The world's most fascinating forgotten architecture

Published 30th August 2019
La Fábrica, Sant Just Desvern, Spain; Ricardo Bofill; transformed 1975--. The reinvigorated designs turn the ruin into a fortress, in which invasive greenery is duly invited to carpet the buildings.
The world's most fascinating forgotten architecture
Written by Dan Barasch
Dan Barasch is the author of "Ruin and Redemption in Architecture," published by Phaidon.
Spaces are abandoned all the time. New technologies render a building irrelevant. Structures built during wartime become eerie ghosts after a conflict is over. Businesses go out of business, entertainment venues fall out of favor, and governments shift course, rendering public-funded architecture unviable.
Sometimes it is easiest to simply desert buildings or structures, leaving them to future generations to destroy or preserve.
This is not new, of course. No piece of the built environment is ever destined to "live" forever, just as no physical structure can remain relevant and useful for all ages.
And yet somehow the discovery of an obsolescent piece of architecture often elicits a profound sense of loss and nostalgia. The building need not be an architectural masterpiece, nor have been particularly beloved in its heyday. Some of the most bizarre or quotidian structures somehow generate enormous affection: the mere fact of their abandonment, like a lonely orphan adrift, draws our attention.
The Presidio Modelo in Cuba, a former prison that once housed a young Fidel Castro among scores of other political dissidents, has been a site of curiosity since its closure in 1966. Today, one can visit the unique panopticon-shaped structure with its guard tower at the center, blacked out to create a sense of omnipresent, omnidirectional surveillance.
Hashima Island, off the coast of Japan near Nagasaki, was a prolific coal-mining facility operated by the Mitsubishi Corporation and powered by harsh forced labor from abroad. It was entirely abandoned by 1974, but re-opened to tourists in 2009 and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015. The dark, difficult, even horrific histories of both sites fade into historical footnotes as visitors are treated to a beautiful, unique, visceral experience of being transported back in time.
Gunkanjima Island, Japan,  completed 1890, abandoned 1974
Gunkanjima Island, Japan, completed 1890, abandoned 1974 Credit: depositphotos
Sometimes our fascination with forgotten architecture can stem from a sense of regret and longing for forgotten ways of life. The Buffalo Central Terminal, an impressive 17-story Art Deco building, served as the elegant rail midpoint between New York City and Chicago from 1929 to 1979. Despite multiple schemes to reclaim and reuse the building, the site remained forgotten for decades.
Such stations symbolize a lost era of American grandeur, recalling the romance of transportation hubs at a height of elegance and efficiency. The adventurous spirit of travel itself seems at stake in preserving and reusing these forgotten railway "fossils."
De Zwarte Silo, Deventer, Netherlands, completed 1923, abandoned 1990.
De Zwarte Silo, Deventer, Netherlands, completed 1923, abandoned 1990. Credit: Wenink ⧵ HoltkampArchitecten
Another pattern that seems to emerge is the transformation of forgotten spaces into new public parks and civic commons. The Berlin Tempelhof airport, built in 1927 and one of Europe's most iconic pre-World War II airports, was a central hub for the Nazi war effort and later served as the staging area of the Berlin Airlift in 1948. After its closure to air travel in 2008, and following vociferous opposition to private development, local officials agreed in 2014 to allow the massive site to be used as Berlin's largest park, becoming a larger public venue than New York's Central Park.
Indoor terminals and airport hangars were rendered usable, and the former runways are today freely accessible and highly popular for biking, sports, and public events. The decision to retain the disused infrastructure and simply reclaim the land for public use represents an emerging trend. There is perhaps no greater testimony to the emotional value of abandoned architecture than this growing impulse to reclassify an abandoned site as a place that is valuable to the public, and usable as a communal gathering site.
Glenwood Power Plant, Yonkers, NY, USA, completed 1907,
abandoned 1968.
Glenwood Power Plant, Yonkers, NY, USA, completed 1907, abandoned 1968. Credit: Courtesy of Lela Goren Group
Military structures that make sense in wartime do so far less after the fighting stops. It is perhaps the strangeness of some of these structures that animates the imagination, and triggers an instinct to preserve them.
Colossal bunkers were built by the Nazis in three strategic metropolitan areas across Germany and Austria, designed to shoot eight thousand rounds of anti-aircraft fire per minute from every direction while also serving as fully stocked shelters for civilians, complete with electricity, ventilated air, and potable water.
While similar structures were repurposed across Europe after the war, flak towers in Vienna were left unused, leaving behind seemingly indestructible monuments.
The British had built an eerie series of structures known as the Maunsell Sea Forts in the Thames Estuary to protect London during World War II. This cluster of seven fortified buildings rose from the sea on stilts; they were connected by an intricate network of catwalks, and were left abandoned after the war.
Maunsell Sea Forts, Thames Estuary, England
Maunsell Sea Forts, Thames Estuary, England Credit: Phaidon
While some of the sea forts were destroyed or have been repurposed, several remain today, standing like sentinels up to their "knees" in water. Multiple proposals and ideas have surfaced over the years for the creative reuse of these fascinating, often spooky structures.
Here, it is not truly the beauty of the buildings that attract but rather their alienating effect. No longer useful from a military perspective, they retain their power and magic by inspiring a reimagination, and serving as haunting reminders of less peaceful times.
Yet buildings need not be militaristic to be terrifying. Sometimes, newly abandoned buildings can hide in plain sight, right in the center of our cities, inspiring wonder and awe.
In Caracas, Venezuela, a forty-five-story building designed as a bank housed roughly 2,500 squatters between 2007 and 2014 and became known as the Torre de David, the world's tallest vertical slum -- complete with its own electrical grid for indigent residents.
In the southeastern US state of Florida, the 6,500-seat Miami Marine Stadium was built in 1963, becoming the world's first venue for watching motorboat racing, along with concerts framed by a view of the downtown Miami skyline.
In the wake of the devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the coastal stadium was deemed unsafe and left abandoned, becoming a popular destination for graffiti artists.
After being listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the United States' eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in 2009, a group called Friends of Miami Marine Stadium led efforts to preserve and reclaim the building, leading to official city support for their effort in 2017.
Left in place, anachronistic yet strangely reassuring, forgotten structures haunt us while reminding us of a bygone era.
Los Angeles River, Los Angeles, CA, USA, U.S. Army Corps; completed 1913, abandoned 1938.
Los Angeles River, Los Angeles, CA, USA, U.S. Army Corps; completed 1913, abandoned 1938. Credit: Library of Congress
These buildings and their attendant spaces are in an exciting but precarious position: they have inspired interest, and in some cases preliminary funding or planning permission, but their fates are altogether uncertain. They fascinate, inspire and attract visitors -- whether these are paying tourists, trespassers with cans of spray paint, or the homeless seeking refuge.
A forgotten structure forces us to confront not merely the loss of its intended original use but also the wide range of potential future uses. Some will visit these spaces and recommend a good cleaning or a redesign, or an attempt to restore them to their former glory. For others, the quiet desolation of a dilapidated, forgotten, empty space offers a brief respite from the overly developed, relentlessly consumerist, brutally efficient worlds that we inhabit. Sometimes it is beautiful to forget something, even if only for a little while.
"Ruin and Redemption in Architecture," published by Phaidon is available now. Scroll through the gallery above to see ruins restored to life.
Top image: La Fabrica by Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura