I’m not going to talk about my profession here. That’s of no importance in understanding what happened to me. I could have any job, or even be unemployed. That wouldn’t affect this story in the slightest.
On the other hand, it’s crucial to know that I am one of the world’s best-known urban explorers. I’ve been doing urbex for more than 20 years, and my blog is one of the most visited on the web. There I compile my hundreds of visits to forgotten places, and describe abandoned areas from the four corners of the globe—tunnels, underwater bases, amusement parks, asylums, factories, etc. I detail my adventures in these strange, isolated places that then create a powerful fascination in the modern imagination. Everyone knows and respects my name. A pretentious pseudonym, that goes without saying. Only my face remains hidden. I’ve never revealed my face. What I observe is worthy of interest, not the fact that I am observing it, least of all my staring head.
Unlike other urban explorers, I’m not going to bring up a teenage passion for abandoned houses, dusty attics, adolescent adventures, and games of hide-and-seek. I’ll leave this juvenile sort of explanation to the others. In fact, I developed my irrepressible desire to explore solitary, off-the-beaten-track places very late. They were places few people knew about or visited. I think it was the result of a backpacking trip in southern Chile. I had gotten lost in the suburbs of Puerto Montt, an uninteresting city that has brought its residential and commercial areas into precise, almost Galilean alignment. There, by chance (that great catalyst), I came upon an ancient hospital hidden behind a thick forest of bushes. I was able to carve a path through the brambles and the barbed wire and, after a few scratches, came out in the main courtyard, which was covered in wild plants. I think I spent the whole day and maybe a good part of the night (I had brought a flashlight with me, that open sesame for all explorers of the far reaches) visiting the immense, deserted place. Its old operating theatres, its faded rooms gnawed by a purple moss and covered in saltpeter fungi, the labyrinthine basements, where expired medicines were still lying about in brown-tinted bottles of putrid liquid. I was fascinated by the still visible traces of the ancient establishment, by the useless furniture, by the old residents themselves. I found thousands of traces of them. A strange atmosphere of serenity took hold, a sort of calmed chaos. Even the powerful smell of piss didn’t bother me. Everything that had been destroyed became jewel-like to me. It had an intense, alive aura. In a sort of delighted stupor approaching ecstasy, I regarded the graffitied, knocked-down walls, the gaping ceilings with dripped strings of dark water, and the dirt heaps like an art aficionado would have regarded a miraculously recovered lost masterwork. It was at that moment that an interest formed in my soul for the things that people build and then unceremoniously abandon (the reasons themselves are of little interest to me). It hasn’t allowed me a moment’s rest since. I have invested the better part of my time in looking for, ferreting out, uncovering, and visiting these out-of-the-way places.
Illustrious forerunners have gone before me down this path, those who have turned away from historical monuments, tremendous cities and their golden palaces. Those who focused on the humblest constructions and, above all, on what remained after negligence and the elements had brought massive destructive forces to bear. I’m specifically thinking of Walt Whitman, the great American poet who sang “the body electric,” in 1860 while he explored the abandoned Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn on his own. He left us a formidable account of his visit under the New York streets, lost in a black, humid duct that was for him the perfect antithesis of hell. He was one of the first of his kind, searching for adventure and bedazzlement outside of history, outside of the monumental and sublime. They searched in the ignored space within the immediate infraworld, the invisible zones within the everyday. Here I also want to mention my Dadaist brethren who offered an offbeat visit of the Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre church ruins in Paris in April of 1921. They were in search of those places that, as they wrote, “don’t really have a reason for existing.” They too were pioneers in the exploration of wastelands and ruins, in the unauthorized entering of modernity’s déclassé spaces. They imparted a sense of spectacle, and the will to idealize idleness itself. I have always been convinced that utopia exists more in a place than in an event, and that it therefore already exists. It just needs to be discovered. It is thus more a question of space than of time, and if one day, due to favorable conditions, such a transfiguration of the world does occur, it will surely be in this type of forgotten space that it happens.
Urbex has its rules. It’s not done any which way. It demands attention, methods and asceticism. It even requires a certain degree of physical fitness to prepare the body for the crossings, jumps, and climbs required by the unannounced entering of hostile, inordinate places. It’s also advisable to establish a sort of imaginary plan while preparing. It’s useless to ask around for locals’ advice, or heed tantalizing rumors. The best way of discovering an abandoned place is to ceaselessly roam the margins and pray you come upon a pearl. There are nonetheless a few things to know. It’s possible to pinpoint a city’s old industrial zones and go cycling through them. This method of exploration is flexible and free. It provides a good overview of the sites and is a sort of wild scouting, without preconceptions. Afterwards, there is all the time in the world to sort through the findings, selecting the best “spots.” Hiking along the railroad tracks is also fruitful. This allows you to find buildings off the major pedestrian and automobile axes. To this day, I have never found very much use for aerial imagery. Consulting it has always thrown me off—it’s too abstract, and doesn’t show what you can see at ground level. It’s important to always have the mentality that the best discoveries always happen by chance. In fact, preparatory work isn’t useless, it is what makes a lucky strike possible. By preparing, you don’t create the moment as such, but you attract it. Only if you’re well prepared will you come upon the perfect place.
It was above all solitude that I valued. Being away from the world, with its noise and its people. Far from the cities, in abandoned places that repelled the curious with their reputation for being dangerous and dilapidated, I could enjoy quiet hours. Whereas the Romantics tried to find themselves in nature’s vast wilds, I preferred contemporary ruins. Not the ones that edified the historical — they lead to reflections about time’s passage and the fragility of civilization—but rather the modest, insignificant relics of damaged life. Their pure poverty moved me. These buildings in decline, on the verge of being forgotten, were for me the embodiment of misery and human precariousness—a true reflection of our condition. Amidst the collapsed steel, the seas of rust, I was able to understand the fundamental vulnerability of all life better than I could anywhere else. The list of sites I had visited grew with a sort of blind fervor, as if I were trying to drill the reality of our impermanence even deeper into my head. A reclusive vagabond of a shadow world, I found refuge in these dead constructions. It wasn’t melancholy that I found there, more like a strange mix of artistic exaltation and philosophic bitterness. I would often stare in a state of stunned adulation at cracked concrete blocks, weather stations deserted by the known world, ghost electricity plants. Wastelands alone were able to give me the secret feeling of being the only castaway after a catastrophic event. Urbex afforded me a way of checking out. As I roamed the world in search of forgotten places, I led a sort of hermit’s life. The way for me to detach from material objects was to take interest in their remains. At times, I considered myself a kind of sage, because in these places I did nothing except for taking a few photos and notes. I wouldn’t pilfer a single object, wouldn’t modify anything on the unstable structures. I forbid myself all acts, and left every place intact, on the verge of its own disappearance. It was a personal form of zen.
And then, little by little, things changed. I didn’t have the same faith, the same passion. The main thing that got to me was the realization that I wasn’t the only one rambling through these lost places. I started running into more and more people, doubtless other explorers like myself, artists, photographers, even casual gawkers. These spaces had become almost as busy as the mall on a Saturday afternoon. Even the ones I had taken so much trouble (and sometimes thousands of kilometers) to suss out had been packed with curious people. It became rare for me to be the very first to discover a fresh site. I was always coming in second, a follower, the one who got there too late and came upon the steaming imprints left by the other’s bivouac. It was sometimes too much to bear, all those people prowling the forgotten inheritance of silos and turbines, abandoned schools and hotels. The places we aren’t supposed to enter but still infiltrate with our eager gaze. From time to time, we would jostle each other on rickety ramps that spanned big drops, we would play at politesse at the entrances to underground caverns. It became ridiculous, exasperating. I could no longer enjoy the splendid feeling of isolation that I had above all searched for, the ruined sublime.
My feeling let down didn’t come all at once. It slowly bore a tunnel of regret into my day-to-day. I kept on going as an urban explorer the same as before, and I traveled to the far corners of the earth looking for forbidden, unknown places. But, without my truly noticing it, the magic was gone. I was going about my excursions like a machine. Going through the motions of urbex kept me scrambling over walls like they were nothing, breaking through boarded-up windows, sneaking into rooms that were falling to ruin. But my heart wasn’t in it. Then, in a spectacular way, everything turned on its head. I was near Venice. On the small island Poveglia to be precise. I had been looking at the leprous buildings of an old psychiatric hospital for a few days there—it’s the one you see for just a few seconds in the Risi film Anima persa—when a friend invited me to a reception in a palazzo located on the Grand Canal. It goes without saying that old cities had up to that point held absolutely no attraction for me. I was a man of industrial ruins, of common buildings, of poor, ordinary constructions. I never could have imagined, strolling through old walled cities, contemplating the stones and the façades, the cast-iron balconies and marble statues, even as a tourist. For me, all of that corrupted the city’s stories. They were saturated with well-known artistic and cultural references that were absolutely foreign to me. I abhorred the ancient, the traditional, and the inherited. I only had eyes for the indigent, the temporary, the common. Was it just my exasperation with urban exploration that was stirring me up on the inside? In any case, to my own surprise, I immediately accepted the invitation and went to the reception.
It would take too long to explain here how the metamorphosis took place. I would have to minutely recount my first encounters with this city. One erected upon the water on millions of wood pilings, with its Castello’s maze of alleys, with its canal’s nighttime reflections on the walls—walls bruised by the saline air. I don’t have the time or the desire to tell the tale. I’ll just say that, after falling victim to Venice’s enchantment like so many others, I became a captivated regular visitor. Little by little, I abandoned my explorations. They had become fastidious, like a dead skin of professional obligations. I found any excuse I could to go to Venice. Even the most repulsive things about the city didn’t bother me, and god knows there were many, especially the near-permanent crowd of tourists who jammed the plazas and the quays with the racket of their footsteps. Whereas I hadn’t been able to stand the mere presence of another explorer in the solitary places, now I enjoyed the pleasures of a city full of monuments and dripping in charm. I even mixed in with the masses of admirers without bitterness or anger. I didn’t have a problem with experiencing what the others were feeling in a communal way, with sharing the same naive enthusiasm as them for what one poet christened “the limp, voluptuous decadence of the place.”
My taste for solitude and my passion for off-limits places quickly made up for lost time, however and soon pushed me to look for the mysterious, secret places in the heart of the city. They had assumed an esoteric air. It wasn’t very hard for me to find them in such a historical city, where most of the buildings were already in some stage of decomposition. I took interest in a little palace in the Cannaregio. It was half-bordered by the Sensa quay, half by a lugubrious, shadowy dead-end street where a peaceful troop of cats dozed peacefully. It must have dated to the 17th century, even if I didn’t do any research to confirm this. In reality, it wasn’t the historical aspect of it all that interested me—the idea of heritage has always bored me to tears. It was an old, narrow three-
storey building. It had a white marble facade, adorned with time-weathered pain ed crates. All of the openings had been filled-in with boards and bricks. From its dilapidation, it was clear that it had been abandoned for at least a dozen years, like so many other houses and palaces in the Floating City. There was barely anything left inside the abandoned building— just a strong lake-like smell that gave it the feeling of an old cargo ship that had wrecked on the rocks.
As if drawn by the building’s deposed presence, I returned with each visit, amusing myself by getting lost in the obscure interlacing of the calli on the way. I had put my talent for climbing to use and discovered a discreet entrance via a transom window on the second floor. I must have been the only soul who knew the way, because on the amazingly quiet inside I found no trace of human presence. No footsteps in the dust, graffiti, or vandalism. All of the mirrors and the tables had been removed during the owners’ final departure. In their place were large rectangular patches of lightness, which reminded me of abstract paintings. I couldn’t stand sleeping in hotels or pensions, so I always brought my sleeping bag along. It was there, amidst the empty, dusty rooms of the palazzo on the Sensa quay that I slept, hardly bothered by the noise of the rat’s incessant scratching on the reception’s flagstone floor.
While in the other places I had visited I had forbidden myself from making the slightest intervention, in the palazzo for some reason I started gathering everything I could find. Boards, scraps of metal, light fixtures, chairs, broken china, etc. From time to time, I would even pull down a curtain rod or wall hanging. From my assorted collection, visit after visit, I created a small mountain. As time passed, it grew in height, until it nearly touched the ceiling of the vast room in which I had erected it. It was a monument of no particular significance. My flashlight lit it up the same way it would have lit up a scrap heap. But, on each of my visits, I couldn’t help myself from going around it, sometimes adding a scrap of cloth, or a beam of wood that I had ferreted out of a dark, out of the way corner. I would contemplate the pile at length, like a sort of vaguely disturbing pagan statue. It looked like Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau at his Hannover house. Except for me, the assemblage I had created from hundreds of pieces of debris I had found in the palazzo didn’t represent any artistic gesture or desire for opposition. It wasn’t meant to be seen or recognized. It was, in fact, so unimportant that one night I set it on fire. The flames spread rapidly to the walls and roof beams. I barely had time to slip outside. In a few hours the palazzo had been completely destroyed. The gente del posto looked on, incredulous.
is a writer and philosopher with a research focus on phenomenology, who is widely known for his literary essays and short stories. He is also lecturer in philosophy at the University of Bordeaux, France.