We recently did a couple of Thomasson exercises in my class, which focuses on the politics of ‘ruin porn’ and urban exploration. It was an excellent way to help my students, mostly freshman, get to know their campus and start noticing the changes and layers in the urban environment around them. In this post, I’ll be sharing what we discovered and what I learned about using Thomassons as a teaching tool.
As I noted in a previous post, Thomassons are vestigial architecture, pieces of the built environment that no longer serve a function or purpose but are nonetheless maintained. Finding Thomassons is related to other cultural practices meant to challenge the ways in which we experience, understand, and move through the urban environment, such as flaneury, psychogeography, parkour, and urbex. According to Genpei Akasegawa, the artist who gave Thomassons their name in Japan in 1972, vestigial architecture reveals to us the tears in fabric of the city, the cracks in its increasingly surveiled and seemingly impenetrable facade. These kinds of ruptures, which give us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of the city, are what many urban explorers seek out and exploit. Thomassons, then, can be an ideal introductory exercise to get students thinking about changes in the built environment over time and how we can train ourselves to notice and be curious about them.
We did an in-class group Thomasson exercise on the day I introduced the concept, and then I assigned a second, in-depth individual assignment that students completed outside of class. While the first exercise helped us get a handle on the basic definition of Thomassons and allowed us to explore our immediate surroundings (our classroom is in a residential complex dating to the 1940s and is near the oldest parts of campus), the in-depth individual assignment allowed students to be go farther afield and asked that they make an argument for why or why not an object/structure should be considered a Thomasson, thereby demonstrating a deeper understanding of and engagement with the concept and its broader (political, social, archaeological) implications.
Defining and Recognizing “Maintenance”
One of the the two key components of the Thomasson definition, and the one that we grappled most with in both assignments, is maintenance. An architectural element that has lost its original function and has just been left to crumble or decay is not a Thomasson, but one that has lost its function and is maintained in some way (polished, repainted, repaired) is. How can we tell whether something is actively maintained or just allowed to exist? For many of the potential Thomassons we found, evidence of maintenance was sparse: old coal doors on the sides of houses, defunct fireplaces, the door to a chute for an old Kernerator incinerator, bathtubs and shower stalls in the bathrooms of a former residential hall that had been built in the 1920s and converted to offices in the 1970s, and old payphone booths…all would’ve been fairly difficult to remove, and they didn’t show any signs of having been actively cared for, though they do seem to be kept clean.
For the purposes of the exercise, then, I expanded the Thomasson definition to include anything that has lost its original function but was kept around (for any reason), and which allows us to see changes in the built environment over time. In this case, the coal doors, Kernerator door, unused fireplaces, bathtubs, and phone booths told us something about changes in technology, energy use, waste management, and social/cultural preferences. For example, showers have been around for a long time and are more convenient and efficient than baths in that they take up less space, use less water, and take less time (all advantages in a dorm setting), but they weren’t commonly used in the US until the late 1950s (though sources I found varied on this) for a few reasons, including the fact that people probably didn’t bathe as often as they do now and showers were initially thought to be “too stressful” for women and children (how long the latter sentiment endured and influenced the people’s decisions, I don’t know). It took a while for people to come around to bathing more frequently (and a long time until many people had the option to, and I imagine a similar process played out with showers…
The Kernerator is also another interesting (re)discovery that illustrates changes in technology and preferences for waste disposal, as well as the power of habit. It was documented in a dorm at Collins Living-Learning Center, built in the 1940s. In the first half of the 20th century, Kernerators were seen to be an efficient and convenient way of dealing with household waste, and consisted of “receiving hopper doors” connected to an enlarged chimney base in the structure’s basement. The garbage would be thrown into the chimney chute, which would have a series of grates and a bypass that allowed the draft to pass over, around, and through the material to be burned. Garbage accumulated in the Kernerator’s incinerator to dry out, making it combustible, and then the incinerator was lit about once a week. Kernerators were thought to be more hygienic and convenient than the traditional trash bins that you leave sitting around until they’re full and then have to remove from the residence.
Though we don’t know when it fell out of use, it’s possible that the Kernerator in Collins couldn’t keep up with the increasing volume of waste in the dorm over time, or with changes in the types of refuse being thrown in. Maybe it also fell out of use because incinerating waste became less common over time as we learned more about the hazards involved, and as federal laws developed in the 1960s to regulate solid waste management. Also, by the 50s and 60s, coal furnaces and chimneys were no longer widely used.
The building is still a residential center, and the student who documented this Thomasson noted that the trash bin for the floor is still kept under the Kernerator door. In other words, that space is still set aside for waste disposal and management. I’m hoping to get into the basement of the building at some point to see what might remain of the Kernerator…
The Social Functions of Thomassons
Other potential Thomassons the students found are maintained because they serve important historical and/or memorial functions. Memorial Stadium was one of three structures on IUB’s campus (the other two being the Indiana Memorial Union and Memorial Hall, a women’s dorm) built in the 1920s to honor and remember all student soldiers who served in armed conflict, many of whom had lost their lives in WWI. The stadium hosted football games and then became the Little 500 track before eventually being torn down in 1982. It has been replaced by the arboretum, a beautiful green space next to what’s now the main library. The university allows members of the IU community to plant memorial trees there, preserving the space’s original function as a place for remembering and honoring IU alumni and emeriti. The limestone ticket booths, the gates, and parts of the stadium itself (two pillars of limestone positioned at the ends of the seating area) are still there to memorialize the stadium itself…so the stadium has in effect become a memorial to a memorial.
A second Thomasson memorial on campus is the Metz Carillon, an ornate tower that houses a 61 bell carillon, gifted to IU in 1970 in remembrance of Arthur R. Metz, class of 1909. The tower sits on the highest point on campus and is a well-known landmark in the Bloomington community. The student who documented it argued that because the carillon is very rarely played, the carillon as an instrument could count as a Thomasson. It’s main function, though, has always been as a memorial and a campus landmark, which means that it is maintained to serve the social function(s) for which it was built, so the jury is still out on whether or not it’s technically a Thomasson…
Rethinking Aesthetics, Evaluating “Usefulness”
I encouraged students to broaden their definition of ‘aesthetics’ and detach it from–or at least question its relationship to–the idea of utility. Inherent to the idea of Thomassons, or in the way that most people tend to understand and approach it, is the notion that functionality and aesthetics are mutually exclusive, or that in order for something to be called “art” or “hyperart,” it has to exist as “just art” and can/should serve no other purpose. If an architectural element serves a present-day function of any kind, its aesthetic/artistic value (which seem to be considered as one and the same), and thus its status as a Thomasson, is called into question. But as we’ve seen, evaluating an object’s “uselessness” and discerning whether or not it is “maintained” can be tricky.
Archaeologist Michael Shanks has discussed how our understanding of the aesthetic has narrowed over time to become associated solely with the arts and surface-level visual perceptions. He argues for returning to an older, expanded understanding of the aesthetic “as concerned with sensation and perception, where sensation is about emotional engagement and subjective evaluation, and perception is cognitive, involving objective ascertainment…Think, sense, feel, evaluate: these are the key aspects of human experience” (Shanks 2014). He goes on to outline five components to the expanded definition of the aesthetic, and I focused on teaching the first, “experience….cognition, perception, evaluation,” to my students so that we could apply that to the study of Thomassons and urban exploration.
This expanded definition of the aesthetic allows us to understand Thomassons in a different light, and many of my students focused on the kinds of sensory and cognitive experiences Thomassons evoked instead of whether or not they were “aesthetically pleasing” in conventional terms. For example, one student documented two Thomassons in his home, a former boarding house that his grandparents had converted into a family dwelling. Numbers on the door frames once indicated which room had been assigned to which boarder, and two of those numbers were kept when his grandparents renovated the property. The student described the experience of seeing the numbers and imagining all the different people who must have passed through the structure over time. In that respect, Thomassons becomes a sensory/memory experience and a cognitive exercise, thinking about what a space was like in the past, what the people who formerly inhabited were like, and charting changes in the structure itself over time.
Conclusions: Thomassons are about the Journey, not the Destination (or something)
The Thomasson definition is deceptively simple: “useless, but maintained.” When you actually get out into the built environment, however, you quickly realize how much room for interpretation that this definition gives us. Finding Thomassons is a collaborative and community-oriented activity, and the process of finding, documenting, researching, sharing, and discussing/debating them is more important than whether or not something is technically a Thomasson. There are Thomasson purists out there who would likely disagree with me on this…but the idea of community input and involvement has always been central to the cultural practice of finding Thomassons, and the fun part for most is finding and then sharing and debating potential Thomassons.
Genpei Akasegawa suggests Thomassons as architectural byproducts unique to capitalist societies and attitudes towards construction/demolition (i.e. everything in capitalist societies must have a purpose, and if it doesn’t, it’s removed). But Thomassons are more a byproduct of humanity and the ever-changing nature of the built environment than a byproduct of a particular economic or political system. They exist all over the world and across time.
Overall, the Thomasson assignments were a blast. Students became more familiar with their campus and grew more aware of the urban environment around them, and I learned more about some very interesting structures, objects, and histories. Thomassons would be ideal as an exercise in an introductory historical archaeology or geography class, to get students thinking about changes in the built environment in a way that gets them to connect with their surroundings and to start seeing the archaeological processes at work all around them.
If you’re interested in participating in the Thomasson project, you can submit one for community review here.
Acknowledgements and Works Referenced
Though their work is not directly cited or referenced here to protect their privacy, this post draws on research carried out by the students in L210: “Ruin Porn and Urbex: The Aesthetics and Politics of Ruination.” All photographs in this post were taken by the author unless otherwise noted.
1). Akasegawa, Genpei. 2010. Hyperart: Thomasson. Los Angeles: Kaya Press.