First of all, thanks Ciarán for taking the time to talk to us about the new book. The term “Abandoned Berlin” has become synonymous with the exploration of old sites around the city, almost like Hoover has been for vacuum cleaners. What does the site’s and book’s success say to you about its readers?
Thanks John! I must say I was pretty surprised by the success of the Abandoned Berlin project. I only started it at the time because I thought the story and information on how to get in – it was about Spreepark – might be useful to someone. I literally started it because I thought it was a waste to have an old abandoned amusement park just sitting there, hidden behind an auld fence, forgotten and ignored. Then of course the story behind its abandonment was pretty mad, too, so I had to write it up. I write for a living so I guess I have a natural drive to do that. But the popularity of that post about Spreepark and the subsequent places I wrote about shows people have a healthy appetite for tragic stories, especially when they can then visit the “scenes of the crimes” themselves. I guess people also share my curiosity for what is around them, especially the “verboten” stuff that other people don’t want you to see.
You’ve been gracious in the success and appeal your website has had on others – encouraging people to follow suit. Aside from learning to appreciate the sites and what they behold, what is the impact on you personally from the explorations?
I guess I’ve come to realize the fickleness of human endeavor – the efforts people can put into something, only for it all to be rendered moot at the end of the day. I mean, this isn’t always the case, obviously, but there are so many places discarded after serving their purpose that it just shows how wasteful we all are. Some of the stories were incredibly sad, but I’m happy to have played my part in helping at least ensure they won’t be forgotten.
You mention on the site that what drew you in initially were the stories that these sites longed to tell. And of course, the “verboten” signs which cry out to be ignored! Has this just been the case for you since moving to Berlin or had you these adventurous and cheeky desires as a child back in Ireland too?
I think we all have an urge to do whatever is “verboten,” but maybe that’s just an Irish thing. I think not. But I know that the Germans are far more obedient when it comes to obeying warning signs and instructions not to enter. For me it’s like a red flag to a bull – I have to know what it is I’m not supposed to see, I need to know what wonderful secrets are just waiting to be discovered behind the fence. When I was a kid we had a game we called “The Death Zone,” which basically involved just running through neighbours’ gardens, climbing one wall and jumping into another, then another and so on, all the while looking out for the surprised home-owners and any nasty dogs they may have had. It was fun, but nerve-wracking sometimes. We got caught a few times and had to spend lots of time looking for a “lost ball” that never existed.
Volume 1 dealt with some of the more well-known hotspots – much of this down to the exposure you initially gave those sites. This book sheds light on some (currently) lesser-known relics, which makes the volume relevant. What is your thought process in choosing the next location to discover? Have you particular themes you strive for?
My aim is to document as many of these sites as possible before they’re gone. The first book had more of the more well-known places, I guess because I knew about them, but as I’ve been writing I discovered others and I get a lot of tips from people on places that I haven’t written about yet. I don’t really have any parameters or conditions for writing about new places. It’s just a race against time to write about as many as possible.
Yet a number of abandoned airports appear in the new volume. As you allude to in the book, it’s been a topical subject this last decade in the city.
It’s just crazy how many airports there are! It’s quite remarkable. I didn’t go out to specifically write about airfields or airports, but it just happened. Berlin has a thing with airports – it can’t build them (anymore) and it can’t leave the ones it wants to leave. Tegel will probably stay open forever, while they’ll eventually give up on the idea of Willy Brandt Airport, aka BER or Berlin Brandenburg International, ever opening at all.
Tell us about the risk involved. Falling ceilings and rotten floorboards must be aplenty. But also security or police. Has your risk assessment changed as you’ve gotten older?
I take less risks now because I have kids, two sons, and I came to that realization when I was alone in an abandoned factory about to jump across a great height and I thought to myself, if I don’t make this I’ll be leaving my son without a father. I only had one at the time. I’ve two now so I wear a helmet. Only joking! But I am much more careful than I was before – I’m not just thinking for myself anymore.
I wanted to ask you about who took the photos when I then saw that you are also a photographer. Have you always been taking the shots for AB or has this developed over time as a way to document the sites better?
I’ve always been taking the shots. I mean, the first time I went to Spreepark on that fateful day, there was just me and a camera. The camera has followed me since. The words were always more important to me, but lately the photography has grown in importance. I started studying photography at the Neue Schule für Fotografie in 2018 and will be finished – I hope – in late 2021.
The writing throughout is refreshing and humourous – it’s also cynical and at times scathing of the politicians and investors who are often responsible for the very derelict sites which you write about. The book is dual language, so German and English texts are beside each other yet the translation into German has lost neither its wit nor its bite. Do you do work on the translations yourself to maintain that?
Thanks, I appreciate that. The translation was handled by my publishers. It’s a small local-run endeavor, the Bebra Verlag in the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg, and they’re good people.
You’re very well read on German history and culture – where did that interest stem from?
I did German in secondary school, did quite well, but when I got here 10 years later I found I could only say, “Ich heiße Ciarán und ich bin vierzehn jahre alt” and not much else. I really expected all the German I learned would come flooding back into my head. It didn’t. I was always into history in general except for the period I was in school, when they killed that interest with their obsession for learning dates of events. They should have called it calendar studies. Once I got out of school I rediscovered my love of history – which is basically the story of everything that ever happened before. Of course a lot of interesting stuff happened in Germany. But interesting stuff happens everywhere.
A question on anonymity? Many Berliners will be familiar with your blog and first book but will know little about you, not your name, nationality nor your appearance. We don’t see your face on AB at all, nor in the short film from Jordi Busquets. Is being discreet a tactic to help evade security in future explorations or rather to shun “celebrity”, or something else entirely?
I don’t really see the need to plaster my name everywhere or post selfies on the site. I prefer to stay in the background and let the stories take the limelight. This comes from a desire not to be nabbed by security or Polizei or the like.
Finally, a bleak one. With Covid-19 looking like potentially closing thousands of businesses in the city we could be seeing a lot more abandoned sites in the years to come. Great for the future explorers, but devastating for society, culture and workers. What can we as citizens be doing in Berlin to help protect locations from becoming derelict?
Ah man, I really hope that isn’t the case. I really don’t want to see any more
abandoned sites – with the possible exception of BER – than are out there
already. This corona thing is a disaster, but nothing is more important than life. First of all we need to do everything we can to preserve it and hinder the spread of the virus. That means staying in. Yes, it means not going off to explore abandoned sites with friends. As citizens, we should avoid ordering things through Amazon and the like, but look for local small businesses that will take orders online and support them as well as we can. The local shop. See what notices they’ve left in their window. Maybe they’re relying on online orders. Support artists too – they’re really feeling the pinch. This is the time we really have to stick together, albeit at a distance.
Verlassene Orte/Abandoned Berlin Volume 2 is now available here and don’t worry, orders will still be shipped and delivered during these days of isolation!
All images on this page by Ciarán Fahey