Urban Exploration Romanticising Ruins or Criticising Society

Former US listening station on the top of the Berlin Teufelsberg
Former US listening station on the top of the Berlin Teufelsberg | © Olaf Rauch

They investigate the derelict ruins of industrial buildings and climb up onto the scaffolding of huge building sites. These so-called Urban Explorers have now started to rediscover forgotten urban spaces in Germany, too. For some it is just an adventure, others, however, see themselves as political activists.

At the beginning of 2008 editor and photographer, André Winternitz, was doing some research in his home region of Westphalia on mysterious places. He set about seeking out locations, he went to the Heimatvereine (local heritage societies) and asked whether they knew of any “old, haunted buildings with a scare factor” and in no time at all he had made a few finds. “When I visited the first buildings, I was immediately bowled over. I wanted to take more and more photographs and, above all, I wanted to find out more about the history of the place.” As he says himself, he was well and truly infected with the “ruins bug”, with a passion for the “aesthetics of decay.”

Shortly afterwards Winternitz decided to publicly exhibit his private archive of images. On the website Rottenplaces.de he posted a collection of his most beautiful photographs of ruins and was soon in contact with like-minded people. The archive got bigger and bigger, a forum was set up in which the ever growing scene could exchange their views and ideas, and information was collected on the various places that had been visited. The aim of the undertaking was also much more clearly defined - photograph it and document it. “We want to inform and fight against forgetting,” as it says on the website.

The quest for urban adventures

  • A church in the grounds of a military barracks © Roswitha Schmid, 2013
    A church in the grounds of a military barracks
  • A stairway in a derelict swimming bath in North-Rhine Westphalia © Roswitha Schmid, 2012
    A stairway in a derelict swimming bath in North-Rhine Westphalia
  • The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest © Roswitha Schmid, 2014
    The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest
  • The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest © Olaf Rauch, 2014
    The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest
  • A laboratory in a paper factory in the Black Forest © Roswitha Schmid, 2013
    A laboratory in a paper factory in the Black Forest
  • The control room of a power station in the Black Forest © Olaf Rauch, 2007
    The control room of a power station in the Black Forest
  • The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest © Roswitha Schmid, 2014
    The Grand Hotel in the Black Forest
  • An industrialist's villa in France © Olaf Rauch, 2014
    An industrialist's villa in France
  • A swimming bath in North-Rhine Westphalia © Olaf Rauch, 2012
    A swimming bath in North-Rhine Westphalia
  • A coking plant in North-Rhine Westphalia © Olaf Rauch, 2012
    A coking plant in North-Rhine Westphalia
  • A church and nursing home in the Netherlands © Olaf Rauch, 2012
    A church and nursing home in the Netherlands
  • A power station in the Black Forest © Olaf Rauch, 2012
    A power station in the Black Forest
  • A blast furnace in North-Rhine Westphalia © Olaf Rauch, 2007
    A blast furnace in North-Rhine Westphalia
In the meantime the Rottenplaces.de website has become one of the most important German contact points for this international trend for which the term Urban Exploration has come into use. These Urban Explorers, or Urbexers as they are called, have adopted a somewhat more general approach than André Winternitz and his ruins photography - they are more interested in investigating urban spaces that as a rule are off limits to most of the residents of a city: alongside ruins these might be vacant property, large building sites, municipal sewerage systems or disused underground railway stations. And more often than not the creative breaking into secured property plays equally as important a role as the actual documenting of the exploration itself.

The book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, published in 2013, is a kind of insider report about an Urban Explorers’ group in London. It was written by the geographer and former “Urbexer”, Bradley Garrett, and in it he attempts to classify the phenomenon historically and ,above all, politically. Interestingly this is the thing that is not quite as simple as it might seem. The systematic exploration of urban space can be traced back historically to the 1960s. Back then the Situationist International, a group of intellectuals, was already demanding a completely new way of perceiving urban reality. Behind the facades of a tamed urban environment there were real adventures just waiting to be had.

The beauty of urban spaces

In 2012 Garrett gained fame when photos taken from the top of the 310-metre-high The Shard in London appeared on the Internet. At that time The Shard was the tallest building in Europe. The media spoke of a “climbing of the Mount Everest of Architecture”, Garrett himself, on the other hand, of an “awareness-raising of our urban living environment”. “The Shard professes to be a ‘mixed-use property’, yet at the same time only a selected few are allowed to enter. It is all about money, not about getting people involved,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten.

For André Winternitz, on the other hand, the frisson of the forbidden and political agitation only play a marginal role, if they play one at all. “If possible, we get a permit before we explore a site.” He would in fact prefer not to call his activities Urban Exploration, but rather “Ruins Reconnaissance”. Only in exceptional cases can entering a site without a permit be a means to an end. According to Winternitz, real creativity comes about when photographing “Lost Places”, as ruins are called on the scene.

Olaf Rauch sees it the same way; he is a photographer, an Urban Explorer and the organiser of the Urbexpo in Bochum - one of the biggest photography exhibitions on the subject of Lost Places and the Aesthetics of Decay in Europe. “What we are striving to do is to create, with the aid of images, an awareness for the beauty of urban spaces - an awareness that goes beyond any romantic yearning for adventure. The spaces might be the vast ruins of an abandoned steel works or a hotel that has been closed for decades, but whose rooms are still furnished.”

Silent anarchy

Nevertheless there is still a not so small group of German Urban Explorers who feel that they have not been adequately represented by projects like Rottenplaces.de or Urbexpo and Winternitz and Rauch openly admit this. Naming the sites in the photographs, as Winternitz and Rauch do, is considered to be a taboo that, as is alleged, in the end will lead to a subculture that is worthy of protection being more and more commercialised.

Opinions differ on whether it is a case of social criticism or more a case of defending a spectacular hobby. No matter how it is viewed this reappropriation of urban space, for which the Explorers in the meantime have adopted quite drastic methods, is a process that has been in progress for quite some time. In his book Wir sind die Stadt! (We are The City/2013), journalist and author Hanno Rauterberg writes that a “new urbanism” and a “silent anarchy” are to be observed in the big cities. For example, as part of bizarre mini-events like flash mobs, planting flower beds along the roadside, known as guerrilla gardening, transforming electrical terminal boxes into works of art and rummaging through the waste outside supermarkets, called dumpster diving.

Urban Exploration was and is a part of this new understanding of participative urbanity - and yet at the same time it is in a very quiet way anarchic.