down the road would be a large sign saying, ‘Subsidence coming your way sometime soon’. We all know it is, but there’s a difference between knowing, and seeing.
So there’s a good game to be had in town right now; let’s call it ‘Pit Stop’. In this game, for 2 to 50 players, you walk down a Kiruna street and try and work out how close the street is to the advancing pit (the one we will all eventually fall into).
The rules of this game are that you’re allowed to use the mine’s own map as guidance. Online you can see areas marked and when you click on them it will tell you when the mine will start to buy them – roughly that is, give or take a year.
So here’s your street. You know it’s a likely area because these are all nice old wooden houses, probably from the ’20s, and large most of them. When you look closer they have more than one door, so that’ll be worker housing – a house divided into flats – very likely to be near the encroaching pit.
Other than that, what clues are there? This is no ghost town – there are people around, some cars in the street, some signs of life. Two kids pass by, home from school. Rubbish bins are buried in snow. Post boxes outside houses have names. And yet, it’s very quiet. Look a bit more closely.
There’s been a lot of snow this winter; it piles up everywhere around the houses. But that house over there – isn’t there more snow there than round the others? Look a bit more closely and an entrance way is completely blocked. Not lived in then?
But wait a minute… it has another entrance, so that doesn’t prove anything. There’s the other entrance, and the steps have all been cleared of snow, so, you think, someone must live there. Leaning against the stairs is a brightly painted rainbow broom. The outdoor light is on. Signs of life.
And yet, the curtains seem to be drawn..
Further down the road are other houses with rainbow coloured brooms, the steps to their entrances also neatly cleared of snow, the windows obscured by blinds or net curtains. We begin to see the pattern. Rainbow brooms, lights on, cleared snow, but no real sign of life… ‘Pit Stop!’ you call, waving your cards triumphantly in the air.
One day, a fence will appear around them, and then the next week, they’ll be gone. Not a trace left – just snow on the ground.
I long for some decent ruins – something to say decay and deterioration, disrepair and destruction. It’s not natural forces that will take down these buildings, though the force of subsiding ground is a kind of elemental force. They’ll be knocked down by bulldozers before they fall. But before they go, while they’re still pretending to be lived in, nature begins to run her course.
Icicles are a sure sign. Where they form, warm air is escaping from a broken building, and no-one lives with that in these temperatures. But why the warm air, in an abandoned building? Perhaps they mining company are not only clearing the steps of snow but having to heat it too, for fear of trapped water freezing and cracking pipes. Whatever the reason, the icicles, and the abandonment they demonstrate, are, in some strange way, beautiful.