On the 1:50 000 British Geological Survey Maps published in 2006, one of the categories of geology (located above Superficial Deposits and Bedrock) is ‘Artificially Modified Ground.’ It is designated on maps by black diagonal hatching. One type of ‘Artificially Modified Ground’ is ‘Made Ground,’ represented by a diagonal hatch running downwards from left to right.These lines represent ‘Made Ground’ not as part of a constructed landscape, but as a geological layer in itself, as part of the earth, as geology. The idea of the anthropocene is not an abstraction visible only in advanced digital imaging, but as crosshatched blobs with boundaries and geographic co-ordinates on old fashioned geological survey maps.
It is evident from these maps that London’s geology has been extensively remade and redrawn in this way. There are bigger or smaller blobs of ‘Made Ground’ scattered like confetti all over the map. On investigating some of the sites, it turned out that most of them were made of the architectural debris of World War 2. ‘Made Ground’ is new urban nature produced by war, a sort of spatial redistribution of violence. Unlike slow geological processes of sedimentation or silting, London’s ‘Made Ground’ records the reshaping of the city by a violent force akin to the that of a volcano or a hurricane, but through a rational and systematic act of technological destruction.
In David Gissen’s book Subnature, Architecture’s Other Environments (New York: Princeton Arch Press, 2009), the author discusses the difference between debris and rubble. He traces the origin of the word debris to 18th Century France, where it referred to broken, scattered material that had once been part of a building or other structure, particularly those destroyed by war or natural disaster. It differed from the word decombres, meaning rubble, which referred to the wreckage resulting from building demolition. The emergence of the term debris, Gissen argues, corresponded with the increasing use of gunpowder in European wars in the 18th Century and the archeological documentation of fragmentary remains of destroyed structures, much of which was unrecognisable. “Debris takes in the total spatial transformation wrought by violence and disaster, and it speaks of the ways that destroyed structures transform their surroundings.” (Gissen 2009:132).
Gissen examines one such site transformed by violence, Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson’s post-war housing block in Poplar, Tower Hamlets (now itself about to be demolished and redeveloped). The Smithsons retained the debris of the Victorian houses that had been bombed on the site, heaped it into a mound and covered it with earth and grass, making a sort of burial mound for dead buildings.
It became a central feature of the post-war communal experience of the site. Debris was used as a construction system to connect with, but extend beyond, loss and disaster. The result was not an architectural image of horror but of what Gissen calls a key component of a new type of sub-natural environment, born from violence, in which nature, culture, technology and war are no longer distinguishable.
I went to photograph the site this week. Instead of the naked grassy mound supporting a cricket match visible in an historic photograph, I found it now taken over by nature, densely inhabited by copses of trees, shrubs, wild flowers and overgrown grass, more of a forest than a field.
A spiralling path or a stair took me to its flattened summit, which is marked by standing rocks and the tatty remains of a sundial. This makes it seem even more like an ancient, pagan burial mound, setting it apart from the prosaic everyday environment around it and connecting us with the death beneath its surface.
Two major recreational space systems in London, the Hackney Marshes and Dagenham Corridor were both made with Second World War debris and reveal complicated relationships between culture and geology, violence and recreation.
The Hackney Marshes, purchased as recreational ground by the London and Hackney Councils in 1894, were compromised as sports fields by the tidal flooding of the River Lea. After war debris was dumped on the site, its height was raised by almost 2 metres. It was levelled, topped with soil and grass and laid out with 70 football pitches, 4 rugby pitches, I Gaelic football pitch and 5 cricket pitches.
Today it a major venue for amateur football, very few of whose players, I imagine, are aware of the layer of destruction beneath their feat.
The Dagenham Corridor, running from Hainault to the River Thames on the far eastern margin of London, was set-aside as a strategic planning corridor after the Second World War to stop urban sprawl. The area had been used as a gravel source for the building of the giant neighbouring Becontree Estate and the town that became Dagenham during the 1920s and 1930s. This reconfiguration had left the area devastated and subject to on-going dumping. After the war, the gravel pits were filled with war debris or water, remaking them as ground or lake, and reclaimed as a nature corridor in the 1970’s. Today this makes up the Eastbrookend Country Park, the Chase Local Nature Reserve and the Beam Valley Country Park (Dagenham corridor guide) and serves as a haven for campers, hikers, bird watchers, wild life and birds.
These recreationally inflected uses of debris display a pragmatic approach to war violence. Debris, in being put to good use as landfill, lost all association with ruin and disaster. Instead it became part of a new subterranean, hybrid geology and gave birth to new life, either in the form of healthy bodies or natural habitat.
But the UK’s war debris also migrated to another continent, where it was engaged in a different project. In Jeff Byles’ Rubble, Unearthing the History of Demolition (New York: Harmony Books, 2005), I learned that New York’s Franklin D Roosevelt Drive (formerly East River Drive) between 23rd and 34th Streets was built on debris transported from Bristol, UK by US supply ships. After the ships had off-loaded their goods, they needed ballast for stability on their return trip. In the absence of British goods to transport, they loaded up debris from Bristol’s war ravaged city and dumped it as landfill for what would become the East River Drive. Here debris became part of the techno-cultural continuum that was Robert Moses’ vision for New York City, the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration highway building programme.
Many German cities, extensively bombed during the second world war, used their war debris to produce artificial mountains. In fact, there are even two words for these geological formations: German schuttberg, meaning debris mountain or Italian monte schedbelino, meaning mountain of shards (ironic given that London’s Shard is made up 70% of sand!). Two examples, Teufelsberg (or Devils Mountain) in Grunewald, Berlin and Birkenkopf in Stuttgart reveal other formulations of debris as a culture-nature, war-geology continuum.
Rising to a height of 80 metres above the surrounding countryside, Teufelsberg is the highest hill in what was formerly West Berlin. It was used as a ski jump by Berliners until 1969, but its elevation was also seized on by the US National Security Agency (NSA). From the late 1950’s onwards, the NSA built one of its largest listening stations on top of the hill to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War and to supervise the West Berlin Air Corridors. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the buildings and radar domes were abandoned and they have subsequently been vandalised and decayed.
Today guided tours are offered to this alluring spectacle of covert power and its disintegration (here), to witness successive acts of systemic violence – war, surveillance, vandalism – being slowly reabsorbed by nature and returning to the forest.
Birkenkopf, Stuttgart’s debris mountain, is a 40m high mound that has never been planted or reused. It is an unmediated geological spectacle of violence and destruction and retains the memory of the Second World War as a visible image and bodily experience. Here ground has been remade in order not to forget. Recognisable fragments of bombed buildings protrude from its mass, one of which has a plaque on it which reads: ‘Dieser Berg nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg aufgetürmt aus den Trümmern der Stadt steht den Opfern zum Gedächtnis den Lebenden zur Mahnung’. This translates roughly as: This mountain piled up after World War II from the rubble of the city stands as a memorial to the victims and a warning to the living.
These examples of new ground made with the debris of war complicate our understanding of the categories of nature (the given) and culture (the constructed), casting into doubt the very possibility of distinguishing between them. Debris, in being returned to the earth, is a model of the non-dualistic post-natural, post-human world in which we live, in which categories of thinking and being have been blurred by the effects of scientific and industrial progress. What kind of analysis and what kind of politics is appropriate to these new conditions is, to quote from Rosi Braidotti (The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013 ) “central to the agenda of the posthuman predicament” (:3).