Urban Exploration

Underground or up on the rooftops, through factories, drains, building sites or abandoned houses. Contemporary definitions of Urban Exploration (sometimes shortened to Urbex or UE) vary from the academic: “a cultural practice of exploring derelict, closed and normally inaccessible built environments.” [1]

Urban Exploration: An abandoned train station in Bulgaria…to the literary: “a celebration of decay and everyday poetry, with a touch of melancholia and a rush of lawlessness.” [2]

Urban explorers themselves range from the athletes who scale cranes and skyscrapers, through to those who simply enjoy a walk-through tour of a long-abandoned home.

Motivations behind the exploration vary dramatically as well; some are inspired by photographing decay, a process of “technological memorialisation” [3]. Then there are parkour enthusiasts, graffiti artists and many more who participate purely for the thrill and physicality.

In the reports that feature on this site, I hope to express both the atmosphere and the significance of the places I explore; telling a story, but at the same time placing that narrative within a broader cultural and historical framework.

 

Urban Exploration: Climbing a scaffold-clad chimney at Battersea Power Station, London.
Urban Exploration: Climbing a scaffold-clad chimney at Battersea Power Station, London. Read the full story.

 

An Introduction to Urban Exploration

People sometimes ask me when I first got started with urban exploration; my usual response is, “when did you stop?”

We are all born into this world with a natural curiosity for our surroundings, and it is through our early interactions and experiments that we come to form our most basic understandings of the physical realm. Later in life there is a tendency for this curiosity to dissipate… we become comfortable, lazy, or worse still, afraid to ‘step out of line’.

 

Returning to daylight, after a long day exploring Melbourne's 'Maze Drain.' Australia.
Returning to daylight, after a long day exploring Melbourne’s ‘Maze Drain.’ Australia. Read the full story.

To clarify an important point, I have never broken into a building in my life. If I can’t find a way in by climbing, crawling, squeezing between bars, or – as is so often the case – simply disregarding a ‘No Entry’ sign, then I move onto the next location.

The truth is, I find it impossible to walk past any door without wanting to know what lies on the other side.

Urban Exploration: Pripyat, Ukraine.When I see an impressive work of architecture, I find myself wondering what it looks like from inside, or from above. Tunnels and drains leave me questioning how far beneath the ground they lead, who built them, and why.

One of the side effects in building our sprawling, multi-layered cities, is that lurking in the gaps between the loci of civilisation there exist countless unexplored spaces – either lost, forgotten, or created entirely by accident. The latter are sometimes the most interesting: an often beautiful, chance ordering of the urban undergrowth.

“Urban exploration” is actually a relatively new term to me.

Until a few years ago, I didn’t have a word for it – it was just something I did. Some of my earliest memories include crawling about through dusty ventilation passages as a child; another time I was on a woodland outing with the local Scouts, when I discovered the concrete entrance to a storm drain and decided to crawl inside for a look around.

Years later I was amazed to discover that not only did other people all around the world share my curiosity… but that they would also want to read about my trips to these locations!

Cuba-Abandoned-Soviet-Nuclear-Power-Station-7Of course, this pastime is not without its dangers. Collapsing floors, poor air conditions, broken glass and guard dogs are just a few of the physical threats, and then of course there are the legal ramifications of what many would deem as trespassing.

I feel as though I should make some kind of disclaimer at this point; to tell you, “don’t try this at home,” or some other such warning. I’m not going to do that though. I believe that curiosity is healthy, while the absence of curiosity is an evolutionary dead-end often conditioned into us by an overprotective state. There’s nothing more character-building than taking the occasional trip outside of your comfort zone.

The only proviso I would offer to those getting started in urban exploration would be to use your common sense. Don’t take unnecessary risks, and remember that you’re not invincible. Don’t do this to prove a point, do it for yourself. Leave your camera at home sometimes – if you’re only doing it for the selfie, then you’re missing the point.

And finally, show a little respect for the places you visit. Learn about them. Look after them. In some cases you might just be the last person ever to enjoy these spaces.

 

Exploring the Askoldova Drain. Kyiv, Ukraine.
Exploring the Askoldova Drain. Kyiv, Ukraine. Read the full story.

[1] Garrett, Bradley L. (2010) “Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning”, Geography Compass, Vol. 4, No. 10, pp. 1448–1461.
[2] Mackinney-Valentin, M. (2012) “Urbex”, Scenario Magazine.
[3] Lindsay, S. (2010) “Urban Exploration and the Gothesization of Reality”, Gothic Imagination, University of Stirling.

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