Swiss Auto Graveyard

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From Aard regular CCBC, a heritage management conundrum to ponder.

This is a curious situation that I heard about on metafilter.com. I have included some of the links.

Near Kaufdorf, Switzerland there is an auto junkyard that was in use from the 1930s to 1970. It has become overgrown with various forest flora and people have found it an interesting place to take photos. Recently, the Swiss government has decreed the place an environmental hazard and says that it must be cleared and paved to prevent fluids from seeping into the ground. Many people have protested on the grounds that:

  1. This is a valuable record of vehicles from their first wide use until the end of cheap oil;

  2. This is a habitat (!) for endangered species of lichens, mosses, and so on;
  3. This is a beautiful spectacle. (This seems to me the most compelling reason to just leave it alone.)

Now, it might be argued that allowing these vehicles to decay destroys their value as historic/archaeological data. On the other hand, your recent mention of burning buildings down to better understand the ruins you might unearth suggests to me that something might be learned by recording this process of a scrap yard returning to forest. In either case, I find the images compelling. And I do not accept the official rationale that the forest must be paved over to preserve it. (Especially after almost forty years!) But the vehicle carcasses will be auctioned off in September and the asphalt will be poured.

Anyway:

Myself, I love photographs from these sites, but I’m not terribly keen to visit one. I much prefer indoor auto museums where the machines are in good condition. I think the thing to do here would be to invite a bunch of painters and photographers to do projects about the site over a few months, and then clean it up. The future of the environment should trump today’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Photo by Rolf F.

Comments

  1. #1 RG
    August 25, 2009

    Removing vehicles – costly, messy, ruins a neat looking junkyard, but ok. I can see the logic. It removes potential hazardous materials from further seeping/leaching into the soil.
    But then paving it over? Huh?

    In the US a frequent strategy for dealing with our “superfund” (read: uber-contaminated) sites is to cap it with clean fill dirt. Plants can recolonize the area, or it can be built upon again. Creating an impermeable surface is rarely the solution.

  2. #2 Martin R
    August 25, 2009

    It does sound kind of weird! Trouble with leaving the contaminated stuff in place is that it will end up in the water table eventually.

  3. #3 Tor
    August 25, 2009

    Well, if it’s a potential health hazard, clearly something has to be done about it. Looks like a cool place, though. Couldn’t you pour the poison out of the cars and then put them back? Too expensive, perhaps.

  4. #4 Ken
    August 25, 2009

    Tor, Exactly where in any car is this magical and convenient poison container you speak of?

    After so many years those cars wont have much for fluids left in them, its all about the metals leaching now.

    A better question is who is asking for the lot to be paved? … a parking lot developer? a business that needs cheap space in an industrial park?

    Paving or capping wont fix the groundwater. They need curtains of ground water wells with treatment tanks to head off the contamination plumes and need to dig out the soil … how old gas stations with leaky underground tanks are reclaimed.

  5. #5 Tor
    August 25, 2009

    Hmm, I guess you’re right — though the article linked to speaks of the danger of “solvents leaking out of” the cars. Maybe by “solvents” they mean “solubles”.

  6. #6 kai
    August 26, 2009

    I guess the issue may be with stuff leaching out of rubber tyres and such, but I agree that the proposed solution will not actually do much to address that, especially as asphalt will cause a not inconsiderable leaching of toxic substances in itself!

    Martin:

    …indoor auto museums where the machines are in good condition

    As I’ve pointed out before, keeping technical artefacts in “good shape” is two-edged, often nvolving heavy-handed restoration. I believe archaeological artefacts are today preserved without any attempt to restore them to “mint condition”, but for vehicles and such I would say this is very seldom done.

  7. #7 Thinker
    August 26, 2009

    Apart from the environmental considerations, this reminds me of the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy. Many of his works are made – on purpose – to disintegrate or change over time. Some very quickly, over the course of a few minutes, while others would take years.

    However, he mainly works with natural materials gathered at the site of the work.

    This Youtube clip will give you an idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9TyHzP-8b8&feature=related

  8. #8 Codero
    August 26, 2009

    German artists Joseph Beuys and HA Schult also come to mind.
    I seem to remember hearing that the vehicles were clean of brake fluid, fuel, oil etc. to begin with. There may well be non-ecological reasons for wanting to clear up the site.
    Anyway this must be a spooky place to be, almost like that body farm they have in Tennessee.

  9. #9 codero
    August 26, 2009

    BTW, Switzerland is not a EU member state.

  10. #10 CCBC
    August 26, 2009

    Though not a member of the EU, Switzerland has signed on to most of its legal apparatus in bilateral treaties. This seems to include the provision that junkyards must be cleared since that is what Swiss papers are citing as the reason for this action.

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