Abandoned Places

(Originally posted 14th May, 2004)

Why is humanity so fascinated with abandoned places? Throughout history, people have been building structures and eventually abandoning them, leaving them to be swallowed up by nature, often leaving few clues about why these things were built and even fewer about why they were just left to rot.

Just about all over the world you can find examples. In the Middle East you have all of the Egyptian temples and monuments of the Ancient Egyptians. In Iraq there is the famous Rose Temple at Petra. In Pakistan, there are the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley. In Central and South America there are the remains of the once powerful Aztec and Inca empires, with places like Teotihuacan and Machu Picchu. Then you’ve got the castles and standing stones and the like all through Europe, or the ruins of the Native American populations in the deserts of the Southwestern USA.

Regardless of where these places are, sooner or later, someone stumbles across them and starts to wonder about life there. Excavations begin and scientists start sifting through the remains, trying to piece together what life was really like back when these places were inhabited.

Some people travel halfway round the world to visit the most famous of these places. But normally you don’t have to travel that far to come across abandoned structures. Normally, in any decent size city there are places that have been boarded up and left to rot, simply because it isn’t cost effective to keep these places open any more. Here in Brisbane, I can think of an abandoned power station and an old disused gaol.

In Canberra, around the corner from where I’ve been staying there’s what’s left of the Macquarie Hotel. When I first moved to Canberra, back in 1992, I stayed there for nearly three weeks before I found somewhere more permanent to live. Sometime in the past couple of years, the Macquarie has closed down. There’s a chain link fence all around it and nearly all the windows and window frames have been removed. Fallen leaves have started building up in the doorways now that no one is bothering to keep the place clean. As you walk past, there are noises from inside the building as though someone is in there demolishing the place; whether this is a legitimate demolition or just the work of vandals isn’t obvious.

There’s a certain sadness about the Macquarie now, something that certainly wasn’t there when I stayed there 12 years ago. Every time I go past it, I feel like jumping over the fence an exploring the empty corridors. I don’t expect to actually find anything, but there’s an ambience in an old building that’s has an attraction of its own.

Why do people give up these places and just leave them to rot away? Is it just a matter of economics, or do they fall victim to people’s desires to always have the new and exciting? Do people stop going to these places because they’ve found somewhere else to go that makes them feel better? And given that real estate is becoming so expensive in big cities these days, why is that these sites can often be left abandoned for years at a time without anyone bothering to do anything about reclaiming the site and doing something else with it?

Sometimes I wonder if these abandoned places are a metaphor for the dusty corners of our own minds. Each of us has memories and experiences that we’ve forgotten about. Sometimes it’s because those memories are too painful to look at any more and we’ve walled them up rather than dealing with them; sometimes it’s just because we’ve just moved on and simply forgotten about them. Being in one of these old building can sometimes stir up those memories, which can be useful if you need to deal with something that you’ve suppressed for a long time.

So the next time you’re out and about, keep an eye out for these little abandoned places. They’re all over the place, and most of time we don’t see them because we don’t bother to stop and look. Take the time to soak up the place’s ambience and pay attention to the feelings that being there brings up. Perhaps it could be the past speaking to you.