In 2006, in Elmshorn, in northern of Germany, the carpet manufacturer Kibek built a new headquarters. Their old building, a 12-story tower was left empty for almost a decade. In 2014 the city decided to renovate the building and turned it into an apartment bloc, as reported by the local newspaper Elmshorner Nachrichten. A very common development in many cities. But the small community of urban explorers has mixed feelings about it.
These are people who go to abandoned and normally inaccessible places like empty buildings, old bunkers or ruins. Often they are old industrial buildings or ruins left from conflicts. Other explorers also go into subway tunnels or other places that are off limits for the general public. The the general rule is to “take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.”
Urban explorer Lasse O., who does not want his last name to be known, has a special relationship to the Kibek tower. “It was the first abandoned building I explored,” he says. As a teenager he spent many evenings on the roof of the building, watching the sunset with his friends.
Asked about the renovation he says: “it’s good that the building is maintained, but I have so many memories from there that it feels weird that other people live there now.”
He describes that he often goes back to places only to find them torn down or renovated and re-used. As in the case of the Kibek carpet store in Elmshorn, this often happens in cities that need housing and invest in the development of unused buildings. He says that “in the long run there won’t be any major abandoned buildings left that are good destinations for urban exploring.”
Part of the fascination of urban exploring is this connection to history. Valentin Macke, an urban explorer from Vienna, says he wants to “solve the puzzle of how a place becomes abandoned.” He tells a little story about a moment he often thinks back to: “Once I found a child’s notebook from 1926 and for a moment felt as if I had a direct connection with the person who used it.”
There are risks and legal questions connected to urban exploring. In many countries it is considered trespassing to enter empty buildings without permission. And especially in long abandoned buildings, there is a risk of injury. According to the website urbex.co.uk, “urban exploring is one of the most dangerous hobbies you can have.” This can be due to roofs caving in, asbestos or even gangs who use the buildingxs for their operations.