Urban Exploration is not a Crime


The cold wind blows in our faces, as if to convince us to return. The air is crisp on one of those rare sunny days in Berlin. We are heading towards an old university institute, which was abandoned in 2005. A supermarket chain bought the land in 2009 but so far only managed to erect a barbed fence. A small gap in the fence grants us entrance. 
Through this little act of deviance, of going against what is accepted, we enter another world. The rules that govern behaviour outside of the fence don’t apply here. Windows are thrown in, graffitis and scribbles are all over, ceilings are ripped out. This anarchic mess can be intimidating, but when we embrace it, it feels liberating. There is a sense of innate freedom in these places. This freedom leads some people to smash everything they find, just because they can. 
It is foolish, even scary to imagine a society where behaviour would not be under some sort of social control. But a place like this reveals just how extreme these social controls are. As Bradley Garret writes, we live in an urban environment “that increases our passivity and diminishes our capacities for empathy and meaningful engagement”.
Exploring a building on our own terms, interacting with it however we deem appropriate, governed only by ourselves is this meaningful engagement he feels is lost. We can participate in creating this place in an absolutely unprecedented way. This is why people feel the urge to live out their deepest desires, which can be destructive. When the chains of social controls are lifted the first instinct is to test if you are really as free as you feel. To enact the most violent fantasy, like setting fire to a university building, is a reaction that suddenly becomes understandable. 
The building is almost a labyrinth. A set of stairs does not look reliable, so we look for an alternative path. It is a slow process of exploration. We check every room, never sure what to expect. A slow engagement with our surrounding is a wonderful exception to the hurried stream of life outside the fence. We encounter other explorers and at first I don’t like it. We meet a couple in their late 30s that just talks a bit too much and two teenage girls taking selfies. I feel a strange sense of entitlement, which I try to get rid of the moment I sense it. It is wonderful that people take up the chance to feel the same sensation of freedom and wonder in this place. The more people get closer to their city the better. Urban exploration can instil a sense of authenticity in us that is hardly to be found elsewhere. To speak with Garret again, “it enriches and redefines our existence”. Urban exploration awakens the child in us again. The world becomes one of mysteries, adventure and discovery. 
Taking pictures of these places is partly documentation of a fleeting moment but also an invitation. We can do this and so can you! The camera is not a distraction, but deepens my connection with this place. And through the pictures I try to reach out to other people and inspire them to start exploring themselves. This is not an act of crime but seizing what is rightfully yours. The right to the city is something all people are entitled to and one way of exercising it is simply pretending you already have it. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in the act of the creation of the city and urban exploration is such an act of creation.
Our exploration has taken us to the rooftop and now down to the basement. It is eerie and the temperature seems to drop a couple more degrees. I stay behind to set up a photo as I hear Isa exclaiming “holy shit!!” I hurry after her to find the old dissection table and cooling chambers for anatomic corpses. The cold shiny steel table lays on its side but was too heavy to completely remove. I cannot deny the adrenaline rush a find like this gives you. To explore the dark and creepy basement adds another layer of fear to our already rich experience. With time we get used to this surrounding, venturing further to discover more cooling chambers. 
After more than two hours we are frozen to the bones and retreat to a nearby café to reminisce about the day events. Exploring is an activity that not only enriches our individual lives but also us together. We share profound experiences of freedom, fear, authenticity, and discovery, something seldom found in a sanitized urban environment. Out of these experiences comes a deeper understanding and engagement with the other person. Our eyes both will carry this sparkle of wonder for some time, until it comes time to renew it in another exploration.
Go out and explore!

Bradley L. Garrett (2013): Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Verso Books, London.  

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