Urbex: the strange but fascinating pastime of urban explorers

Over the past few years, urban exploration has taken on a dimension that was never predicted, despite its forbidden nature. Dive into the underground world of Urbex!

A disused factory, an abandoned hospital, forgotten underground passages or subway lines – there are plenty of places toexplore in the city, as long as access, albeit forbidden, is possible. The craze for this activity is growing, but why? While some explorers are drawn to the historical, old and abandoned aspects of a place, for others, it’s the knowledge of the modern city and its backstage that motivates them. Photography is also often an important motivation to cross the « line » into these timeless places. We explain what’s on the other side.

Exploration urbaine

Photo credit: Wikimedia – DrAlzheimer

What is urban exploration?

Urban exploration, or Urbex (contraction of the English term Urban Exploration), is the activity of visiting places that have been abandoned, built or modified by man, and are generally off-limits, hidden or difficult to access. As we’ve said, photography plays a big part in the popularity of this « new » hobby, but documenting these historic places has also become a factor in Urbex’s success, given that urban landscapes change even more rapidly over time.

Urban exploration dates back to 1793, when Philibert Aspairt, an elderly Parisian quarryman, supposedly got lost venturing into the quarries beneath Paris, perhaps with the aim of mowing down a few bottles of Chartreuse. His skeleton was discovered 11 years later.

Salle de gym, Urbex

A disused gym – Photo credit: Flickr – Michael Kötter

But it was in the 1980s-1990s that this movement emerged. It was explorer Jeff Chapman, aka « Ninjalicious », who popularized the term « urban exploration ». In 1996, he created Infiltration magazine, « The zine about places you’re not supposed to go ». Before his death in 2005 at the age of 32, he published a book in which he laid down the basic rules of Urbex:

  • Never damage or force entry to a site, as this must always be done with respect for the site,
  • Remain discreet when exploring so as not to disturb the site,
  • When you leave, leave the place as you found it.

The old adage « leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos » is therefore often applied to Urbex.

Photography as a common thread in Urbex

Exploring an abandoned or off-limits site in a city can be exciting and fascinating. But often, urban explorers are only motivated by the desire to photographically document the place they’ve explored. To capture the moment before it’s too late. Most places suitable for Urbex are ephemeral, either because they are about to be rehabilitated or destroyed, or because it will be dangerous to venture there in 1 month, 1 year or 5 years’ time…

Urbex, moulin à farine

Vials in an old flour mill – Photo credit: Flickr – Michael Kötter

In 2014, explorer and photographer Mister J asserted that « when you do the same places over and over again, you realize that they fall into disrepair very quickly. » Like many other photographers in the « milieu », he wonders about the future of these places which, having become useless, fall into disrepair, fall into oblivion and eventually disappear, to the detriment of their memory and heritage conservation.

Photography of these places then becomes important, as it documents them and leaves evidence of their past.

Roofs, basements, brownfields and abandoned sites

Among the sites sought by « Urbexers » are disused factories and hospitals, former military installations, bunkers, bridges and underground networks (sewers, quarries, catacombs…). Often, these are places that have been abandoned, but some people also like to practice roofurophilia, i.e. the passion for climbing roofs and the activity of walking on them. With Urbex, you can easily find yourself on a roof 100 meters high, or 10 meters below the asphalt.

Some places have become must-sees for urban explorers. Pripyat, located 3 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, comes to mind. Pripyat is a popular destination for Urbex enthusiasts, and its historic and dangerous character only adds to the myth.

Café Pripyat, Urbex, Tchernobyl

Café Pripyat – Photo credit: Flickr – Michael Kötter

Another Urbex « myth » is the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria, the former Soviet congress hall, now abandoned, and a typical symbol of Soviet architectural excess.

Monument Buzludzha, Urbex

Photo credit: Wikimedia – Stanislav Traykov

Paris (very popular with cataphiles), Lyon and the north of France are the favorite playgrounds of many French explorers.

Theformer Loos prison in northern France is particularly popular with urban explorers, including this video from a group of Urbexeurs:

Is Urbex a victim of its own success?

Although Urbex is a marginal and clandestine activity, it is estimated that there are just over 10,000 urbexers in France. But urban exploration is becoming increasingly popular, especially among young people. The latter are not necessarily aware of the dangers and rules of Urbex, which could attract the attention of the police and the law.

The media coverage of Urbex poses an ambiguity within this « community ». While it popularizes the practice and attracts new explorers, it also engenders dangerous behavior.

Urbex: is it safe and legal?

Urban exploration is often dangerous. And while it’s a clandestine activity, it’s not entirely illegal: trespassing is punishable by law, but trespassing on private property falls into a legal limbo.

Depending on the location you’re exploring, you may be trespassing on private property. The latter is often considered an aggravating factor if the site is damaged. The penalty is 2 years’ imprisonment and a €30,000 fine, as indicated on the Legifrance website.

In certain situations, explorers may be fined or summoned by the authorities. Certain sites

(military or administrative buildings, land belonging to the SNCF or Réseau ferré de France…) are subject to special legislation that makes trespassing more risky from a penal point of view.

The basic rules of Urbex, listed above, must be observed. Urbex can also be carried out legally, with the authorization of the owner of the site.

But since the practice is based on an artistic approach and intellectual curiosity, the explorer also benefits from a kind of status quo with the police. As long as urban explorers are « legit » and respect the premises, the police are lenient.

Main photo credit: Wikimedia – JJ Harrison