Enter if you dare: Berlin for urban explorers
Derelict hospitals, abandoned military installations, and other artfully crumbling ruins make the German capital a treasure trove for urban explorers.
Leon, Marvin, and Dennis arrive at the wrought-iron gates of Ballhaus Grünau, a boarded-up dance pavilion on the sleepy outskirts of Berlin. Ignoring the “NO ENTRY” sign, they slip in through a gap in the wire fence. Spotting an open window at the rear, they clamber in using hook and rope.
“Watch out for broken glass!” cries Dennis, leading the others across the sagging floors with his military-grade flashlight.
They go by first names only, because the trio are hard-core “urbexers”: people whose hobby is to document urban decay. Their idea of a fun weekend is to scout Berlin capturing footage of dilapidated architecture for their vlogs.
The last dance
In the middle of the dance floor stands a graffiti-splattered piano, the ghostly tinkle of its keys still almost audible. The atmosphere is eerie, yet hauntingly beautiful. Dating from 1890, the dance hall once drew revellers from far and wide, but today its crumbling demeanour is a forlorn echo of its lost grandeur.
“That’s exactly what appeals to us. Urbex is all about discovering Vergänglichkeit (the transience of things),” says Leon. “It’s intriguing to see how fast the decay sets in.”
Hooking up ropes to abseil into the lower sections of the building, Marvin admits to enjoying the adrenaline rush of courting danger: “We were once arrested for trespassing. We’ve also stepped on a few nails and cut ourselves on broken glass, but risk-taking comes with the territory.”
One of Berlin’s widely followed urbex bloggers is Ciarán Fahey, author of the book Abandoned Berlin. The Irishman’s urbex infatuation began with a visit to an abandoned fairground in Spreepark.
“I was amazed by what I found – a wonderworld of fallen dinosaurs, rusty rollercoasters, psychedelic creatures, and pirate ships with dragon heads. I was entranced. When I got home I researched the story behind it, and that’s been the driving force since – the stories behind all these neglected places,” says Fahey.
The Spreepark fairground is now patrolled by dogs to keep out vandals. Fahey points out that urbexers are wrongly blamed for vandalism: Most of them adhere to the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule.
“Abandoned sites are vandalised by bored kids with nothing better to do. I don’t believe urbex is a big contributing factor,” says Fahey.
Haunted by history
One of the most popular urbex sites recommended by Fahey is the former US Cold War spy station, Teufelsberg. The mountaintop site is adorned with some of Berlin’s finest street art, guerrilla gardens, and improvised beer gardens. For a modest sum paid at the gate, visitors can roam around freely, though parts are sealed off for safety reasons.
“There’s a wonderful view from the top, best enjoyed with a couple of beers! Some of the street art is really brilliant,” says Fahey.
Another famous site is Beelitz-Heilstätten, a vast, vine-covered military hospital where both Hitler and Honecker were once treated. Comprising 60 buildings across 200 hectares, the complex is relatively easy to fence-hop. Many sections have been heavily vandalised, however, and it’s only a matter of time until nothing of the original hospital interiors remains.
“It’s a race against time to see these places. Between vandalism at one end of the scale and development at the other (usually another form of vandalism), their existence is threatened from the moment they’re abandoned. Now is the time to catch what remains before they’re gone altogether,” says Fahey.
Text and photos Silja Kudel