The Places the World Forgot Sardinian mines

Sylvain Margaine is emphatic that he does not just seek out ruins. “The buildings can be abandoned, and they can be functional,” he tells BBC Culture. “The common theme is that I’m going into places where I’m not supposed to go.” The French photographer has been exploring those forbidden places since 1998, and a third volume of his images has just been published. This image shows mines in Sardinia.
Church in ?eliszów, Poland

“I include everything which is built by humans but cannot be seen by the public,” says Margaine. He has photographed ruined churches, cinemas and hospitals as well as sewers and metro systems “I document it by photography and by researching the history of the structure – why is the architecture like this?” His Forbidden Places website lists 86 ‘urban explorations’, including Antwerp’s Forensic Institute and a former military hospital where Adolf Hitler was treated for a leg wound during World War I.
While he records functioning structures, many of his photographs feature abandoned buildings. This image shows an 18th-Century Protestant church in the village of ?eliszów, Poland, which became derelict at the end of World War II.

Flanders and Brabant power station, Belgium

“Some places stay in my memory because I found them by myself,” he says. “It is a long process – I research the existence of a building and locate it, then I try and get permission or find a way in. The discovery is very rewarding – I can feel like an explorer who found a temple in the jungle, but it’s right there in the city. It gives real meaning to the word ‘exploration’.” This image shows the Flanders and Brabant power station in Belgium, which functioned between 1914 and 2012.
Psychiatric hospital at Vercelli, Italy

Yet for Margaine, the project is not a form of extreme tourism. “I don’t do it for the adrenalin – when I was 15 that was part of the game – but documenting these places is the most important part.” This image shows an auditorium at a former psychiatric hospital in Vercelli, Italy. Built in the 1930s, it closed in 1997 but in 2013 was used as a refuge for 100 shipwrecked asylum seekers rescued as part of the ‘Mare Nostrum’ humanitarian operation. According to the Forbidden Places book: “By the 1950s, the hospital’s treatment methods were being criticised in the press, such as the practice of sulphur-pyreto therapy, which involves injecting a patient with sulphur salts in order to artificially induce a fever that was thought to mitigate dementia and confused states of mind.” Margaine says: “I try and find a history of places that don’t belong in conventional histories. Sometimes I have to dig more to find what happened; why is it closed?”

Holtzmann paper mill, Black Forest, Germany

Margaine’s research can take some unexpected routes. “It’s not a linear process – I can’t find the information in a library or newspaper archive,” he says. “When I publish a new place on my site, people can make comments – it reconnects people who have known the building, like factory workers or hospital nurses.” In this image, weeds grow around a piece of defunct machinery from a paper mill in the Black Forest. Although it closed in 2008, there is still a training centre on the site.

Kraft the urologist’s villa, Bad Wildungen, Germany

The project is as much about the people who once lived and worked in the places Margaine documents as the architecture. “They write the story themselves – it gives more value to the document,” he says. “The people who have worked in the building make it live again, they complete the story with their memories, their photos.” This image shows the bedroom belonging to Karl Kraft, who opened a urology surgery on the ground floor of his home in 1931. His wife Hildegard remained there until 2006, and it is now derelict. According to the book, “The obviously abandoned site is visited by more or less respectful strangers. While some are content to take pictures, others move, disturb or take away decorations that Hildegard had acquired, such as a screen by Leonor Fini. The former Kraft home now looks more like a film set than the noble residence it once was.”

Loos prison in Lille, France

Margaine describes one response to his images of an abandoned prison in Melbourne. “A woman posted a comment a few years ago and said her dad had been locked inside and she was looking for a trace of history from him,” he says. “Then a few weeks ago somebody asked for her email, said they thought they were her sister but had never met her – the father was in jail, had children with different wives and they didn’t know each other. She had been looking for 20 years and now they’ve found each other.” This image shows Loos prison in Lille, France – one of the largest prisons in use under the Nazi occupation of northern France.

Psychiatric hospital at Racconigi, Italy

The places that have most struck Margaine are abandoned asylums. “Psychiatric institutions are taboo, no one really knows what they’re like,” he says. “Inside, there’s a legacy of a past life – you can still see padded cells, straitjackets, electroshock machines. You know they exist but when you see them for real it’s different – it’s a powerful experience to explore that kind of building.” This hospital opened in 1871 and closed for good in 1998. The building itself offers insight into what happened there. “There is a special architecture in an asylum – the architecture was part of the therapy. It’s part of the story of the building.”

Shipka cinema, Bulgaria

Seeing so many buildings in ruins has affected Margaine’s outlook on life. “I have a strong view of what will be gone – I can explore a building and then a week later the roof collapses. In less than 10 years, a building can disappear. It shows that even the strongest buildings like cathedrals, or ones made from concrete, will not remain if we do not maintain them.” This cinema in Bulgaria only showed films produced by the state; it closed after the collapse of the communist regime. “Everything seems so fragile – we are just here for a short time – it’s all ephemeral.”
Psychiatric hospital at Racconigi, Italy

Margaine’s website becomes part of the history of each place. “I am contacted by people who have pictures of buildings when they were still functioning. The memory of the building is richer with this witness – people who spent periods of their life in this place – they worked there, they were ill there.” This image shows a bed on which patients were treated at the Racconigi psychiatric hospital, which practised shock therapy. “I don’t believe in ghosts – but the atmosphere in these places is related to the life that existed there. In a prison where inmates were locked up or a hospital where people suffered or died, it’s very strong to see remains of human presence – gloves on a machine in a factory; a nurse’s uniform still in locker; a straitjacket in an asylum. You can imagine what has happened there. I try to show how it was when it was alive – the remains of the human presence in the building.”

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