BY Owen Hatherley in Frieze | 01 JAN 11
Featured in
Issue 136

Crude Awakening

From Deepwater Horizon to industrial architecture, the iconography of the petroleum sublime

BY Owen Hatherley in Frieze | 01 JAN 11

One of the saddest and most beautiful sights in Britain is offered by a place called Fawley, on the edge of Southampton. It’s the site of an enormous Esso petroleum refinery – the largest in the country, and at one time in Europe. It is best viewed from the other side of the estuary, from the serried tower blocks and blasted shingle beach of Weston Shore, or the park where the almost equally vast Netley Military Hospital used to be. What you see is a skyline of chimneys of picturesque complexity, tubular steel winding into mindbogglingly complex patterns and tentacular lattices. Container ships and oil tankers slowly make their way up and down the waterway. At night, when the flames from the top of the pipes is combined with bright, multicoloured lighting, Fawley is a magnificent, glittering metropolis, an entire city of oil, a deeply unflattering contrast with the rather more prosaic city of people a couple of miles back up Southampton Water.

The refinery was the site of an oil spill in summer 2010, when a leak from one of the tankers led to the temporary closure of the beach of Weston Shore. This event did not receive much press coverage for the entirely unsurprising reason that it paled in comparison with another, so much more vast and terrifying spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest in history. The images of the spill caused by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig were not of gleaming man-made refineries, but of nature defiled, of animals choked by the viscous black fluid, which seemed unstoppable throughout much of the year, an almost unsolvable problem. All the horrors of the dying oil economy – the social atomization and spiralling death rate caused by the motor car, the neo-colonial resource wars, the extractions of oil from ever more unlikely places, the quite possibly apocalyptic effects of burning even the oil we know we have left, Sarah Palin – seemed to coalesce into this image of a leak that couldn’t be plugged. Yet the iconography of petroleum has had a presence in film and photography over the last decade which, even when critical of its increasingly terrifying effects, has also registered the sublime qualities of its structures, and the harrowing beauty of the landscapes it has transformed.

Edward Burtynsky, Burning Tire Pile 1, Near Stockton, California, 1999. Digital c-type print 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy: Flowers, London, Edward Burtynsky.

The latter is the subject of one of 2010’s most elegiac films, Peter Mettler’s Petropolis. Funded by Greenpeace, the documentary consists of a series of aerial tracking shots of the Alberta Tar Sands, a huge extraction project in Canada. It provides a god’s eye view of a project of truly improbable scale, swooping over the bituminous sands and the industrial structures that pockmark them, an entirely alien moonscape. Despite its activist funding, it keeps a contemplative distance from the material, with the pin-sharp digital film sometimes resembling an apocalyptic Sim City. Clouds gradually fade into the plumes coming from the bitumen upgrading facility, while the camera spins effortlessly around the refinery. There is no sense of a ‘human scale’ in this man-made space, but the moment when a human being is the focus is one of the most vividly estranging – the camera pans out from a lone figure to a perfectly rectilinear, illegible structure resembling a Mesoamerican ziggurat. More often, we veer from the refineries – awesome in their complexity, both the mathematical and the dynamic sublime – and the landscapes, which look they’ve been scrawled over, vandalized. The overwhelming impression is of something uncontrollable – man-made as it is, Tar Sands appears as a force of nature, of such massive scale that it couldn’t possibly be reversed, as if the process has been set in motion, and all we can do now is contemplate the enormity of what we have done. The impression is reinforced by the film’s soundtrack, which veers between silence and an advancing drone that suddenly cuts out when the tracking shot ends; the noise of a (currently) postponed disaster.

Perhaps there’s a bad faith in this. What Mettler films is, in its traumatic and horrifying way, deeply beautiful, and any inflammatory or agitational quality is quickly replaced by awe. The film’s credits cite photographer Edward Burtynsky, which is unsurprising, as his compendious 2009 collection Oil is still the most astonishing presentation of the petroleum sublime; in its introduction, Burtynsky admits that the initial motivation was ‘a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to’, and that awe, mixed with horror, the picturesque and a certain amount of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) pervades these photographs, the contemporary equivalents of Regency painter John Martin’s transfigurations of the industrial revolution into visions of Hell. They’re thrilling when they show the cities oil built – the Cyclopean expressways of Shanghai, the skyline of Detroit – and have a malevolent grandeur when depicting the aftermath, the drained, deserted world of rusting derricks and collapsing platforms in Azerbaijan, formerly the Soviet Union’s petroleum belt. No doubt aware of Bertolt Brecht’s admonition that a photograph of a factory tells us almost nothing about the relations inside, Oil is partly made up of analytical texts on the history of its subject, contextualising the awesome, awful images.

Another recent book takes a more specific, but less analytical approach, though shares with Petropolis and Oil a certain elegiac quality, the sense of something ending, albeit dying the most violent, unwilling death. Mitch Epstein’s American Power (2009) depicts petroleum as an inescapable product of the American Century, and its desuetude as a symptom of its decline. Photographed mostly in the mid-2000s, while the Iraq War raged far enough away to be only an implicit reference (‘Terror-Free Oil’, claims one petrol station), it takes particular satiric glee in showing how the American dream of anti-urban dispersal and cute dream homes relies on the most massive, ultra-modern structures. Cooling towers overshadow weatherboarded bungalows, holiday-makers survey scarred landscapes. The most emblematic photograph shows the BP Carson Refinery in California decorated with a large, torn Stars and Stripes. The implication, here and elsewhere, is that the US will give up oil over its dead body, and the images of wind farms that are interspersed through the concrete and steel in American Power seem unlikely to induce the same sense of nationalistic identification and affection. 

Mettler, Epstein and Burtynsky all try to hold on to a critique of some sort, to combine awe and ethics. This is markedly absent in the work of a less famous photographer, the Slovakian Branislav Kropilak. His series 'Factories' (2010) is entirely made up of refineries, all shot at night. It’s pure formalism, a concentration on effects of the metallic sheen, the glaring lights and the chromaticism of rust upon the intersecting pipes and uncanny domes of an entirely generic complex, rendered with a cold but adoring eye. Amongst other things, Kropilak’s work is a reminder of how much 20th-century architecture, from Constructivism to Archigram to Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building in London, is essentially a more polite, more artistic version of these places. There is no terror, no sense of approaching collapse in these images, only a precise gaze at the improbable formal achievements necessitated by functional processes. They’re decontextualised, depoliticized, and utterly beautiful.

Petropolis, Greenpeace / Jiri Rezac.

Most of all, Kropilak captures the seeming irrationalism, the uncanniness of the refineries, presenting images of a weirdly organic technology, the pipelines’ endless connections and intersections displaying an industrial non-aesthetic seemingly more inspired by fevered dreams than calm Sachlichkeit. Although 1970s factories unfortunately did not inspire programmatic texts in the way that cities such as Las Vegas did (Learning from Fawley Refinery, anyone?), these kind of structures are one of the main inadvertent parents of hi-tech architecture, in that, as suggested by Reyner Banham’s debunking of the International Style’s pretensions to up-to-the-minute technology in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), they showed an industrial aesthetic that was not calm or ordered, that had little in common with the serene Platonic volumes Le Corbusier saw in grain silos, but was instead busy, seemingly chaotic, overcoded and overdetailed, wildly impure. Banham himself, in the ‘Non-Plan’ he composed in 1969 with Cedric Price, Peter Hall and Paul Barker in a famous issue of New Society, imagined giving Fawley son et lumière, recreating it as a visitor attraction.

It would be strangely Ruskinian to suggest that the refineries are beautiful because of their fulfilment of function, especially given that their absurdly complex nature means that the function can only be guessed at by the person looking at them for aesthetic reasons. But they raise an intriguing question – what is the appropriate form for an honestly technological architecture in (very) late capitalism? As everywhere, when you look for a genuinely contemporary industrial architecture, you find the buildings of today’s production and distribution centres profiled with lugubrious relish in Chris Petit’s Content (2010) – you find gigantic, rectilinear and blank distribution sheds, an architecture more bare, more white, more Platonic and more blandly pure than a Corbusier could have possibly wanted. The aesthetics of extraction and refining have a Faustian drama completely lacking from the seamless world of the Big Sheds.

The industrial romanticism of Kropilak’s Factories is more than a little reminiscent of ‘Stanlow’, a song on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1980 album Organisation. The song refers to a large Shell oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, where singer Andy McCluskey’s father worked, and it’s a lament as much as a hymn to a dying faith in human technological achievement. ‘We set you down to care for us, Stanlow [...] a vision fading fast, Stanlow.’ In almost all these various meditations on the dubious and thrilling aesthetics of petrol, there is a sense of imminent disappearance, but also an astonishment at the sheer scale and drama of construction and industry, an impulse which could so easily be put to less destructive use. Near the climax of Petropolis, a brief voice-over tells us how many million years the sun has left to live, and then states that petroleum has only been extracted in the current manner for 80 years. It then asks, over the alternately poignant and alarming images, the question – ‘what will we do next?’ It sounds open, promising.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).