Archived entries for Glasgow

Ben Cooper interview

Ben Cooper is a prolific Scottish urbex and hinterland explorer who uses dramatic photography to record the hidden, the misplaced and the out-of-bounds. His images celebrate not just buildings and interiors, but also the people who built them, worked there.

Heritage/history documenting off-piste is often illicit, yet forms a sometimes moving record of the forgotten fortunes of people working within heavy manufacturing, transport, power, security and healthcare infrastructures – usually invisible to us, the take-it-for-granted consumer-citizen.

this sort of thing needs certain physical / personal skills, with many risks on-site – we’re not wanting to bore you with the obvious… but don’t try any of the following at home.

finnieston crane and squinty bridge, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: Ben, you’ve become well-known in urbex circles for both the physical/technical audacity of your exploits and the quality of your photographs – what was it that first brought you to urbex?

BC: I got into it pretty much by accident – as a kid, like most kids, I liked exploring. Later, as a student, I briefly got interested in tracing the old rail lines of Glasgow on my bike. That really fizzled out until I got interested in photography and was running out of interesting places to photograph – I can’t remember if it was St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross or Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens Station [FZA - both classic west of scotland explores] that I went to first, but it was really just a new place to photograph. The interest in urbex itself came later.

There are a bunch of attractions. It’s still fun to just create good photographs, of things and places most people don’t get to see. It’s also satisfying to document locations that are disappearing – I love getting emails from former workers who have memories of what a place was like. Then there’s the fun of sneaking about, being a bit naughty and playing at being a ninja.

FZA: The Milk Crate Gang, from Glasgow, were one of the first organised groups that did post-industrial urbex in Scotland – how would you describe the community now?

BC: Coincidentally, my mother-in-law was a founding member of the Milk Crate Gang – I didn’t know this until after i got into urbex. In Scotland, the community is sadly quite fragmented – there aren’t really all that many of us who explore and publish, there are some more who explore alone or in small groups but don’t share with any wider community. I’m not sure why this is – there is, I think, some distrust amongst older explorers of new upstarts (like me) and there is also quite a bit of paranoia about explorers from elsewhere coming to “our” best places.

FZA: The community at 28DL is very tight-knit, for obvious reasons. Should Urbex remain secretive, or do you think there’s a case for it being more widely-recognised?

BC: Much of urbex has to remain secret for it to work – we rely on the owners of the places we explore not knowing or not caring that we get in. If there is publicity, especially negative publicity (and rarely is it otherwise) then the opportunities to explore close down. We are also in a reasonably good position legally at the moment. Explorers in other countries have to break the law to explore – we do not, and it would be a great pity if publicity led to the government taking more notice.

I don’t see any need for it to be more widely recognised – there are mostly negative outcomes from increased public awareness of urbex. There is actually a strong argument for not making any urbex public – having no public forums like 28DL, no public pictures on Flickr, nothing. Running completely under the radar makes quite a lot of sense – until you think about why we do this, and this is different for everyone. For me, it’s important to record and document places for others to see, both now and in the future.

So there has to be, for me, a balance between keeping secrets and making explorations public.

Urbex really doesn’t have one community, there are lots of overlapping groups – trust within the groups is very important, however. Trust that someone won’t publicise a place and get it locked down, trust that someone you tell about a great new place won’t go there and smash it up. We also have a duty to other people – I have had many useful tips from company employees, and more than once a friendly security guard has turned a blind eye or even given me an unofficial tour, and I don’t want to get anyone fired.

scottish & newcastle breweries, edinburgh © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: You do both urban and hinterland explores – which do you prefer?

BC: I like both. There’s something a bit Through-The-Looking-Glass about exploring in the city, being only a sign or a hoarding away from normal people, or being above the night-time streets watching people and police cars pass by below. However it’s also nice to go for a quiet, relaxed stroll somewhere where you don’t need to be so alert all the time.

FZA: What is your approach to being challenged on explores? And how do you prepare? (mapping, GPS, etc)

BC: Honesty is almost always the best policy. If I’m challenged by security, I explain that I’m just a nosy photographer, not there to steal anything – having a polite manner and photographic equipment helps with that. On some live sites, it’s possible to pretend to be there with permission – a fluorescent vest and a confident attitude will get you very far, sometimes.

I have a master list of prospective sites on Google Earth – that’s a great tool for locating places, and StreetView helps a lot. Then it depends on the site – some are do-able on a first visit, some need several visits at different times of the day or week to work out how to do them. On the largest sites – Bishopton, Ardeer, places like that – I use GPS mapping on my phone to find places I’ve pre-marked as interesting buildings to visit.

FZA: What’s been your scariest moment…

BC: I think probably something high up – climbing the [glasgow] Armadillo was a rush, even though I was using safety gear for most of the climb. It was just so exposed, with a long slide and a drop to certain death on every side, and with the worry of the police helicopter nearby.

But there have been plenty of times where I’ve done something which I wouldn’t want to have to repeat too many times – getting into Methil Power Station, with it’s climb up rotten rusty gantries, then a squeeze through a narrow window 20m over solid concrete would be a good example.

FZA: …and your most surprising moment.

BC: Finding something epic where I don’t expect it – going for a stroll in Bishopton and finding a massive explosives factory was pretty surprising. I stopped off on the way past to somewhere else, just for a quick look as I was there, and ended up spending three days exploring every corner of the massive site.

Then I got a visit from the police, which was surprising in a different way…

FZA: Name one place worldwide you’d like to explore.

BC: The Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral would be a pretty cool place to see – not on an official tour, of course, but getting into the parts no-one is meant to see.

FZA: The breakdown of the UK’s manufacturing base has opened up a new window on people’s past working lives for us. But what do you think urbex will focus on in years to come, chronicling our lifetimes?

BC: The UK’s manufacturing base is not dead yet – there’s still quite a few possibilities there. Sometime soon, there’s going to be a new generation of old power plants to explore – that’ll be fun, though the nuclear ones might be tricky. With the seeming short lifespan of many modern buildings, there should also be some old modern architecture to explore as well, and if Scotland becomes independent there will be a lot of redundant military sites to see!

FZA: Following on from this, urbex tends to focus on the remnants, the visible. I’ve always thought that council refuse dumps might provide an unexplored palimpsest into the past – what do you think a test bore into an old refuse landfill site might reveal? What would you like to find?

BC: Interesting, that’s a more high-tech way than the usual tip digging technique, using a shovel! The tips near old hospitals often have wonderful collections of old glassware and crockery. I’m not sure a normal landfill would have much I’d like to find, though. I’d like to find the stacks of shipyard plans and models that must have gone up in smoke when yards closed down, the working models of cranes and bridges that were lost, things like that.

FZA: On the photography side, we’re impressed by your lightingcamera work – what is your basic camera / flash / photoshop / panorama setup?

BC: There is nothing particularly special about my setup – I now use a full-frame camera, a Sony A900. I’ve always liked wide angle lenses for urbex photography, so I mostly use a Sigma 12-24mm, but I use a 50/1.4 prime quite often as well.

I very rarely use flash – really only in situations where light painting would be difficult or impossible, and then it’s just a flashgun mounted on the camera. Light painting with a selection of torches produces far better results in almost every situation, I’ve found.

I shoot in RAW, and post-processing is done in Lightroom, with Photomatix for HDR sometimes – I’m not a fan of overdone HDR, but there are situations where it’s useful to most accurately record a location.

For panoramas, I use a Nodal Ninja tripod head, fitted to my urbex tripod – a Manfrotto Modo tripod that I’ve hacked about to take a different head and other fittings. I use Hugin or Autopano Pro to stitch the images.

zaha hadid’s riverside museum, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: One last question – how did you get into Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside museum, mid-construction? I’m a big fan of Hadid, so those images are amazing for me.

BC: The Riverside was remarkably simple the first couple of times – climb through a hole in the hoardings, then through one of the holes where a door or window hadn’t been fitted yet. The last time, it was a bit trickier but not much. Building sites can be surprisingly easy as the buildings aren’t completely finished, and with so many workers from different companies working on-site someone often forgets to lock every door! The images were embargoed on request by GCC so as not to spoil the surprise for visitors on opening day.

FZA: Many thanks Ben for taking time to share your experiences. The Milk Crate Gang lives on!

ben cooper : transient places website
ben cooper : explosive scotland book

govanhill baths

As a past longtime resident of Dixon avenue, and now rather bizzarely working with a client on Garturk street 10 seconds away from my old bedsit, Govanhill pool and washhouse (steamie) on Calder street, Govan, is one of the local Glasgow / Edinburgh campaigns I regularly follow.

Not much has changed in the 10 years since it shut – but a renewed 2011 campaign will hopefully see the baths restored at last.

Rather than investing in cctv, maybe Glasgow city council would be better restoring this local health-giving facility (there’s a modern pool not too further north in the Gorbals, but that serves a different community area).

In my view, you can’t have enough opportunities to safely splash about in water. What, for goodness sake, were Glasgow city council going to do with this community-focused, beautifully-designed, purpose-built swimming pool anyway? Sell it to some shady developer who would knock it down and then plant crummy flimsy shoebox flats on the footprint?

Ah… silly me…

Govanhill Baths
Centre for Community Practice
NORD architects
dalry baths edinburgh – a similar-vintage Edinburgh local pool still in use

momus has an interesting reminisce about the citizens theatre, not far away

what’s wrong with tesco

What bit of “NO” do tesco not understand?
A recent radio interview with ex-tesco architect-of profit Sir Terry Leahy, gave an understanding of the man that perhaps could make him less of a dartboard for urban community groups. Basically, his tough-ish Liverpool upbringing convinced him food should be as cheap as possible for everyone.

Fair enough (unless you shop, er, in a price-hiked tesco express…). But the nightscenes in Bristol’s Stokes Croft yesterday – chaotic, drunken, frightening and reckless as they were – will hopefully have tesco pulling up short for once, because the complaint behind the appalling violence still stands.

image : Mark Simmons

what’s wrong
Tesco mostly want to kick in the groin their rivals (sainsburys, asda and morrisons) in the out-of-town superstore war, where many people do their main shop. Again, fair enough – many of us are party to this and it’s not wrong, as long as the sites are well away from town centres.

But Tesco are “like” the Palermo mafia – they also want everyone in town too to pay them for doing very little – from the beleagured local farmers and producers to the single mother who can’t afford the bus fare for the out-of-town trip. Tesco achieve this not through threats of violence but by “bribing” town councils to accept their plans (big corporates are the only ones left who can pay the exorbitant rates councils are now forced to levy).

Very little means just another identikit characterless shopfit, goods lorried-in every day and minimum wage for the part-time staff. Oh – and profits shipped to an overseas low-tax haven – very every little helps, indeed…

“Like” the cosa nostra, sheer avarice and financial brute force drives all this.

Greed, in other words. That’s what’s wrong with tesco.

This blanket introduction of urban identikit mini-stores means the destruction of that coherent focus for communities – the HIgh Street. With tesco muscling-in on every high street in every town and city across the UK, despite local opposition that is often rescinded by planning committees, what little revenue is left for distinctive, characterful local businesses is soaked up by the ironically price-hiked metro/express shop format.

See the Glasgow Partick example at the end of this post

What Mr Leahy has failed to grasp is that far from “attracting people into run-down town centres” – a common tesco PR meme – his business model has significantly changed the texture and uniqueness of the UK’s high streets, making many once-busy town centres assume the boarded-up ghost-town position. Long-established businesses – butcher, baker, candlestick-maker – won’t be coming back. All that will be left are poundshops, charity shops… and tesco (or sainsburys) mini-stores selling a very limited range of goods at inflated prices.

Yes non-competitors like boutiques, florists, hairdressers, cycle shops (and the ever-present greggs, who have done a similar hatchet-job on local bakers) will be there – but it’s just a remnant, and their sustainability in a broken-britain high street will always now be perilous. Shop fronts will continue to be re-developed into another soulless block of anonymous flats and the next generation won’t remember family-owned high street diversity, let alone a sense of community.

the solution
Here’s a bbc R4 programme on what has happened in Sicily. Local producers get to excel at what they do and consumers get the best mediterranean-style food and drink on the planet. The cosa nostro get nothing.

So the answer to tescotown is not insurmountable. All it takes for tescoexpress in Stokes Croft to be closed down is a willingness to simply not shop there.
(note : no bravery against mafia death threats required).

critical shopping against pizzo

image above (cropped, uncredited) from bbc

Previous fromztoa article on tescotown Linwood

tescotown Partick
Glasgow’s distinctive Partick area – and lucrative surrounding west end – is hoatching with Tescos, all within 5 – 20 mins walk of each other (including, but not shown on the map below, waitrose and morrisons mid-size stores and a Sainsbury’s local/petrol station).

Link to the ill-starred and illegal listed-building tesco demolition on now-abandoned tesco glasgow harbour / Partick site – a victory of sorts for local opposition to tesco’s monoculture blitz on Glasgow’s west end.

tescotown Kilbirnie – just to balance the issue
Kilbirnie is a small Ayrshire town that in the 19c thrived around the Glengarnock steelmill and Knox threadmill. Today it is a shadow of what it once was… and yet in the middle of the town is a mid-size Tesco and 24hr petrol station, opened in 2007.

Arguably tesco have rescued the town from complete implosion, as in this instance the independent shops on the main drag closed a long time ago. And for peoplewatching all walks of life, I’ve found tesco Kilbirnie to be a gem.

lockerbie synopsis

A synopsis of the facts so far, with current ideas on conclusions. Only really for those with an interest in the controversies surrounding PanAm Flight 103 and its relevance to Scotland. A psychogeographic viewpoint on Lockerbie and the surrounding area is here

Continue reading…

detroit update

Thinking about Varmints in the previous post, it’s been quite a few years since I was last in Detroit. So finding Marchand & Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit photoessay earlier this year (posted in the surreal within the real section), came as a surprise.

Detroit, as symbol of the removal of manufacturing from the US heartlands to the far east, is evidence of just how quickly decay can set in once weather protection is compromised. And as a species, we seem to be particularly capable of destroying that which has lost the status of occupation – the broken window syndrome. This is how once-great civilisations are removed from the record, unless by other more prescient means – Pruitt-Igoe, or brutalist Spence’s Gorbals.

detroit urbex

from Z to A is a scotland-based psychogeography and urban topography magazine featuring creative, critical, playful urban journeys

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