i expect to hear the creak of floorboards at the berliner luft-und badeparadies (BLUB) in the southern edge of berlin’s neukölln kiez. i expect to feel slightly unsettled, haunted even, by an uninvited presence. i expect to hear the snap of a twig, only to turn around and spot a wisp of some unholy spirit. but the only ghosts here are the ones that hang in the air as my breath freezes.
it is just past noon on a grey monday in january. there’s a light frost so that the whole experience is cloaked in a kind of moodiness. i’m waiting on the arrival of ciaran, an expat who has become something of a berlin legend for his website, abandoned berlin; a social community where ciaran details his trips to the city’s many derelict sites and ruins. it turns out i had been waiting in the wrong spot earlier — i’m now standing on frozen grass at edge of a sparsely wooded area. and even though the trees are bare, you’d never glimpse this spot from the street. it’s a few minutes before ciaran arrives on bicycle, shaking my hand before shackling his bike to a rusted sign. we enter through what could pass for a door cut out of the chain-link fence, ducking under branches as BLUB looms into view, a stack of wood beams and shattered glass.
tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea for abandoned berlin?
the site started by accident really. some german friends told me about this abandoned fairground in the middle of a forest just rotting among the trees and i couldn’t believe it. it took a while before i gathered the courage to hop the fence and go for a look. when i did (2009) i was flabbergasted. it was incredible. i had such an experience i felt compelled to tell others so they might experience it too, so i wrote about it on my personal site with a little guide, how to get in and all that. then someone else told me about teufelsberg, someone else krampnitz, and before long i had a few abandoned places covered in the same way. one day i just decided to lump them all together on their own site, abandoned berlin, and it kinda took off from there.
that kind of exploring seems to be quite a trendy thing in this city. what do you think it is about berlin’s abandoned locales specifically that is so intriguing to people?
i’m not sure it’s berlin-specific. people are just interested in abandoned places because there is always the question of how a place became abandoned in the first place. essentially that’s the question i try answer by researching their histories and so on.
but it’s true that berlin, more than any city i’ve been in, seems to have no shortage of abandoned places to explore. what has been the weirdest place you’ve visited?
there was the underground bunker from where u-boats were controlled during ww2. it was wet, dark and felt like i was in a submarine. i was worried someone would close the hatch and seal me in there. the iraqi embassy was interesting for all the papers and documents left lying around. vogelsang, where the russians had nuclear missiles, was great too.
and what about the first time you went out. where did you go? were you nervous?
spreepark. i was alone, very nervous. i didn’t know if there were dogs, had no idea what to expect (it wasn’t all over the internet as it is now) and wasn’t sure about what repercussions there would be if i was caught. all in all though, that just added to the fun.
is the risk of getting caught part of the fun in these cases? are rules meant to be broken?
risk is very much part of the fun. hence the motto: “if it’s verboten it’s got to be fun.” i don’t go out of my way to break rules as such, but of course a huge sign saying “verboten! keep out!” only stokes the curiosity. you want to see what it is you’re not supposed to see.
BLUB is almost mind bogglingly big. a former swimming complex and water park, the site was popular in the late 80s and early 90s. a rat infestation in 2002 forced it to close its doors briefly, but the venue never quite recovered and BLUB closed permanently in 2005. upon entering the outdoor area and poking our heads into the various shacks outside, ciaran and i move into a larger room flanked by huge windows, all of which are broken. jewels of glass litter the ground everywhere; every step is marked by the static sound of it crunching beneath your feet. behind every door is seemingly more and more space but nothing is left untouched. graffiti and crude tags cover absolutely every inch of wall, floor and concrete, the various blocks and structures of the old pool clearly serving as a makeshift skatepark. i had read somewhere that locals come here to throw parties in the summer: beer bottles sit whole or shattered in every corner. we move through each room, ciaran setting up his tripod intermittently along the way. the whole space resonates with echoey silence and the occasional drip, drip, drip of unseen water. it’s an hour or so before we depart; the space seemingly even emptier than when we arrived.
do you think “abandoned” is the same thing as “haunted?” has there ever been a time where you felt like you weren’t alone?
plenty of times i’ve felt i wasn’t alone — and i don’t mean on the occasions i had company. for sure i think some essence of former owners or inhabitants stays in these places, though not all of them. i’m not sure if they’re ghosts per se, not your scooby doo type of ghost anyway, but i do think some sort of spiritual presence often remains. anytime i get spooked though, i tell myself to cop on, that there’s no such thing as ghosts. then i hurry up and get out before they catch me.
so, back to the site: one of my favourite things about abandoned berlin is the sense of community — everyone shares their tips and advice and experiences about each place.
it’s one of my favourite things too. i love hearing how other people get on. i mean, that was why i started this in the first place. i think social media has opened up these places to people who would otherwise have known nothing about them.
do you think that social media is affecting the longevity of urban exploring?
it may have an effect on the buildings themselves – any time you place even a footstep inside a dilapidated building you are contributing in a small way to its further dilapidation – but i feel the benefits to sharing these places outweigh the cons. most of these places are slated for destruction or conversion into apartments so their “shelf life” in their current form is limited anyway. i feel it’s better people enjoy them, hear their stories, before they’ve become luxury apartments and it’s no longer possible.
so what do you think of people that say a certain amount of secrecy is necessary to maintaining the longevity of urban exploring?
actually, many so-called “urbexers” are pissed off with me because i give addresses and detailed instructions on how to find places and get in to them. personally i think this is elitist. it annoys them to find tourists or visitors to berlin suddenly wandering around their previously secret spots. (it’s different when they’re charging admission of bringing the same tourists on tours to the same places.) i think it’s small-minded. they’d rather they were the only people to see these places even though they know these places’ days are numbered.
and if you could explore any ruins or abandoned site, real or fictional, what would it be and why?
i’d love to have been in berlin early enough to explore the palast der republik before they tore it down. it was like a parting shot at the gdr, to rip down the main government building. an incredibly shortsighted and political decision. even leaving aside its historical importance, it would have been one of berlin’s biggest tourist attractions.
++ more on the history of BLUB over at abandoned berlin