The Art of Abandonment

A few miles south of where I live there’s an old DC prison complex which used to be known as Lorton Reformatory.  Several years ago, they shut the place down and transformed a few of the larger buildings into a new “Arts Center” where painters, sculptors, and other creative folks can rent studio space and teach classes.

But the new Arts Center seems to be faltering.  The parking lot is usually 90% empty, even on a beautiful weekend, like this past one.  It’s a shame.  It seemed like good idea to re-purpose the prison in a way that would promote the arts and provide a community asset.  But the place always seems vacant and lifeless.  People — the magic ingredient in any succesful public place — are conspicuously absent.

In the vast overgrown space beyond the Arts Center, many of the other prison buildings have languished and been invaded by pear saplings and honeysuckle. 

Here there is real magic.

Here, among the dust and weeds and crumbling brick, neglect has created places that are magnetic, ingriguing, perhaps even poetic.

Why is it so much more thrilling to explore the accidental art of these abandoned landscapes than the intentional art being created inside the refurbished buildings? 

Is it the way nature creeps in to the hardest, most barren places and makes them soft again?

Is it the voices of the past that linger beneath broken concrete and smothering vines?

 Is it the way these landscapes make clear how small, how transient, our best human efforts really are? 

Why is the human handprint so much more captivating once all the humans are gone?

Art of Abandonment Sound File

25 thoughts on “The Art of Abandonment

  1. Why is it in such disrepair? One would think gardeners would give their right arms for opportunity to use the greenhouse, but all the glass is gone! Are the grounds open? Are vandals free to throw bricks at all of it? What else is being considered for its use? So many questions, so few answers…

  2. There a couple of No Trespassing signs, but not much to keep people away. They may have plans for these other buildings, but it seems that would be a waste of money based on the lackluster success of the new arts center.

    • Sadly, I’ve seen other examples of that art center in other places, and I don’t hold forth much hope. Most of the time, either the rent on the spaces is far too high or the location is too distant for real artists to want to use them, and they’re usually overrun with people who talk a vague game about “finally becoming an artist” before getting bored and wandering off to look at the next bright shiny object. I say “sadly” because it’s a great concept. The problem is that a lot of artistic endeavors involve people agreeing, in principle, that it’s a great concept, and then they don’t actually use or support it.

        • We have a similar situation in Dallas with several venues, most of which were started by condo developers for the tax writeoffs. (One of our biggest is South Street Station, a conversion of the big Sears distribution center just south of downtown Dallas. The owners make a big deal about offering discounted rents to artists, as well as storefront space for them to sell their work, but the only traffic they get are from yups rushing to and from work.) Unfortunately for everyone, any real artists have to give up their spaces because they can’t pay the rents, and they’re filled instead with bowheads who played with some clay back in elementary school and therefore fancy themselves artistes.

          On a related subject, one of the reasons why the Exposition Park area in South Dallas had such a great reputation as an artist community is because the previous owners vetted everyone who moved in, and we all had to show samples before we were allowed in. (I literally had to show my writing portfolio to prove I’d actually been published in the past, and several neighbors and I would get great entertainment on Saturday afternoons as the SMU crowd would wander in to see if they could move in as well. Those afternoons always ended in tears, as they couldn’t show any samples and screams of “Do you know who my daddy is?” fell on deaf ears.) In 2000, the owners were offered an incredible deal by a land speculator looking forward to Dallas’s plan for the 2012 Olympics, and the new owners took in anybody willing to pay the rents. Now, it’s a ghost town. And so it goes.

  3. We have a dark and gloomy morning here in Oz (due to the partial solar eclipse) and your images are the perfect accompaniment. The power of nature to recolonize what was taken from it is both fascinating and exhilarating. And the reminder that our buildings and human life are not all powerful, just like Ozymandias. What a pity the re-purposed section in so pristine and bland – and so contrary to how I think of art.

    • I feel that all of these “renewal” projects destroy a little bit of the soul of a place….even the really successful ones like the Highline. Maybe part of it has to do with the way we experience these abandoned places…it’s usually a solitary experience, and there’s usually a sense of mystery and the forbidden…hard to recreate that kind of experience in any kind of designed space.

  4. I remember riding past there as a kid, the whole place was just so institutional and creepy, I thought it would make a great set to film a movie at. Now in its current state it looks even more attractive as a movie set. I agree the location is hurting it, I don’t really think of that area as being real arty, it would probably get more traffic if it was converted to soccer fields and basketball courts. Definitely I think it would be appreciated more if it was closer to DC. Kudos to you for seeing the beauty in it.

    Is the building in your first picture the part that’s open to artists? It just looks too sterile.

    • Yes, the first pic is of the refurbished buildings. The architecture is really kind of cool…was built in the early 20th century and would be a shame to have them all razed for fields. But yeah, you’re probably right that it would get more use! Far more soccer moms than artists around here!

  5. It says a lot about us as a culture that we have money to maintain prisons, but not art centers…and that people clamor for art centers and the like, but don’t use them. Personally, I’d love to set up an easel in there, natural light streaming in, and maybe work up a few watercolors of the zombie apocalypse taking place outside my garret.

    • One of the interesting things about this prison was that it was set up to be totally self-sufficient, with its own farm, livestock, cannery, foundry, the works. I think gradually they gave up on the “reform” model and it just became the usual forbidding barbed wire/guard tower prison, though. I think charcoal would be a more suitable medium to depict the apocalypse.

  6. I love poking around abandoned places like this. I have not heard of this conversion yet and it sounds like a great idea, so it is sad that the potential is not being realized. Perhaps one day it will be another Torpedo Factory.

  7. Reminded me of pillaring through the old stone ruins found all through the British Isles, just much younger. Saw a great post on GGW about how they did an extraordinary job with an old building at Chanticleer. Enjoyed the creativity behind this post.

  8. The lack of landscape plantings preserves the institutional look, but also prevents it from being inviting. Plant some bushes people!

  9. The county, with the help of the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts and the International Mountain Bike Association, has upgraded the Laurel Hill equestrian trails with gentle bike and running trails (and some gnarly trails, too) on both sides of Furnace Road. On weekends, quite a few cyclists and trail runners park there. There is a small snack bar in the main gallery building, but a Starbucks-like patio cafe with coffee drinks and snacks and outdoor tables tables would bring in many of these people, and maybe even attract the high school kids from across 123 at South County High. The art community is doing what it can with the site and eventually county growth will fill in much of that area and the Arts Center can flourish. I take many photos in county parks but I would be very careful about going inside many of the abandoned buildings at Laurel Hill. There has been some contamination and the buildings are crumbling, with broken glass, jagged metal and spilled chemicals. We all need to have patience and support the Arts Center until the area can catch up. It would be a shame to see that historic site reduced to another Best Buys cookie-cutter sprawl mall. Give art a chance! Buy art from real artists in your community.

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