While most people regard decrepit buildings as something ugly, there are some who actually find them fascinating. One of the people enchanted by these modern-day ruins is Czech student Katka Havlíková. For several years now, she has been exploring vacant buildings across the Czech Republic as well as beyond the country's borders. She has even published a book on urban exploration and another one is to be released later this year. I met with Katka Havlíková to find out more about the phenomenon and her own fascination by vacant buildings:
When did the movement originate? Can you tell me something about its history?
“Nobody really knows when it started. I think people have always been interested in abandoned places. To me it is something like archaeology.”
How have you yourself become involved in urbex?
“When I was travelling to grammar school, I used to pass an abandoned castle, and about three years ago, I got the idea to get inside. So I went to the village, climbed the fence and went inside. I think that was my first exploration of an abandoned building.”
So it was your own initiative. Did you know at that time that there was something like urbex?
“I didn’t know that it’s called urbex but I saw some websites and I knew some people were taking pictures of abandoned places and I found it interesting.”
What exactly do you find so fascinating about the abandoned places?
“I am doing it because of the atmosphere of these places. I love it. And another reason is that fantasy in these places works in another way than in the outside world. I am inspired by these places for my writing, because I am writing fantasy books and stories inspired by these places. So it is my inspiration, that’s why I do it.
“I also take photos, because it is really unbelievable when you find yourself inside. You want to keep a memory and I think pictures are the best way of storing your memories.”
Are there some general rules that urbexers have to follow?
“There are some rules but it’s up to each member of the community if he or she wants to follow them.”
So basically they are just unwritten rules. Can you mention at least some of them?
“The main rule is ‘leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures’, and I think most urbexers follow this rule.
“Another rule is that you can’t break into a building. You can do inside but you can’t do anything that would change the building. You can’t carry anything out of the building. You can go inside, look around, take pictures and feel the atmosphere but you shouldn’t touch anything.”
You said you can’t break into the building but I guess urbex always involves a certain amount of illegal activity, since you shouldn’t really enter the buildings in the first place.
“Our main rule is ‘leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures.’”
“Yes, that’s right, it is an illegal activity. But real urbexers should never damage the place. But there are other people, such as thieves or vandals, who break into the building, so you can follow their footsteps. You can enter the building through a broken window, but you can’t break it yourself.
Have you ever got into trouble with the police for entering a building?
“Yes, once, in Germany, when we explored an abandoned hospital, they caught us, because they thought we were thieves. They were looking for three men in the premises but instead they caught three girls and a boy. And that was a problem, because it was obviously illegal.”
“They saw our cameras and tripods and they couldn’t believe that we were inside just to take photos, because they have never heard about urbex.”
When you enter these places, do you sometimes feel the urge to renovate them to save them from falling apart?
“Sometimes you do, sometimes when you see the architecture of the place or learn about the history of the place, you would like to, but you can’t, because it’s not your business. You can only document the place, take pictures, but saving the place is not up to you.”
Have you ever considered sending your pictures to some organizations that could save the building?
“For instance in Belgium, there is a famous castle called Miranda, and the authorities issued a decision to tear it down. But many urbexers knew the building and they started signing petitions. And luckily, Miranda still stands to this day.”
Do you usually travel alone or do you travel with friends?
“Some people explore in groups, with close friends and colleagues, but there are also people who prefer going alone. But I find it dangerous, because the buildings might be in poor condition and you never know who you might meet.”
Have you ever discovered a building yourself?
“I am doing it because my fantasy in these places works in another way than in the outside world.”
“I discovered a steel mill in my village. It was fantastic, because it was one of the last steel mills in the Czech Republic which was in such a good condition, and I am the only person who has its pictures.”
Where is that? Where do you come from?
“I can’t say in order to protect the building. But I have to say that the mill is not in such a condition as it was two years ago when I saw it, because the owner had all the equipment taken away, so it’s actually empty now.”
Does that mean when you make a discovery you don’t share it with the rest of the community?
“I share the location only with my close friends.”
Are you exploring only in the Czech Republic or do you travel abroad?
“We are travelling all over the world, if we have money and time. But the Czech Republic is full of abandoned places so you should always look around when you go to work, to school, or when you travel to a different region.”
“For instance at the border area there are many factories and in Prague you can come across many empty apartment houses.”
What kind of buildings do you prefer?
“I like everything but recently I have been exploring mainly factories because I am travelling with my boyfriend and his friends and they love industrial places.”
It’s a car cemetery in Sweden, it’s called Bastnas, and I can actually say the name because it has been very popular in recent years. It is a really breath-taking place. There are some thousand cars in meadows and woods, with plants and trees growing through them. It is really beautiful, especially in the morning fog, when is it slightly scary.”
And what are some of your favourite places in the Czech Republic?
“It’s the steel mill in my village. It is my favourite place and it will stay forever in my heart.”