Why the Post-Industrial Landscape Works as Places of Play

Recently I have written a lot about physical abandonment and loss, or how vacancy can be a dispiriting and anger-provoking bit of sightliness: a skull at the societal banquet. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. As in abandonment there is also an opportunity to play.

To play is to ultimately recreate. To recreate monotony into entertainment—to recreate passivity into a kinetic interchange with the physics around you—to recreate what otherwise is into what could be through an outside molding of one’s inside imagination. To that end, play is the perfect medium to be thrown into abandonment if only as an act asserting life.

This perhaps helps explain the more recent phenomena of turning the bones of the post-industrial landscape into the limbs that make up a killer recreational spot. See below, a few…

In Cleveland there is Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park. It is a converted abandoned factory near a set of railroad tracks on the Near West Side. Bikers from across the country ride a ribbon of ramps and platforms, some dirt and some wood.

Check out what street trials riding star Danny Macaskill does in an abandoned Scottish train yard. The derelict forms are literally being given life with each trick that they support (Hat tip Dave Jurca via Justin Kobak).

Lastly—and no doubt one of the world’s gems as far as post-industrial reuse—there is Germany’s Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, which was designed in the 80’s and built in the 90’s. The head designer—Latz + Partners—didn’t see demise in the abandonment of the sight.  Says Design Observer in their review of the park:

Historic layers of use had left their physical marks through industrial imprints, altered conditions, and environmental contamination. However, the goal was to consider these disturbed and complex conditions for their creative potential rather than as a nuisance that should be erased or camouflaged.

While researching various spots where play co-mingles with what is often considered aesthetics that are brooding, failed: a consequence of having been left—I got to wondering: what is it about the post-industrial playpen that works so well?

A lot of it comes down to the idea of industrial heritage, or the meaning(s) of our Rust Belt landscapes. Put simply, when we are in an area, a space, there is what designers call the genius loci, or the spirit of place. And as observers—as carriers of culture—we get on some level what came before us. We get that this old hunk of steel and tubes lying in the background of our terrains was in fact a source of fire and energy, of movement and sweat. Seeing it inert, then—or alternatively: totally gone, it can leave us walking in a history that is less living than it is dead to us. Vacancy leading to the perception of just loss, then…

Unless of course we recreate it. And while the industrial reuse genre—i.e., the loft living, the offices—aren’t bad options, finding a way to link back to the genius loci of our vacant industrial sights is more ideal. And this is done through activity, movement, the body. Sweat is sweat. But instead of work, play…

There are also a bit of philosophical underpinnings at work here. As in the face of the absurd–or those physicalities offering a hint at the perceived meaninglessness of life–there is a method, an old method of life assertion. Be it through humor, whimsy, and/or play–be it Patch Adams, the Dadaists, or those designing the consequence of joblessness into the flip side of boredom–humans have always used smiles or adrenaline as an eff off to that which seems too much to deal with.  But don’t take it from me. Take it from two philosophical greats.

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. ~Nietzsche

Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.  ~Jack Handey, “Deep Thoughts,” Saturday Night Live

–Richey Piiparinen

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