Abandoned buildings tend to mean different things to different people. Some see them as spooky, or as a safety hazard. For some people, they are beautiful remnants of lost architectural styles. For others, they are eyesores that need to be torn down. And then there are those people who see in the abandoned building the glimmer of opportunity.
I’m not superstitious and I’ve never thought of abandoned buildings as haunted. I suppose I do see them as beautiful, in their own way. My friends are hardly connoisseurs of fine architecture, but they too appreciate the way some older buildings seem to tell a story. On the other hand, they have little admiration for the modern glass complexes that house Serbia’s big businesses.
I used to wonder what life had been like inside abandoned buildings, even the ones that were now nothing but rubble. What memories lay behind their walls? When I saw boarded-up factories, I would daydream about the people who once worked there.
Broadly speaking, my attitude towards abandoned buildings was linked to a somewhat romantic view of the past. That changed when a group of youth activists in my hometown, Novi Sad, tried to take over a derelict military barracks and convert it into a social centre.
They said they wanted to build a place for artists and for charity work. A place where young people could gather to discuss serious issues. A place, in other words, that did not exist.
The activists were evicted by the police. But although they didn’t get their way, they had managed to raise questions that had never been asked before. They had pushed politicians off the headline news and prompted people to talk about other issues.
Since then, I began to look at abandoned buildings differently. Instead of romanticising them as a window into the past, I suddenly recognised their practical potential – as places where our future could be decided. I started asking who had the right to choose the fate of these derelict buildings? Was it the state? Or was it society?
Miodrag Sovilj is a radio journalist in Serbia.