Colossus: Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf

Filed 9/10/2012 | Updated 31/3/2015
It stretched out below me in majestic decadent glory and I just gazed down, mouth probably open, goose bumps on my arms and legs as I surveyed the sheer gigantism of it, the bulk, the improbability, the stillness, something from another world. You just never know what’s around the corner in this country.
I locked up the bike, not that there was anyone to rob it, and proceeded past the chimneys, hurriedly taking my time – I didn’t want to miss anything on the way yet couldn’t wait to get down to explore the wonders of the colossus waiting for me below.
I’d stumbled upon the abandoned chemical factory of Rüdersdorf (actually in Tasdorf), once part of VEB Chemiewerk Coswig, responsible mainly for the production of the animal feed Rükana and other phosphates used for farming.
It started life in 1899 as a cement factory operated by C.O.Wegener, which allegedly made the cement in “an ultra-modern yet highly dangerous” kiln oven. The huge Preußag concern (now the TUI travel agent) took over in 1939, and later produced bauxite vital for the Nazis’ war effort.
The Soviets dismantled the plant after the war, but it found a new lease of life in 1950 when the VEB Glühphosphatwerk Rüdersdorf was formed to make the aforementioned phosphates. Two more kilns were added in 1972 and the factory came under control of the Piesteritz-based VEB Kombinat Agrochemie (agrochemicals) at the end of the 1970s.
German reunification spelled the end for VEB Chemiewerk Coswig, however, as it did for so many East German enterprises, with dwindling sales and dodgy dealings from investors preceding the inevitable. The factory made its last pig’s dinner before the gates were permanently closed in 1999. Fencing topped with razor wire surrounds the site now.
Lately it has proved a rich hunting ground for filmmakers, with ‘Enemy At The Gates’ and a Rammstein video apparently filmed here, while George Clooney was here for the filming of ‘The Monuments Men.’
An unsettling humming noise presides over the area, presumably from a neighboring factory still in use, but that just adds to the spooky ambience.
Wildlife abounds in the absence of humans, birds making the most of all the lofty perches, while frogs, tadpoles and a snake(!) had made themselves at home in a murky green pool. There are other murky pools with black evil-looking shit and no wildlife at all, not even of the six-eyed variety. Toxic reminders of the past.
The buildings are immense. I got dizzy just walking into one with huge round concrete canisters that swallowed me up. There are holes everywhere so you really need to watch your step. One wrong one could be your last. This is not a place to come if you’re drunk or planning on getting drunk.
Against my better judgment, I ascended the stairs without walls up, and up, and up, and up outside the canisters, vertigo intensifying, grip tightening and heart pounding harder the higher I climbed, until finally I reached the summit and could pause to let the waves of dizziness wash over me. I swayed as I surveyed the ruins around me. Then I sat down. Safer.
In one of the buildings to the east of the site, there’s a laboratory trashed beyond redemption, along with stacks of old papers, delivery notes, letters and so on, with wrecked furniture and discarded containers littering the floor, some no doubt still holding their evil potions.
The skull and crossbones were clearly visible on some containers, so pirates must have once called this place home. Maybe they’re still there. Arrr, here be a fine place to drop anchor.
I didn’t see any pirates, nor any humans at all, so the only feasible conclusion is that the frogs I met were actually humans frogified from inhaling the various unknown gases and chemicals permeating the site. It may sound incredible, but it’s best not to hang around for too long.

UPDATE: March 26, 2015 – I went back again today, to confront the frogified fossils and help a companion find artworks by renowned street artist PlotBot, who had embellished parts of the factory since I was last there.
We got in easily enough, proceeding northward from the bus stop, taking the steps down the embankment on the right and the pedestrian bridge over the river before passing though the broken fence. It’s almost too easy. We were in!
My colleague, a proud American, was of course talking loudly as we approached the hulking ruins when suddenly a truck flew up the road. Get down! We hunched down like hedgehogs attacked by bears, curled up, waited for them to pass. Thankfully they didn’t see us and drove on. OK, we’re grand, let’s go. We had to be careful after that. I withdrew my prickles and on we went.
The fear of their return never left as we scoured the buildings for PlotBot and WhatNot. Every noise, every bang, rustle, clang or whistle, was a vicious monster rising from an atomic green pool to devour us. We scurried on. I scurried up, terrified myself from heights that only lunatics enjoy.
Rüdersdorf is a colossus. Don’t let it consume you.

What
Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf: Abandoned chemical factory which began life as a cement factory, then made bauxite during the war, before its raison d’être became the production of animal feed phosphates and other things as part of VEB Chemiewerk Coswig, one of those GDR companies.

Where
Gutenbergstraße, 15562 Rüdersdorf bei Berlin, Germany.

How to get there

Get the train from Alexanderplatz to Erkner, the S3 or the faster regional train, the RE1 towards Frankfurt (Oder). From the Bahnhof, cycle in a northeasterly direction towards Rüdersdorf, specifically the Museumspark Rüdersdorf at Heinitzstraße 41, 15562 Rüdersdorf. The gate was open so I didn’t have to pay. Just follow the path on the left until you spot a few innocent-looking chimneys poking from the trees. You’ll find the factory laid out before you then. Here’s where it is on a map.
Otherwise, you can approach from the other side by cycling to Tasdorf via Ernst-Thalmann-Straße, turn right onto Berliner Straße in the village, and then take the second right onto Gutenbergstraße back down towards the factory. You’ll have to hop the gate.
It’s a good cycle, 7.4 km each way (longer if you take the second route) but it’s worth it.
If you’re lazy, you can get the 951 bus from S-Bahnhof Fredersdorf to Frachtzentrum Rüdersdorf (the DHL freight center). Get off at the bus stop (as opposed to jumping out of the moving bus before it stops, sometimes it’s better to do things the easy way), walk back the way the bus came till you find steps down the embankment on the right. Go over the bridge, turn left at thje end of it and get in through the broken fence. It’s pretty easy and there’s no need to climb any razor wire.

Getting in
If you go the first route, through Museumspark Rüdersdorf, you’ll find a gap in the fence over the train tracks and another corresponding gap in the fence on the other side, rendering all that nasty-looking razor wire pretty much useless, unless it’s to stop pigeons resting their weary wings by sitting on the fence. Pigeons are notorious for not making up their minds.
The other route, via the bus stop described above, is even easier.

When to go
I recommend daytime to minimize the risk of being killed by walking off an eight-story building, or tripping into a huge deep hole or a pit of foul leftover chemicals. Seriously, there are quite a number of pitfalls, no pun intended.

Difficulty rating
6/10. Getting here is a bit of a chore, getting in is easy once you find the gaps in the fence and apart from that there shouldn’t be any problems. Keep an eye out for security. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes not. You’re probably out of luck if they happen to be filming when you’re there. They get a bit precious about their film stars and fancy equipment. They weren’t filming recently. Check the comments below for updates.

Who to bring
If your boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t terrified of heights you could bring them for a romantic view across the treetops and industrial areas of Rüdersdorf, Tasdorf and beyond. It’s probably a good idea to bring someone, in case one of you falls into a hole/off a building/gets trapped under a collapsing roof. Lone wolves should consider company.

What to bring
A helmet won’t save you if the roof does collapse, so don’t bother. Bring a camera, a couple of beers and a sandwich or something for nourishment. I was pretty thirsty after all that cycling so maybe a bottle of water wouldn’t go amiss either. And a torch is useful for exploring dark rooms and cellars.

Dangers
The buildings themselves are pretty dangerous, either from the point of view of them falling on you or you falling off them. Falling seems to be the main danger all round really. As always, watch out for nosy busybodies, Polizei, and anyone else out to spoil the fun.

Tempelhof: The mother of all 'abandoned' airports

Filed 13/3/2015 | Updated 17/3/2015
The Guardian asked me to write about Tempelhof for its Cities site focused on urban development. You can read the article here. What follows is an extended version with some minor changes and lots of additional historical detail, along with a gansey-load of photos. Tempelhof was never really abandoned – it has always been under someone’s watchful eye – but the story of a discarded airport nevertheless merits inclusion here. I didn’t bother with the usual guide-points on how to find it, get in, etc. Any Berliner can tell you where it is.

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