Breaking and entering with Germany's 'urban explorers'
A growing number of Germans have taken up a new hobby they call “urban exploration,” by breaking and entering crumbling structures to create photo documentations of the historic spaces. But property owners aren’t amused.
Checking for witnesses, Erfurt resident Kerstin looks to her left and right before slipping through a hole in a rusty fence, tromping through thick undergrowth, and straining to open the heavy iron door of an abandoned building.
“It’s not always so easy,” she says, fishing for her camera.
Kerstin must break the law to enjoy her hobby – photographing the decline of old buildings.
“This is primarily about documentation,” the 51-year-old says, focusing her lens on an industrial ventilator.
Some 4,500 urban explorers are registered on two large German internet forums, where users share photo galleries and location tips.
"Scenesters" understand the legal risk of their activities, but separate themselves from common vandals and squatters who intentionally damage such structures, says Kerstin, shaking her head over graffiti and metal thievery.
“Normally I don’t change anything in the buildings,” she says.
Kerstin has never been caught, and spotting a new-model car on the property, decides to turn back.
“One mustn’t risk everything,” she says, explaining there were plenty of other ruins in the eastern German city.
A half hour later, Kerstin scrambles over her next fence, and this time she is alone on the property.
Urban exploration may be an exciting recreational activity for people like Kerstin, but property owners disapprove, despite their relatively innocent intentions.
“Their intentions play no role for us in the end,” says Klaus-Peter Hesse, spokesperson for the German Property Federation (ZIA).
People who want to enter private property must obey the law and ask for permission first he said.
“Some are less strict, some more, but laws are always to be respected,” he says.
Kerstin says she understands property owners’ reservations, but thinks the problem lies in liability law.
“If I go in somewhere and something happens, then that’s my bad luck,” she says, adding that she would not think to sue the building’s owner.
Some owners probably don’t want people on their property because they are ashamed of the dilapidation, she says.
The next building’s entrance is blocked by a reedy pond, while inside electrical boxes reveal Polish parts, and miniature urinals bedeck the walls of one room on each floor.
Kerstin guesses the building was once a school in communist East Germany, and photographs a small plastic cat among rubbish lying on the floor.
“This is the stuff that gives buildings their soul,” she says.