Berlin? Verboten? That sounds fun
Irish blogger Ciarán Fahey visits ‘forgotten Berlin’ – Nazi bakeries, boarded-up breweries, abandoned U-boat bunkers – then photographs and writes about it
Verboten Berlin: a dinosaur fallen on hard times at Spreepark, once the biggest amusement park in East Germany. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: a bunker at Vogelsang, where nuclear missiles were stored. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: a Soviet mural in a flooded basement at Vogelsang, where the Russians once had nuclear missiles primed for western Europe. London, Paris, Brussels, Bonn and the Ruhr region of West Germany were allegedly in sight. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, where the Americans and British used to spy on East Germany from the highest point in what was West Berlin. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: Heilstätten Hohenlychen, tuberculosis sanatorium, wartime hospital, sports-medicine research facility and, later, the site of horrific cruelty as experiments were conducted on concentration-camp prisoners. It was taken over by the Russians after the second World War. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: a statue of Lenin at Wünsdorf, which after the second World War became the Forbidden City, the Soviets’ largest military base outside the USSR. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: graffiti at Funkhaus Grünau, a former boathouse and military hospital. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: a hallway where the German army had uniforms made; later home to a Soviet tank division. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: East German law gazettes found in the Brenquell Brauerei brewery, which closed in 1994. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Verboten Berlin: a typewriter at the abandoned Iraqi embassy to East Germany. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
Forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter than the shop-bought kind. For Ciarán Fahey the same logic applies to Berlin’s forbidden and forgotten places.
A century of wars, ruptures and regime changes has left the German capital with a rich harvest of ruins – and almost all bear a sign reading Verboten.
Since moving here, in 2008, the Waterford-born journalist has developed a close relationship with that word. So close, in fact, that it features in the tagline of his “Abandoned Berlin” blog: “If it’s Verboten it’s got to be fun.”
Fahey started his blog as a bit of a fun in 2009, giving forgotten places he visited difficulty ratings and passing on tips for avoiding security guards. Now his hobby has become an all-consuming passion, and Fahey is an expat expert in demand across the German media.
Fahey doesn’t just visit: he documents the site in photographs, explains why the building is a ruin and describes the atmosphere from a vanished era still clinging to the bricks.
Some of the first sites he visited were the Spreepark, an abandoned fairground in eastern Berlin that recently burned down, and the Teufelsberg, a cold-war era US listening post on the city’s western outskirts. Both sites are part of this unique category in Berlin: memory limbo in full view that, once entered, echo with their vanished lives. Since then he has visited Nazi bakeries, boarded-up breweries and abandoned train stations – and written lively reports on his site.
Fahey says he never explicitly breaks into a site, preferring to use existing openings to find his way in. This is still trespassing and, technically, illegal, and he has been caught by security guards a few times. But he has developed an impressive catalogue of escape and evasive-action techniques – none of which we will reveal here.
His hairiest trip to date, Fahey says, was to an abandoned house in Köpenick, in eastern Berlin, when the ceiling collapsed in a room he had just left.
Despite the occasional close call, Fahey says he doesn’t take security precautions, like wearing a hard hat or a GPS tracker. Instead he relies on his wits, tries to be careful and avoids standing on anything that looks rotten.
Most of his excursions – occasionally with his three-year-old son, Fionn – are now routine outings. But every so often the heavy history of a place gets even to him. Like the time he visited an abandoned U-boat bunker in northern Berlin.
“It was completely dark. All you could hear was the drip-drip-drip of water,” he says. “There was a glistening darkness everywhere, and I started thinking I could hear voices and had the feeling I wasn’t going to get out again.”
Today urban exploration in Berlin is a crowded and increasingly contentious scene. The photographer Axel Hansmann, who has documented lost places in the city Berlin since 2007, says he is attracted more by the aesthetic of decline than by the lure of forbidden fruit.
“I don’t need an adrenaline kick,” he told the German news agency DPA.
Although Hansmann doesn’t give directions to the sites he visits, Fahey does. Next year he is bringing out a Forgotten Berlin book, with a best-of selection from the website. Critics say such decisions hasten the ruins’ deterioration, a point Fahey understands but doesn’t accept.
“Most of these places are on borrowed time as it is, and none are going to stay ruined forever,” he says. “Either through the weather or passing of time, the life of these places is finite. I feel that, by publishing addresses, I’m giving people a chance to go and see them before they’re gone.”
Where urban exploration was once a hobby for loners, it is now a thriving business. There is no shortage of tours and books of “must-see” cold-war and Third Reich ruins around the capital. Even the Teufelsberg has now become a tourist attraction. Although it is still a ruin, enterprising local security guards collect money from visitors for a view of the ragged radar towers or the chance to watch graffiti artists in action. “If more and more people are going to a place, the people who own it want to cash in, and I see that I contribute to that,” says Fahey.
A former cigarette factory he visited in northern Berlin, once owned by a Jewish family run out of the country in the 1930s, is now a complex of luxury apartments. Tacheles, a prewar department store turned art complex in postwall Berlin, closed down two years ago – and was recently sold for €150 million.
“I don’t feel a sense of loss when other people visit these places or write about them, but when they are literally gone or reclaimed as apartments . . .” he says. “Of course, in a way that is progress, and the natural order of how these things should go, but still.”
No ruin nostalgic, Fahey is critical of the way Berlin has dealt with its stock of historical buildings. A quarter-century after the Berlin Wall fell, most of the inner city has been renovated and the streetscape gaps filled.
But the sheer mass of ruins in the outer districts, he says, means there is still a lot to do. The city remains in thrall to private investors, he says, allowing them to renovate or demolish as they please.
But Berlin’s rising cachet, Fahey argues, means it can now afford to be choosier in its planning permits and preservation demands. After six years in the city, however, he isn’t optimistic that city planners will rethink their forgotten places until it’s too late. All the more reason, he says, to document the city’s ruins before they are homogenised away by prosperity and progress.
“Perhaps Berlin has an inferiority complex and feels it has to do things quickly, to catch up with other cities,” says Fahey. “Almost everything old here is covered by preservation orders, but that actually makes the preservation laws weak and meaningless, particularly when, as today, everything is driven by market forces.”
Berlin blitz: Ciarán Fahey’s favourite forgotten places
Spreepark, the abandoned amusement park: “This is probably my favourite place – or was, I should say, as the plastic dinosaurs are being taken away. It was hugely popular among East Germans after opening, in 1969, but abandoned in 2001, due to falling visitor numbers. A huge fire recently prompted the city to end the fun.”
Vogelsang, a lost city in a forest: “Vogelsang was one of the few military camps, if not the only one, constructed by the Soviets in East Germany after the second World War. This place was so secret they didn’t want the locals knowing about. Of course the locals knew about it. You can’t expect to create a purpose-built town with schools and shops for around 18,000 people without people noticing.”
Heilstätten Hohenlychen, a former TB clinic, wartime hospital and research facility: “Berlin is surrounded by abandoned TB clinics, but this one of the most beautiful. The architecture is magnificent, and the gentle colours are wonderful, but its history is sinister. Chief physician Karl Gebhardt conducted horrific experiments here on inmates from the nearby Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. The Soviets took over after the war, but the Nazis’ cruelty will forever cast its shadow.”
*This article was amended with a correction on December 2nd.