Necromancer’s Architecture
Miloš Kosec

In the chemical process of sublimation the solid matter directly transits to the gaseous state without becoming liquid in the intermediary phase. In such a way solid matter literally evaporates into the air. The sublimation of solids is, however, never complete. A certain part of matter always falls down on the ground in the form of crystals. In other words, full sublimation is impossible; the process necessarily includes a certain part that becomes waste. The remainder of solid matter becomes a reminder, the only visible and tangible trace of the process. Without such a trace as an indicator of the sublimated substance the elevation of solid matter would become illegible. It would lose any connection to the visible and tangible world of solids and would become meaningless.


The waste therefore functions as a retrograde medium between the realm of solids and realm of sublimated, elevated matter. Leaving the science of chemistry aside, this can be read as one of the variations on an age‑old theme: the elevated sublime world can communicate with the everyday physical world only through indirect traces or signs. Ghosts leave behind footsteps, sounds or markings; never pieces of their clothes or bodies, since they don’t have any tangible ones.


But does that mean that it is also possible to recreate the effect of sublimation with reproducing its supposed consequences? Does the presence of traces or waste of the sublimation process guarantee the existence of sublimated invisible matter? Since it cannot be perceived directly and is therefore dependent of indirect indicators, a possibility of manipulation with sublimation opens up. It seems that in post‑modern reality the obsession with revitalizations of disused and decaying buildings draws on precisely these possibilities. It is as if authentic traces of decay in architectural revitalization projects would by themselves guarantee a sublimation of architecture into an elevated object. The act of utilizing the decaying or outdated structure and combining it with a new intervention elevates the building above its pure functional demands. The post‑industrial reality seems to have invented a sublimation machine that successfully reproduces the effects of sublimation. Unity of the architectural act is here divided into purely functional contemporary intervention on the one hand and pure surplus of an outdated remainder utilized by the intervention on the other. It is this remainder that functions as an indicator of a real or imagined sublimation. And it is this remainder that elevates—that is, sublimates—the building above its original meaning.


Throughout the Western world, the pace of revitalization and gentrification of former industrial areas in the wake of de‑industrialization and globalization processes has been gaining momentum since at least the seventies. What started out as improvised low‑cost inhabitance of former production spaces, converted into artistic lofts, escalated into extensive public projects covering whole city areas left derelict by the migration of production and capital to the developing countries. These emptied areas offer a space for new economic and cultural investments of the post‑modern world. At the same time they seek new meanings to be imprinted on such areas, replacing the all‑important role of commodity production in the economy of the 20th century, which has in retrospect become nostalgic. The cultural industry and consumerism centers so prevalent in the revitalized areas seem to be the 21st‑century answers to this search.


One of the more ambitious post‑industrial revitalization projects of the past decade can be found in the former industrial quarter of the once important industrial center of Zürich, Switzerland. North of the picturesque city center by the Zürich Lake, extensive renovations and new constructions in the area of former foundries and ironworks are taking place, reinventing the area as the city’s new financial and cultural center. The heart of the complex is the new Turbinenplatz (Turbine Square). The name itself suggests that preserving the identity of the area as a former industrial complex is crucial for the project. Different types of utilization of industrial remains and their incorporation into new structures can be found in the vicinity of the square. Roughly three different tendencies of such architectural sublimation can be discerned. The goal of all three is to suggest the elevation of architectural work through careful preservation or even (re)construction of traces of decay. Examining each of these types helps us to understand the fundamentals of such post‑industrial architectural nostalgia.



Schiffbau or Squatting Nostalgia


In 2000 the Schiffbau (former shipbuilding hall on the Turbine square) became one of the first buildings of the industrial quarter to be redeveloped for new cultural and commercial functions. The industrial hall was converted to an alternative national theatre venue and jazz club. The intervention preserved the outer facades of the building intact and was limited to minimally equipping interior with technical facilities needed for sustaining three theatre halls seating up to seven hundred people. The preservation of the Schiffbau didn’t consist only of using the old walls and roof, though; the original glazing, steel doors and installation pipes of the old industrial hall were also consistently preserved. Even the broken glass is carefully preserved in its lead frames. The walls of the auditorium remained bare and unplastered, retaining the worn‑out feel of the old factory. It is as if such “squat‑theatre” would try to underline its distance to the building it inhabits. The Schiffbau in this respect is not the new theatre building itself but only a host site for the new venue. This may well suit the more alternative productions of the city theatre that take place here but there is also a broader perspective that emerges from this observation: the preserved outer layer of the building has to retain the feel of decay, while the interior has to function perfectly using the most advanced technical equipment. Only at first glance is the suggestion of decay in conflict with the high‑tech interior. The degradation that is one of the two necessary parts of the process of sublimation has to be kept visible in order that the building as a whole achieves the elevated status of a nostalgic object. It is this feel of outdatedness rather than supposed inherent suitability of industrial structures for the new functions that draws more and more cultural institutions into squatting the former industrial halls of the de‑industrialized West.



Puls5 or Enveloping Nostalgia


Four years after the Schiffbau Theatre, the extensive 19th‑century foundries of the Escher Wyss Steel Company on the edge of the Turbine Square were redeveloped into a mixed commercial and residential complex named Puls5. In contrast to the nearby Schiffbau the Puls5 doesn’t reveal its industrial heritage on the exterior; only when we enter the complex through a minimalist facade of glass panels do we find ourselves in an extensive former foundry hall, which functions as the heart of the building. The hall is left empty and seemingly intact; the industrial machinery complete with cranes and chains is still hanging from the steel beams below glazed ceiling. It is only on its edges that the new function of the shopping mall, consisting of three levels of shops and offices enveloping the hall, becomes apparent. The extraordinary effect of the foundry hall cannot be sufficiently explained only by an almost wasteful abundance of space in the middle of the complex; the emptiness of the industrial hall almost sanctifies it. Instead of visiting a shopping mall, we feel as if entering a crossbreed between a cathedral and a ruin. Such elevation and degradation at the same time, crucial for the effect of sublimation, is here produced with a radical change of the function of the space. Seeing the foundries at work with the machinery on the ceiling transporting molten steel and casting turbines, impressive as it would be, wouldn’t reproduce such an effect. It is only when the present function of the space conflicts with the original one, preserved only in the architectural character of the building, that such sublimation becomes possible. Only inhabiting the seemingly abandoned structure sublimates it. The abandoned character of the foundry hall plays the part of the waste produced by the sublimation, which is why it is crucial it remains empty. In such a way the contemporary envelopment of shops and flats that would seem banal without their utilization of the industrial heritage frees itself of any need for independent architectural invention. The post‑industrial void takes care of that instead of the architect.



Freitag Tower or Building Nostalgia


A few blocks away from the Turbine Square stands the smallest but perhaps most striking example of post‑industrial architectural sublimation of the area. The Freitag Tower, the flagship store of the famous Swiss designer bags company, was constructed in 2006 out of 19 recycled freight containers piled 26 meters high in the form of a tower. At the top level a small observation platform offers a panoramic view on the industry quarter’s ongoing revitalization, a process of which the tower became a sort of a beacon. Utilizing the industrial aesthetics is not an innovation in itself, being used so often and especially in shop designs, nor is the use of containers, which has been a fetish of environmentally conscious architecture for at least half a century. It is interesting, however, to observe how the Freitag Tower builds its relation to its industrial surroundings in a different way than Schiffbau or Puls5. Instead of utilizing an existing ruin, it builds a new one out of rusty old containers. The decision has its logic, since the tower is situated immediately beside the railroad tracks that still transport hundreds of such containers every day. But the message of this seemingly contemporary industrial construction becomes clearer only when the Freitag containers are compared with the “authentic” freight containers and the containers that are so plentiful on construction sites throughout this quickly developing neighborhood. Whereas the latter are as a rule well-kept, immaculately clean and function as parts of high‑tech construction sites (this is Switzerland after all), the Freitag containers unambiguously communicate their past usage through diverse colors, logos of different companies and rusty surfaces. The tower, although being one of the newest buildings of Zürich’s industrial quarter, seems to be by far the most weathered‑down structure in the area. And with good reason: the rust on its walls communicates the outdatedness of industrial modernity.  The perceived added value of the Freitag Tower lies not in its usage of recycled materials or its “shabby‑chic” industrial aesthetics, but rather in its nostalgia for an irreversibly bygone era. It also serves as an example that the architectural sublimation through post‑industrial nostalgia doesn’t have to use only existing empty industrial structures but can also build new ones, even with the same degree of success. In this light the Freitag Tower is not unlike the mock ruins so commonly found in aristocratic parks of the 18th century: the lack of authenticity of the structure doesn’t hinder the picturesque effect that is produced by combining the degraded and elevated components of the architectural sublimation.



Necromancy and Manipulations with the Uncanny


The feel of decay and the conflict between past and present functions that are communicated through architectural projects therefore constitute the main framework in which the post‑industrial architectural sublimation occurs. Such projects are not so much revitalizations—that is, giving new life to buildings. They are, in a way, more of an architectural necromancy: keeping the buildings visually dead and decaying while simultaneously squatting them with new functions. Ghosts can be summoned only from dead bodies. And this is what such sublimation seems to imply: sustained creation of the death of industrial buildings conjures up ghosts out of our recent but past industrial modernity. The architectural act in these instances creates and manipulates the doubt whether the buildings are decaying or inhabited. The elevated spirits of former industrial halls are not the result of some new post-modern aura; rather, they are conjured up by architects who recreate the debris supposedly left after the unseen process of architectural sublimation had been concluded. In fact such processes may have never occurred—the manipulation is retrograde and wishes to suggest that since the end results are tangible, the process must therefore also have fully evolved.  The decision to keep the old structure seemingly decaying while at the same time squatting it with new functions captures and expands the doubt into the realm of uncanny. It is precisely the conjuring of the uncertainty “whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”[1] that constitutes the uncanny as described already by Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud.


As with other ghosts, the ability to walk through walls and transcend the apparent physical barriers is crucial for the ghosts of the post‑industrial world as well. Spirits are conjured up at the contact of the decaying and the new, of the outdated and the contemporary. It is here that the boundary between the living and the dead is at its most unclear and the contrast strongest. Such a creation of an intermediary space that could be taken as an architectural variation of a spiritual medium combines the uncanny with the sublime, “an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence—it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable.”[2] The elevation and degradation of the sublimation process meet in between the surfaces of the old and the new. Here such industry of spirits is at its most intensive, using rust or overgrown brick walls as its medium. The industrial heritage is becoming an allegory of optimism long passed—a nostalgia‑machine that continuously recreates something related to Robert Smithson’s “memory‑traces of an abandoned set of futures.”[3]


The reason why the ghosts of the industrial age haunt the cities of the West so successfully seems to be linked with the ever‑shifting character of the post‑modern economy. Constant instability is its guiding principle. Marx’s famous quote: “All that is solid melt into the air,” is justifiably also the title of Marshall Berman’s book on post‑modernity.[4] The logic of constant reinventions of economy necessarily produces the empty industrial areas of the West, such as the decaying landscape of Detroit. But what specifically is that “which melts into the air”? What is the elevated part of the sublimation process of which the degraded part is only an indicator? As a rule it is the momentary effect that is sought in such revitalizations but there is no smoke without fire. The old motif of a ruin‑gazer observing the remains of a once flowering civilization and contemplating the transience of all things may have been reincarnated as a visitor of a post‑modern cultural center. The invocation of ghosts with the means of architectural sublimation produces fascination at the brink of the new sublime and couples it with anxiety when observing that the foundations of the wealth that built the modern world are now missing. The migration of production out of the developed world has left the deindustrialized countries floating in the instability of post‑modern reality. The futurism of modernity has become outdated and nostalgic. The future has become uncertain and pessimistic. Ghosts of industrial quarters remind us that the world built by modernity has irrevocably ended.



[1] Ernst Jentsch, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”, Angelaki 2 (1995), p. 11. Quoted by Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, accessed July 26, 2014,

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Architectural Parallax, accessed on July 26, 2014,

[3] Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2011), p. 49.

[4] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melt into Air (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1982).