Left to Rot: the New Global Effort to Preserve Lost Monuments

From a railway run by children in Ljubljana to brutalist monuments in the Balkans, the Nonument Group maps abandoned 20th-century architecture.

When he was 14, Ljubljana resident Janko Vrhunc spent every Sunday training to drive a steam locomotive. “We had to sign in, then check all the wagons, check the train, then talk to all the workers,” recalls Vrhunc, now 84. “I asked the train driver: is the fire strong enough? I asked the conductor: did we sell enough tickets to depart? Are the uniforms in order?”

After three months Vrhunc and about 20 other schoolchildren were deemed ready to run the small-gauge Pioneer Railway under adult supervision. “We moved the train from Ljubljana main station,” says Vrhunc. “The train driver stepped aside and let us do it. This is how … one of us fell under the wheels and lost a leg.”

When it opened in 1948 it was one of a number of child-run railways built according to communist ideology in Soviet and eastern bloc countries as educational tools to cultivate young people’s interest in technology and prepare them for jobs in engineering. It was a popular novelty at first but when Yugoslavia severed ties with the Soviet Union a few months later, funding and enthusiasm dwindled. In 1954 it was shut down completely.

Today almost no trace of the railway remains in Ljubljana, outside of the memories of the few surviving Pioneers. “There is only a bicycle lane there now,” says Neja Tomšič, project coordinator at the city’s Museum of Transitory Art.

The Pioneer Railway is what she and collaborator Martin Bricelj Baraga term a “nonument” – 20th century architecture, public spaces and infrastructure projects that are abandoned, unwanted or forgotten.

Working with an international team of researchers and artists, Tomšič and Bricelj Baraga study, map and archive fading sites and Brutalist-style structures. They’re building a database of about 120 case studies across Europe and in former Soviet states and will be releasing a book this year. ...