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.
Top 5 Berlin for urbexers
For those who prefer their adrenaline rush without risk of injury or arrest, there are plenty of sites that can be visited without your heart in your mouth.
On an artificial hill made from bombed-out Second World War rubble stands “Devil’s Mountain,” a former spy station used by the Americans for eavesdropping on the Soviets. The Cold War relic is now accessible for a modest fee: well worth a visit just for the street art. S9 or S75 to Heerstraße, or S1 to Grunewald
One of the world’s creepiest ghost towns is Beelitz Sanatorium, originally built for tuberculosis patients in 1898. During the Nazi regime, it was used for inhuman experiments, and after the Second World War it was the largest Soviet military treatment facility outside Russia. The fancy new treetop walkway offers a pricey alternative to fence-hopping. 50 mins by regional train from Alexanderplatz to Beelitz-Heilstätten Bahnhof
Failing to find a suitable investor after Germany’s reunification in 1990, the once-resplendent party palace is now in a sorry state of repair. The roofs and floors are dangerously soggy, but this doesn’t stop goths from partying there. S8 or S46 to Grünau, turn right at Regattastraße
Ironically dubbed “Birdsong,” this top-secret Soviet nuclear missile storage facility is a must-see for its sheer spookiness and brilliant murals. Without any political will to preserve this unique spot, it is rapidly being reclaimed by forest. S1 to Oranienburg and the RB12 regional train to Templin
Phantom infant cries echo eerily through the long corridors of this abandoned children’s hospital known as the “Zombie Hospital.” Though officially “protected,” it has been left to suffer at the hands of vandals and neglect-induced decay. M4 tram from Alexanderplatz to Buschallee/Hansastraße
Text and photos by Silja Kudel
This article is published in the January 2017 issue of Blue Wings.