Missing Buildings

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Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson.

It takes many years, but if you spend enough time looking at buildings you hone your ability to spot one that’s missing. Sometimes it’s easy. You train your eye to look for unusual gaps in a terrace, doors on previously-adjoining buildings that now lead into the sky or shadows in the brickwork. There’s something liminal, almost purgatorial about a missing building. What was there and why has it disappeared… what will replace it? Something? Nothing?

Florence Road, N4
For residents of post-war London these ruptures in the built environment were more than architectural curiosities. Landscape voids were former neighbours’ houses, shops and institutional buildings which were essential parts of the fabric of everyday life thanks to the Blitz.

John Piper, writing in Architectural Review in 1941 wanted to leave some of the bombed-out buildings standing as a permanent reminder of the horrors of war to discourage future generations from slipping into the rhythms and rhetoric of total violent conflict.

When it is all over, a few of the wrecked buildings might well be left as permanent ruins… To posterity they will as effectually represent the dissolution of our pre-war civilisation as Fountains Abbey does the dissolution of the monasteries.

Thom and Beth Atkinson in their book Missing Buildings take impetus from Piper’s call to action. Between 2009 and 2015 the brother-sister team walked around London creating a documentary record of buildings torn out of the landscape by war. Their luscious photographic record is offered without narrative but over the course of the 40+ examples it’s easy to build a typology of missing buildings: some have neighbouring buildings with fresh scar tissue even decades after demolition while others have been camouflaged by strategic decoration, some have been re-developed with other purposes in mind while others are still vast caverns into a violent past.

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Knowing that these buildings were destroyed during the Blitz rather than by the march of property “development” impregnates the Atkinsons’ work with a sense of the hauntological. The destruction of over one million buildings as a result aerial bombing in London presented its residents and planners with the task of reconciling and rebuilding in the face of the greatest spectacle of destruction since the Great Fire in 1666.

London may not have realised Piper’s vision of deliberately preserving the ruins of pre-war London, but Missing Buildings provides a reading of the landscape that allows us to see into that past—the lost friends, the cultural landmarks reduced to smoldering rubble and everything familiar about the everyday landscape vanishing overnight.

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