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Exploring Berlin’s abandoned spaces offers a myriad of choice to sate the urban explorer in all of us. From forgotten amusement parks to abandoned swimming pools and left-behind spy stations, the city is rich with hauntingly beautiful spaces that act as windows into Berlin’s past. We spoke with Berlin-based photographer and urban explorer James Fancourt about photographing and exploring these unique historical sites, and how they’ve changed over the years.
When did you start exploring Berlin’s abandoned places, and what spurred this curiosity?
Just after I arrived in Berlin, a friend in London told me about Teufelsberg — the abandoned US listening post in Grunewald. When I went, I realised that although it was abandoned, the security was fairly tight and so I had to join a tour to see it. It piqued my interest, though, and I soon discovered there was a wealth of abandoned places in and around Berlin to explore that weren’t being exploited for profit.
Berlin has had a checkered and intense past – does this play into the abandoned relics that are left behind?
Most definitely. Many of the places that lie abandoned here have a history that’s tied in with the Nazis or Soviets, or sometimes both. Krampnitz Kaserne, for example, was originally a Nazi military base before being taken over by the Soviets after WWII, and then abandoned after the fall of the USSR. I think Berlin’s tumultuous history also has a less direct influence on some places. Post-war Berlin has always been a poor city, so many sites have been left abandoned simply because people haven’t had the means to repurpose or redevelop them.
Is the history of the place important to you? Do you think it amplifies the story of a now-deserted place?
I wouldn’t say it’s hugely important to me, although it certainly makes it more interesting, and I do like to read up on the history of a place before I visit. For me though, exploring abandoned places goes beyond the historical interest. I find it fascinating on a physical level, to see the way buildings fall into ruin without any human presence. It’s like getting a little glimpse of a post-apocalyptic world, and there’s a certain beauty to that. These places serve as a physical reminder of how fleeting humanity is, and how in the end, nature always prevails.
What have been some of your favourite places to shoot and explore? Why?
Sanatorium E was probably my favourite place to shoot in Berlin. The thing that I liked so much about it was that it was largely unspoiled (although I’m not sure if it’s still the case now!). There’s a simple rule that (most) urban explorers try to stick to, summed up as ‘take only photos, leave nothing but footprints’. A lot of places get stripped of everything or trashed, but here you could find really old bottles and DDR-era newspapers from the ’50s. There was also a wonderful piano that I assumed was never stolen simply because of its sheer weight, although unfortunately on my last visit I discovered someone had managed to make off with it.
Do you feel that photographing these places has given you a unique perspective on Berlin’s past and a greater appreciation for history and what has come before us?
I’m not sure whether I have a unique perspective, but visiting these places does allow you to get ‘closer’ to the history, and you can learn a lot about Berlin’s past. You get to see some fascinating things, too, such as the statue of Lenin that still stands proudly at Wünsdorf. I think when you live in Berlin, though, its impossible to escape its complex history anyway. It can be seen all around, whether it’s something as small as the different traffic lights between former East and West, or the Stolpersteine which serve as a haunting reminder of Nazi deportations.
Are there any abandoned spaces you haven’t explored in the city yet?
There are definitely some I haven’t been to, and some which I tried but could never get into. A lot of spaces are disappearing, too, and many of those locations that were once kept secret are now openly known, which results in them becoming vandalised; these ones don’t really appeal to me, so I never bothered to visit them.
Have you usually explored and shot these spaces alone?
Nearly always, although on occasion I would go with a friend, or outside of Berlin I sometimes met up with other urban explorers who’d show me their abandoned places. I always prefer to go on my own though, because you can explore and take photos at your own pace, although its terms of safety it probably doesn’t hurt to go with a friend.
Are there any risks to exploring abandoned Berlin?
Quite a few, I suppose. Some of these places have been abandoned for decades, so the floor might fall in, the ceiling might fall in, stairs might fall in; pretty much anything that could fall apart might fall apart. But as long as you’re cautious and use common sense, you’ll be fine. Other risks include overzealous security guards, nosy neighbours calling the police, etc. But that’s obviously only a risk if you go without permission…which I would, uh, never condone.
Do you think urban exploring is for everyone? What sense of a city do you get by exploring its abandoned places?
I guess it depends on how you define urban exploring. Beelitz now has a treetop walkway for people to see the abandoned buildings from above; Teufelsberg has its tours. The monetisation of abandoned spaces kind of sucks if you ask me, but it does make it accessible to those who aren’t inclined to climb over fences, scrape through windows and run from security guards. In that sense, I guess it can be for everyone, but for a ‘true’ experience it probably isn’t.
Exploring the abandoned places of a city does give you an amazing insight into its history. Leafing through old newspapers from the 1950s or coming up close to a morgue table in an abandoned hospital is the kind of thing you can’t really experience in a museum. As I mentioned before, though, it’s not all about the city to me. I’ve always found this idea of a post-apocalyptic world fascinating, whether from reading books like McCarthy’s The Road or watching films like Le Temps du Loup. Maybe it’s a bit of a morbid curiosity, but I find abandoned places offer a unique window into what a world might look like if we were suddenly gone, and I guess I just find that utterly fascinating.