Continuing the theme of abandoned buildings in the Basque Country as promised, I present a collection of images of a closed down school in Pamplona.
This old hospital sits on a hill overlooking the city of Bilbao in the Basque Country in Northern Spain.
I don't know the story of this building - when it opened, when it closed, or why. But while I was visiting that city someone mentioned this hospital to me. Apparently it had appeared in the local news some days before because people had squatted it and were living there, among the old treatment rooms and the broken tiles.
I crept in one blustery afternoon. Sneaking past the security guard who was patrolling the site with his dog, I made my cautious way through the gardens and found a place I could climb into the building.
The place was a wreck. It was filled with old abandoned objects that had been used to form every type and shape of rudimentary barricade. My progress deeper into the building was slow, punctuated by moments of deep cogitation as I considered the next piled up barricade and the methods I could use to surmount it without injuring myself, breaking my equipment or making too much noise.
The atmosphere kept my nerves stretched tight. I was listening for the sounds of the guard patrolling but the noises I could hear were hard to make out. Distant crashes, the scraping of furniture, thumps, sounds that could be interpreted in many ways, too distant to make out, too big to be ignored. Logic told me it was empty window frames banging in the wind, old boards creaking with age or the sounds of the alleged inhabitants, working somewhere far off in the building, creating a home in some corner of this vast space. My spine was telling me it was mystery, unknown forces, danger, my senses, heightened by the atmosphere amplified the distant noises. This building was not welcoming. My feet wanted me to run. But the photographer in me, the explorer, was transfixed by what I was finding.
Every room revealed a scene that took some time to absorb.
The space resounded with echos of human life. This hospital had been a backdrop for countless private dramas, stories of sickness and cure, life and death, slowly replaced by the lessons of abandonment and decay.
Like every wasteland and forgotten place, this abandoned hospital had become a free space for those activities that are best done away from the public gaze. The illicit acts, the secrets, and these had left their mark on its walls.
And in every doorway a barricade. Some small and flimsy, some almost unclimbable. These barricades didn't seem to be an attempt to stop people from being able to move trough the space. They felt more like a discouragement, a suggestion that visitors were not welcome. With these unexplained barricades and the echoing noises I felt sure there were people in the building, but room after room I found no-one.
In most doorways I could step or climb over the objects barring my way, but a few times I was obliged to move the things right out of a doorway and clear a space for myself to step through. And slowly, barricade by barricade, through labyrinthine corridors, I made my way up through the building, towards reception.
At this point I came face to face with the security guard.
After giving me a stern lecture and spending some time threatening to call the police, he sent me back into the hospital to make my way out the way I had come. This surprised me as we were standing next to the front door, but my suggestion that I leave the quick way was met with uncomprehending anger and a finger pointed back into this vast and unsettling building.
My confusion was enhanced as I made my way back down in search of the room I had first entered. I felt I had seen almost every part of this giant building and I had met no-one but the security. Maybe there were no squatters. Maybe they were hidden in another of the hospital buildings, or were behind a hidden door I hadn't noticed.
Then I got back to one of the doorways that had required me to move a barricade and clear myself a path.
My path was no longer there.
The barricade had been moved back.
Each of them had.
Every doorway I encountered on my way out, was in the same condition I had found it when I first came through it.
Someone had been tidying up behind me, moving all the barricades back into their proper positions.
I have spent some months trying to explain this experience to myself. I am not a believer in ghost stories. The work I do requires a certain practicality of mind as well as an aptitude for assessing danger. I saw no-one. I heard only distant noises. I do not understand what happened in this hospital. I still don't know if people are living there.
I stumbled into this world of mystery and for some hours in this place I was no longer connected to any reality that I could predict or comprehend. The lessons of cause and effect were etched out everywhere, all around me, and yet they didn't seem to apply to my time there, or else they followed a set of rules I did not know.
Now I give this place, and my time there to you. Do with it what you will.
I spent a day in May photographing an abandoned hospital on a hill overlooking Bilbao. Over the next week I will share some pictures from that day and from other abandoned buildings in the Basque Country.
Today I present a panorama of that beautiful city, made from a number of images I shot from the top of the hill.
Click on picture to enlarge.
There is a squat called Le [sli:p] in Angers in northern France, it is a tidy, comfortable place of good food and home made drinks, that has existed since September 2008. In French 'le slip' means 'briefs' (as in underpants) and among the political slogans and posters, the walls feature pictures of briefs and various examples of gentle wordplay. The quiet, homely atmosphere of Le [sli:p] belies the impassioned cultural and political activities that go on here.
They screen films in Le [sli:p] every Wednesday. There is a bike workshop here where you can bring your broken bicycles to be fixed and they also have a darkroom and a screen printing workshop, where posters, patches and other designs are produced. They have put out a number of radical zines and an anarchist radio station ran from this space for a while. They have an info point filled with publications and posters from other projects as well as the ubiquitous free shop.
Downstairs is a social centre called l'étincelle (the spark) which has existed since February 1997. L'étincelle provides a library, a snack bar, concerts, exhibitions, group discussions, film screenings and meals and it is also the meeting space for numerous collectives and associations.
L'étincelle has a large bread oven and once a week the people from le [sli:p] come down and bake lots of bread. The two spaces support one another and work together on numerous projects while running as essentially autonomous entities.
There is a group in Angers called the Collective de Soutiens des Sans-Papiers (the support collective for those without papers) who often meet in l'étincelle. This group provides practical support for immigrants without papers (non-citizens) helping them to find shelter and food as well as political support - organizing protests and running campaigns with them. Some of the people of Le [Sli:p] have worked with this group, sometimes risking prosecution to help when it is needed.
Le [sli:p] and l'étincelle are sitting in an ever shrinking island of old elegant buildings in the Thiers-Boisnet neighbourhood. The city government has been pursuing a plan of aggressive gentrification since 1997. They have been gradually buying up the old buildings in this historic quarter, leaving them empty and then demolishing them block by block. They plan to build modern apartments and offices that are unaffordable to the local population, driving them out of the neighbourhood.
Architecturally this 'regeneration' plan will erase the character and heritage of Thiers-Boisnet and replace them with the anonymous modern structures and shopping zones that are graudally making every city in Europe indistinguishable from one another and horribly depressing places to be. Angers has already seen numerous 'urban renewal schemes, as Wikipedia explains:
"Until the 1980s, Angers experienced several massive urban development plans, such as the construction of the Lac de Maine, and several vast council estates and shopping malls, as well as the construction of a highway which crossed the city through its centre, a project that forced the destruction of many old buildings and destroyed the original quays on the Maine."
The Thiers-Boisnet is an old industrial neighbourhood. From the 19th century craftsmen and small industries flourished here due to the good access to the port. They started leaving the neighbourhood in the 1970s and 1980s in search of bigger premises and the quarter started to empty. As usually happens in these situations young people and artists started moving into the buildings, enjoying the faded elegance of the place and the low rents. In most cities this would have gradually led to a process of 'organic gentrification' with the neighbourhood becoming known for its style, and with coffee shops and book shops opening to support the habits of students and artists. Usually this process lasts a decade or so until the wealthier middle classes recognise a great 'vibrant' cultural neighbourhood and start to move in, pushing up the property prices and pushing out the artists and young people who need to go and find the next run-down neighbourhood to bring to life.
These scenes have been played out in thousands of neighbourhoods in cities around the world. We've all seen it happen in our own cities, all of us except the Mayor of Angers in the beginning of the 1990s. He saw reports of young people moving into this otherwise unwanted neighbourhood, and like the angry and unreasonable dad in a 1950's teen movie, he became convinced they were up to no good. Terrified that Thiers-Boisnet would become a hotbed of anarchism and rebellion the Mayor and the municipality seized control of the neighbourhood and started to devise a massive gentrification plan that would keep the place out of the hands of the young and the poor.
During the 1990s the local government started buying up the empty properties in Thiers-Boisnet. As residents and businesses got pushed out of the neighbourhood and more and more properties were left empty, the squatters started moving in. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. When le [sli:p] was occupied in 2008, the building had been property of the town hall for two and a half years. It had been standing empty as a deliberate government policy and if the people of le [sli:p] had not taken it on it would have been empty for eight years by now.
As this is an historic area and the buildings represent a big part of the city's heritage there has been some local resistance to the Mayor's plans. Tension grew between those who wanted to preserve the cultural heritage and those who wanted to build a new quarter cleanly from scratch. This developed into a legal battle and in 2000 the region's interior minister decided for the preservation of some buildings, but fundamentally gave a green light to massive change. The Mayor wanted to see a more aggressive and comprehensive plan but was left needing to convince the department of culture who had promised to save some buildings.
Speaking no French, as I do, it is difficult for me to find a clear record of when happened between 2000 and today. SARA is the development company charged with realising the regeneration and a visit to their website suggests that all systems are go. The preservation arguments seem to have been lost and the plan to completely erase the neighbourhood of Thiers-Boisnet and to build a new one appear to be rolling on unstoppably. A 2010 document produced by a company called Ingenierie Tugec (Tugec engineering) explains:
"The program includes the construction of approximately 600 to 700 collective living spaces, 4,500 sq.m. of business premises and service, 3,000 m² of public facilities and a parking structure of 420 places."
Le [sli:p] and l'étincelle are facing destruction, they are fighting these plans with all the resources they can muster. but they are fighting on the side of rationalism, preservation and community against the forces of fear, greed and profit so it's hardly a fair fight.
I feel honoured to have been able to stay as a guest in this beautiful building and to have witnessed the courage, hard work and commitment of the people of Le [Sli:p].
References for this article can be found below.
General info about Angers (in English)
Development information (in French)