Urban Explorers, modern cult of the abandoned


The Failed Factory


The Forgotton House

Source: HK URBEX
Rural residential housing and industrial building are seemingly detached to our urban modern life now. However, they preciously recorded our past which is not written in the textbook. These may be very important for the next generation to learn about our past, physically, visually and sensually.
At the same time, these abandoned buildings have their own characters. Compared to the modern buildings in the dense city, these are some opposite examples which create another level of aesthetics.

Urban Explorers in Hong Kong

“Urban Explorers is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment. Photography and historical interest/documentation are heavily featured in the hobby and, although it may sometimes involve trespassing onto private property, this is not always the case. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as draining (when exploring drains), urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, or building hacking.”
-Definition from Wikipedia


Urban exploration presents various risks, including physical danger, and possibility to be arrested due to trespassing. However, these risks do not seem to bother the explorers. A group called HK Urbex has been recording and capturing the beauty in the hidden side of Hong Kong. There’s an article about them from CNN:

Since then they’ve traversed Hong Kong’s crumbling edifices and documented them with high-quality first-person-shooter style videos and eerie photographs. Urban exploration in Hong Kong involves the same risks as it does in any other place. The first step usually involves trespassing.
“Stationary guards are easier to skirt,” says Echo Delta. “As for patrolling guards, we need to play hide-and-seek.” Once they get inside, they walk around — scaling from top to bottom.
They insist they observe, document and leave without altering anything. “Visiting the abandoned sites always evokes a lot of emotions and feelings,” says Echo Delta. “It’s like a child opening up a wrapped present, always curious what is inside the box.” Ghost adds: “I like the quiet, spiritual feeling of a deserted building.” “Sometimes I even do urban exploration alone. It’s a one-on-one with the building, a very serene moment.”

– CNN News

Fate of Abandoned Buildings in Hong Kong- Political & Economic Factors
In Hong Kong, the fate of abandoned buildings or ruins are mostly driven by the economic development. The grading system established by AMO has been always challenged by the public, and tends to incline towards the developers. Many old buildings, either abandoned or inhibited, face the same fate– demolish and re-develop. It seems that there’s no middle ground for compromise in the eyes of private developers due to the high cost of preservation. In many cases, 2nd or 3rd grade heritage buildings are left abandoned without any appropriate care. They are just waiting their time to be owned by a private developer, and be demolished, vanished, replaced by a totally new building that leaves no trace to the past.

Without a well established political system that overrides the economic decisions, there’s no guarantee for built heritage to be protected against demolition. What makes the situation worse is that, the government often disclose the development plan in a very low- profile way, making the public unaware of these demolition plans. It is a very common scene of Hong Kong people exclaiming about their desire to protect the heritage only when it comes to demolition, which is often too late. In many case, even lots of people expressed their opinion against the demolition, the government seldom changed their decisions. With an exceptional efficiency, those buildings are demolished within few days once decided, and it is an irreversible loss to the public. Despite numerous social campaigns and protests, there are almost no successful cases to change the government’s decisions. The worse consequence is that some people started to get numb to the repeating failure and have no more hope on the political system, and gradually giving up to uphold civic rights…Urban explorers: A modern kind of documentation

Urban explorers place themselves into a gap between the “death” and the “final judgement” of abandoned buildings or ruins. These built structures are considered “dead” since they remained abandoned, but at the same time their future have not been declared. They are neither demolished, or inhabited. This narrow gap between two states allow the explorers to captured and record the recent images for the buildings. If they are to demolished, the photo records becomes the last historical document. If they are to re-developed or revitalized, these records become an intermediate stage between transformations.

Future of these abandoned?

What makes these pictures most fascinating is probably the unlimited potentials of the future of them through one’s imagination. Any architectural intervention may disturb the aesthetic of this imagination. A related conversation was written in Chris Moorhouse‘s blog:


“I think by all means its always good when a space is reused, I think it depends what reuse means, I see a lot of farmers that reuse old houses on land that they’ve purchased, to just store farm parts and to me it just kind of like sucks, its not the best reuse, but at the same time I understand. […] Its important to acknowledge that there’s so many things that we can hold on to and especially with large buildings too,  a lot of the time its really cool when they’re turning this industrial building into a theatre. If they can do something like that its great, its always awesome you can preserve that architecture but at the same time it makes perfect sense for people to say we just can’t afford it, or the building is too far gone. I think its always good but its not like its a shame when it isn’t done either because there’s reasons for both. I think the biggest problem I have is when a building like that is kind of just left to rot, and then there is just massive fences around and people are making sure you can’t get in. Like there are safety reasons which I can understand, there are legal reasons too, but that really gets me mad, that means that nobody will ever get to see what that place was like in its last legs (1)”

– by Chris Moorhouse

As Alois Riegl mentioned in “The Modern Cult of Monument”, it is not realistic without considering the practical use of a heritage in present-days value. 

“If we were to assume that it were actually possible to produce a modern substitution for all usable monuments, so that old originals could live out their lives without restoration, but as a result also without any practical use, would the requirements of age value be met completely? The question is not only justified, the answer to it is clearly no.”

Probably, the most difficult job for an architect is to propose an appropriate and sustainable program and function for the abandoned structure, in which does not contradict much to the “historical value”. Now, with the modern cult towards the abandoned structures (that brings serenity and peace in contrast to the urban busy environment), the complexity of conservation is definitely increased. Is it even possible to take that into account?


The future of the past in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island north coast, overlooking Victoria Harbour and Kowloon, filled with skyscrapers. 
Image source: By Exploringlife (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

[Written by Yuyu Ng]

When talking about Hong Kong, it is hard to relate it to abandoned ruins or buildings. Behind all those skyscrapers and concrete apartment buildings, there’s actually a vast piece of green landscape lying on the hilly rock. Hidden by the crowns of trees and vegetation, are many mysterious ruins that tell a different story of Hong Kong.

“Ruin” is generally something that has decayed and abandoned since a certain period of the history. To view something as a ruin is actually taking a perspective already. Everything decays, and may possess a process of transformation. For the transformation of something abandoned, we may call it “ruination”. Ruination occurs when no one cares and offer protection to the object anymore. The reason of ruination may be due to various reasons, such as political, economical, social aspects. These reasons may be valuable for urban civilians to understand what’s the real picture of the history, especially when preservation of Hong Kong is heavily tilted towards historical buildings, which mostly tell only the noble’s history, rather than the grass-roots’ stories.

With the strong desire to unveil the hidden stories of Hong Kong, my thesis is divided into mainly three parts, which probably progress simultaneously.

  1. Theoretic definitions (Writing)
    Although the history of Hong Kong is rather short, we have a very interesting mixture and content in history and architecture. Our context and history may be so unique that it is not easy to adopt the preservation guidelines of the international standards. We ought to develop a new set of perspective and standard to look at our city, our buildings, and even the ruins.
    On the other hand, “ruins” may be a rather new concept for Hong Kong people. The aesthetic sense towards “ruins” has to be explored and discussed, specifically focusing Hong Kong context.
    The definition and relationship between “heritage” and “ruin” are to be discussed under this section as well.
  2. Current policy criticism (Writing)
    Although there were many previous students explored on re-using and activating old or abandoned buildings, it is rare to see them sharply point out the core reason that makes the city full of abandoned buildings. The preservation policy has greatly contributed to wide range of problems on dealing with vacant buildings, which leads to a wastage of social resources. It seems not an architect’s job to deal with policy. But in the context of Hong Kong, architects ought to clearly identify the linkage with politics in order to realize a meaningful project, and to uphold social justice. Thus, this part of writing is inevitable in order to understand the situation and presence of “ruins” or “heritage”. Only by understanding the mechanism of the city, I can further make a correct judgement on the programming.
  3. New technique for preservation of concrete structure (Experimental)
    In the global context of preservation, we always mention brick, stone and timber repairing techniques due to the vast use of these materials in the ancient time. However, Hong Kong, as a rather modern city, our heritage buildings are rather new compared to other places of the world, and are mostly built in concrete. For this reason, the preservation technique and theory for concrete buildings are still not yet very mature. Here, I would like to explore new method to repair and preserve concrete structures that may be aligned to the aesthetic senses towards ruins.
  4. Pilot project (Design)
    To arouse awareness to this unfamiliar topic, a real site and “ruin” is chosen, to build connection between the viewer and my thesis. Integrated with the above theories, knowledge and experiments, a thoughtful methodology will be proposed through combining preservation of  “ruins” and relevant design interventions. Hopefully, a new and healthy aesthetic value towards the forgotten memories can be promoted through the series of investigation and innovation.

“Ruins”: Oriental vs Western

《廢墟的內化:傳統中國文化中對“往昔”的視覺感受和審美》by Wu Hung has discussed about the different perspectives towards ruins. The differences in the aesthetic value towards ruins may be emerged due to the different construction material- Europeans used stones; Chinese used timber. While western stone architecture can be preserved in form with the traces of time on its surfaces, it is almost impossible for the eastern timber buildings to do the same.


Ostia Antica, a well preserved stone ruin dated to 4BC. The stone building pieces allow us to witness the traces of time, and imagine the activities that had once happened in the setting. Natural elements invaded, the stone seem to melt and return to the ground, naturally.
Image source: myself

Stone, by its nature, has a high capacity to withstand forces and decay. Architecture made of stone can remain or be preserved in its original form (in the state of ruin or restored) and viewers may be amazed and impressed by looking at the existing object that has survived for centuries. At the same time the weathered surface of stone ruins provides a visual and touchable proof of decay along the passing of time. The dual character of the material creates a complex of emotions of the viewer. It can be sadness, admiration, national pride towards the past…


The emptiness of the hill creates an emotion to the traveler, as the building on top of the hill has gone. Instead of the presence of a decayed building, the emptiness or the “absence” triggers a bitter feeling, and makes one extend the thinking towards the past, the time, the glamorous stories…
Image link

Timber, in contrast, decays and collapses much more easily. Ruins that were once timber buildings, are usually totally collapsed into untraceable forms. The transformation process from a building to a ruin, may be described as “ruination”, may not have a buffer time. Abandoned timber buildings may fall into pieces in no time without care. This matter of fact does not leave space for a building to decay into a physical ruin that we can perceive by eyes. Instead, ruin in chinese “墟” has a meaning of “emptiness” and “void”. Ruin is perceived as a site, a void space, an empty place, which arouses memories, and emotions of “loss”, “loneliness” through the presence of “absence”. This view can be seen in ancient poems, which the poet expressed emotions when looking at the empty ground, where monument used to stand.

In both cases, “ruins” hold important significance towards memories. But the ways to recall memories has subtle differences. The western approach is based on presence, while the eastern is based on absence. But the eastern concept leads me to a new set of questions… As stated, ruins are empty voids. Emotions of the viewer can be aroused only if he make a contrast of the past and present, meaning that he must have knowledge of the previous stage of the site. Then does it imply that the next generation cannot share the memories barely by the “absence”? How could that “absence” be even valid without acknowledging the past “presence”?

If I turn my head back to Hong Kong, what shall be discussed? First, material. Ruins in Hong Kong do not have a very long history. They are mostly made of concrete. So how should we position our lens towards such modern material ruins? Do we have another set of aesthetic views due to this material? Why do we have all these “modern ruins”?

(to be continued)

Literature source

《廢墟的內化:傳統中國文化中對“往昔”的視覺感受和審美》 -by 巫鸿