Dead Cities: Urban Ruins and the Imagination of Disaster
Paul Dobraszczyk


In recent years, urban ruins have become a growing obsession in both academic and popular culture, whether the all-to-real ruins of contemporary warfare or those imagined in post-apocalyptic cinema and computer games. As the distinctions between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred, how might we negotiate the (fine) lines between fantasies of urban destruction and the latter’s manifestation in daily reality? In other words, how might the possible ruin of our cities be imagined in a way that helps us adequately face that very possibility?

This research addresses these questions by focusing on the relationship between realist and imaginary ways of representing urban ruins in the post-War period, encompassing: the literary and cinematic imagination of London’s destruction; the ruins of post-industrial Manchester; disaster tourism and Chernobyl; urban exploration and Varosha; art that engages with the ruins of Detroit; and unfinished urban environments across the world. Relating an experiential awareness of urban ruins to fictional counterparts, the research interrogates the relationship between the real and the imagined in terms of how large-scale ruins are perceived, whether by those who were directly affected by such ruination or others who seek to re-appropriate these ruins in other contexts. In addressing these questions, the research opens up an emancipatory space that accepts the inevitability of ruin in order to break its grasp and thus to suggest liberating alternatives. The result will be a re-imagining of the relationship between construction and destruction, and regeneration and ruin in architecture and urban space.

The research will further the goals of the ISRF by employing a new methodological approach to this subject area, developing interdisciplinary scholarship, and realising innovative modes of academic and public engagement that take new approaches to applying the research to real world social problems.

The Research Idea

The city has always been haunted by representations of its own ruin, whether brought about by external forces – earthquake, fire, war disease – or by internal processes, such as moral corruption, overpopulation or social strife. Today, in the light of rampant urban growth, increasing social segregation, environmental threats, and wars and terrorists that deliberately target urban sites, cities are, according to geographer Stephen Graham’s ‘Postmortem city’ (2004), increasingly viewed as sites of ruination, fear and decay, rather than progress and growth. Coupled with a recent plethora of apocalyptic visions of ruined cities in cinema and computer games, the links between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred, as the critic Mike Davies has argued persuasively in ‘Dead Cities’ (2002).

There is thus a pressing need to critically examine the links between real sites of urban ruin and imaginative counterparts in visual culture, one that has not yet been sufficiently brought out in the existing scholarship in this subject area. This research does precisely that, by bringing together real and imagined sites of urban ruin in a critical conjunction, exploring the symbolic affinities and differences of both, and linking the real human impact of urban ruins with their imagined counterparts.

The Focus

The research concentrates on case studies of six principal sites of urban ruin that resulted from: ethnic conflict (Varosha, Cyprus); technological failure (Pripyat, Ukraine); imagined apocalypse (London); post-industrial decline (Detroit); regeneration (Manchester); and economic crisis (Giarre, Italy; Valdeluz, Spain; and Kangbashi, China). Each of the sites has been carefully chosen to create a dialogue between the experience of urban ruins and the imagination of disaster in all its diverse manifestations today. So, Varosha relates to representations of the post–human city in popular culture such as Alan Weizman’s book ‘The World Without Us’ (2007); Pripyat to post–apocalyptic computer games and the horror film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ (2012); London to literary and cinematic representations of its destruction, from Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’ (1826) to Doug Liman’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014); Detroit to the recent appropriation of urban disaster in the tourist and cinematic imagination, in photographs by urban explorers and the films ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) and ‘It Follows’ (2015); Manchester to the memory of catastrophic industrial ruination in a post–industrial context, manifest in W. G. Sebald’s novel ‘The Emigrants’ (1992); and recent incomplete urban environments, such as Valdeluz and Kangbashi, to the fiction of J. G. Ballard. Relating an experiential awareness of urban ruins to these fictional counterparts, the research interrogates the relationship between the real and the imagined in terms of how large–scale ruins are perceived, whether by those who were directly affected by such ruination or others who seek to re–appropriate these ruins in other contexts.


The research is interdisciplinary, principally working at the intersection of the fields of urban studies, architecture, geography and visual culture. It particularly draws on the approach adopted by Cairns and Jacobs’ book ‘Buildings Must Die’ (2014) and Hell and Schönle’s ‘Ruins of Modernity’ (2010), which brought together, for the first time, multifarious approaches to the conception, perception and representation of ruins in the modern period. In these important studies, ruins are viewed not merely as a by-product of the end of political ideologies (that is, signs of their failure), but rather part of the wider dialectical process of ruination and re-founding that was (and is) an essential mark of modernity in all its ideological contexts.

The main significance of the research lies in its level of critical ambition. In the light of a contemporary explosion of cinematic and other fictional representations of post-apocalyptic ruin, there is a pressing need to confront such representations with the historical reasons for, and social and cultural legacies of, existing sites of urban ruin. Furthermore, in the light of the seemingly unstoppable hegemony of global capitalism (which often produces such representations) there is also a need for a wide-ranging comparative approach to the subject that challenges this hegemony with a localised focus on the causes and legacies of urban ruins while also working within a contemporary globalized framework.

Theory & Evidence Base

The theory that underpins this research comes from several disciplines. First, in architecture and urban studies, recent studies such as Cairns and Jacobs’ ‘Buildings Must Die’ ask how architects and urban planners might creatively engage with notions of decay, demolition, obsolescence, ruin, and disaster to foster a practise that can deal effectively with radically uncertain urban futures. My research will contribute much to this emerging field, both in terms of its own theoretical speculations and engagement with architectural and planning practises. Second, in cultural geography, ruins are continuing to be an important subject in theoretical discourse, much of this stemming from Tim Edensor’s 2005 book ‘Industrial Ruins’. My research draws widely on such work whilst developing its own innovative interdisciplinary methodology.

In addition to its broad theoretically base, the research brings together, in an innovative manner, several forms of evidenced-based practices: urban exploration (first-hand experience of ruins and other liminal urban spaces); oral and written interviews (for example, with former residents of Varosha); site visits (for example, art works in Detroit’s abandoned buildings); historical analysis (such as Manchester’s industrial history); and critical analysis of visual culture (mainstream cinema, computer games, and visual art). Taken together, these forms of enquiry bring a rich evidence base to the research.


The research employs three main methods: personal encounter (through site visits, photographs, journals, maps and oral interviews); historical enquiry (the causes and legacy of urban ruins); and analysis of the imaginative reconstitution of urban ruins in contemporary visual culture. Sources are multifarious: accounts by witnesses of urban ruin in socialist contexts (for example Alexievich’s ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ (2009) and Pizzi and Hjetala’s forthcoming ‘Cold War Cities: A Memory Book’ (2015); histories of post-Soviet European cities (Boym’s ‘The Future of Nostalgia’ (2001) and Huyssen’s ‘Present Pasts’ (2003); ruins and modernity (Cairns and Jacobs’ ‘Buildings Must Die’ (2014) and Hell and Schönle’s ‘Ruins of Modernity’ (2010); urban ruins in cinema (Paik’s ‘From Utopia to Apocalypse’ (2010) and Prakash’s ‘Noir Urbanisms’ (2010); post-apocalyptic theory (Berger’s ‘After the End’ (1999) and Žižek’s ‘Living in the End Times’ (2011); and urban exploration and dark tourism (Garrett’s ‘Explore Everything’ (2013) and Foley and Lennon’s ‘Dark Tourism’ (2000).

The result of this trans-disciplinary and innovative methodology will be to open up new knowledge and insights into a culturally prescient subject, to challenge existing theories that tend to be narrow in their focus (or pejorative of representations of ruin in mass culture), and to advance a highly original research idea that I am confident will have a wide appeal and significant impact both within and beyond academic circles.


Outputs to be commenced/completed during the 8-month research period:

  1. 90,000-word monograph, ‘Dead Cities: Urban Ruins and the Imagination of Disaster’ to be completed and to be published in 2017 (currently under review for publication as part of the series Routledge Research in Urban Planning and Design)
  2. Book chapter on Chernobyl and cultural memory (completed) to be published in Pizzi and Hjetala’s forthcoming ‘Cold War Cities: A Memory Book’ (Peter Lang, 2016)
  3. International conference on urban futures and the imagination, to be organised during the tenure of the fellowship, and held in January 2017 as part of Manchester’s biennial Future Everything festival.


The research furthers the goals of the ISRF in two ways: first, through its development of interdisciplinary scholarship, that is, by drawing on existing contacts (and collaborators) in a wide variety of fields to situate the research within a wider thematic area (urban futures); and, second, by employing innovative modes of academic and public engagement that take new approaches to applying the research to real world social problems. For example, in the tenure of the fellowship I propose the organising of an international public conference on urban futures and the imagination (in partnership with the Future Everything organisation) that draws on the success of a similar day-long event I organised in 2014 (‘Big Ruins’) and which was attended by nearly 200 participants. This event brought together an interdisciplinary panel of experts on ruins, bridging art history, geography, architecture, sociology, philosophy, and performance studies. In addition, I will seek future collaborations with significant research groups, including Liveable Cities (Lancaster), Foresight Future of Cities Project, Future Cities Group (LSE), UCL Urban Laboratory, and Future Cities Catapult. Finally, I also anticipate future opportunities for collaborative writing, an area in which I have extensive experience in both my current publications (in co-editing two books), and in my previous postdoctoral work (co-authoring articles in an interdisciplinary context on the project ‘Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815-1914’).