When city plans exceed reality, or the money dries up, or people simply leave in a mass exodus, skyscrapers vacate and slowly decay. High winds thrash through broken windows. Rats live undisturbed amongst decades old rubble. Stairways lead to doors that may never open again. The ghost of ambition’s past arrives in the present like a howling specter, creating eyesores, dangerous conditions, and free housing for opportunistic urban survivalists.
These abandoned skyscrapers range from forsaken structures aborted long before their doors opened to icons from a bygone era. While a slumper like Detroit has its fair share of empty giants, even cities with tiger cub economic growth like Bangkok are not immune to the plague of creepy abandoned high-rises. South America brings vertical favelas to the list, and Poland has a tower named after a pop-culture villain. And even San Francisco, a city with a high recreational scooter to human ratio and droves of individuals who see the world just beyond the tip of their nose, has its very own abandoned skyscraper.
From North Korea to Venezuela, these structures differ in their stories and circumstance, but each is a fine glimpse at post-apocalyptic urban decay.
Michigan Central Station
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 18 floors
Story: The Central Station was finished during the advent of the automobile – 1913. The Beaux-Arts style of the classical building recalls a time when Detroit possessed the resources and momentum to rightfully emulate Parisian architecture. Its old school ambition is not lost on current Detroit residents but its function certainly is. It is a doorway into a forgotten world and a poster-boy for urban decay. The graffiti and dilapidation tells the story not just of Detroit’s acrimonious decline but also the abandonment of rail travel in the United States. At its peak during the 1940’s, 200 trains left this station daily. Today, none. While rail travel is receiving some political buzz in Washington, the fate of this gorgeous structure is uncertain. Many have flirted with re-purposing the old building, from the Detroit Police to casino developers, but for the moment it stands quietly on the outskirts of the modern world like an old ornate wrench that fits no bolt.
Abandoned since: 1988
Location: Pyongyang, North Korea
Stories: 105 floors
Story: This massive pyramidal structure (above, furthest left) is a 105 story symbol for the absurdist ambitions of Kim Jong Il and the hermit kingdom. It has been under construction (on and off) for decades. It has been called the world’s most hideous hotel. It is an unnecessary extravagance in a country that can barely feed its people. The project was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union due to Soviet subsidies to North Korea coming to an end. The hollow shell stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city – a failure too large to ignore but too painful to acknowledge. The North Koreans spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure. Construction on the structure resumed recently with Egyptian architectural firm Orascom leading the project. It is slated for completion in 2012, to sync with the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung, deceased since 1994.
Abandoned since: 1992, currently under construction
Tower of David
Location: Caracas, Venezuela
Stories: 45 floors
Story: The Tower of David, one of the tallest buildings in Latin America, is the quintessential slum-scraper. There is no government interference, just 2500 squatters carving up its 45 stories for purposes ranging from housing to business. The building includes apartments, home-brew PlayStation arcades, beauty salons, and perhaps the most suspicious dentistry operation in the new world. While the current occupants have yet to climb higher than the 30th floor, it is only a matter of time before the anarchic housing market pushes residences higher towards the dilapidated rooftop helipad – a symbol from Caracas’ forgotten banking boom.
Abandoned since: 1994, never completed
Buffalo Central Terminal
Location: Buffalo, USA
Story: The Buffalo Central terminal has been looted for artifacts, vandalized by bored delinquents, used for art exhibitions, explored by ghost hunters, and even sold for $1. It is a gorgeous old structure plagued by a series of humiliating footnotes, caught in a perpetual fall from grace. But it was not always so. At a time, the Buffalo Central Terminal was an important hub servicing hundreds of trains daily. Still an Art Deco architectural masterpiece, the structure possesses a prominent tower worthy of superlatives, and its halls are said to be haunted by ghostly apparitions waiting for trains that will never arrive. Last Halloween, the TV show Ghost Hunters filmed a 6 hour marathon in the creepy old building. It is possible to tour the structure and even get hitched in its lofty halls. Click here for more information.
Abandoned since: 1980
Location: Krakow, Poland
Stories: 20 floors
Story: The tallest building in Krakow is a a hulking skeleton of a structure unofficially named after the villain from He-man – a show extremely popular in Poland in the early 1980’s. Construction began in 1975, but the Pols ran into economic troubles. Today, the building is primarily a backdrop in which to drape massive advertisements. It is also a constant reminder of the decades old malfeasance of Skelator – an urban Castle Grayskull looming on the Polish horizon.
Abandoned since: 1981, never completed
Location: San Francisco, USA
Story: Once the tallest building in San Francisco, the PacBell building is a Neo-Gothic marvel abandoned last decade. Completed in 1925, the giant is capped with 13 foot tall art deco Eagles looking out over the great San Francisco expanse. While the building was purchased in 2007 for $118 million, it has since been left to decay quietly in its own upscale way. Unlike most abandoned skyscrapers though, this one still has some life in it. Security guards patrol the ground floor, and the tower is lit up at night. A couple of brave urban explorers over at Bearings snuck past the guard and explored the tower’s heights. Check out their first hand account of the abandoned skyscraper. The PacBell Building will likely be repurposed into condominiums in the coming years.
Abandoned since: 2005
Edificio Sao Vito
Location: Sao Paolo, Brazil
Stories: 27 floors
Story: The original vertical favela arrived on the scene in the late fifties with the intention of providing housing to Sao Paolo’s middle class community and expats. Before long though, the building fell into disrepair and became an overpopulated den of urban plight – a favela that sprawled up. As basic services and utilities declined over the years, tenants began disposing their garbage out the window and obtaining illegal electricity. Many of the Edificio’s 624 apartment units were split into two – stressing the already shaky infrastructure of the building known as “Balança mas não Cai” (It shakes but does not fall). By the eighties, the tap water was polluted and only one of the three elevators partially worked – making its way halfway up the building. Edificio Sao Vito was formally evacuated in 2004, though crackheads and drug dealers have taken to the abandoned structure like moths to a flame. Allegedly, the Mayor of Sao Paolo tried to demolish the building because it obstructed his otherwise pleasant view. While this bit of urban lore may or may not be true, the building has been flirting with demolition for the last decade. At the time of reading its graffiti flecked concrete walls may simply be dust.
Abandoned since: 2004
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 38 floors
Story: Construction began on the Book Tower in 1916, just a few years after Henry Ford transformed auto-making forever with assembly line production. It is the old style of high-rise – more a kin of masonry than a child of steel and glass. For years, the classic structure with an ornate copper roof stood for the old world extravagance of Detroit. Now, it has taken on an altogether different metaphorical role as a sad reminder of when the eminent address spoke for the industrialist success of one of America’s finest cities. The property has changed hands many times in the last decade and plans exist to drop hundreds of millions in restoring the old-school giant.
Abandoned since: 2009
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Story: During the Thai tiger economy of the 1990’s, skyscrapers grew all over Bangkok in a display of Thailand’s new-found economic prominence. This one never completely grew up. Crows circle the pinnacle and rats call its lower levels home. Locals, convinced its hallways are haunted, stay out of the ghostscraper. Expat urban spelunkers have explored the building and returned to Khao San Road with stories from its upper reaches. The verdict: it is a dilapidated mess. The future of the Sathorn Unique remains unclear but perhaps someday it will be finished. For now, it looms on the Bangkok skyline with many other abandoned skeletal structures.
Abandoned since: 1997
Location: Memphis, USA
Stories: 29 floors
Story: Once the tallest building in the southern United States, the original “Queen of Memphis” is a ghostly skyscraper, boarded up and decaying from the inside. The late Gothic architectural marvel once shuttled around thousands of workers, from stockbrokers to barbers, in its eight high-speed elevators. It has been the domain of urban explorers and desperate vagrants ever since being completely abandoned in the late nineteen-eighties. While inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places preserves its era appropriate charms, the future of the towering structure is unclear. Perhaps a redevelopment boom in downtown Memphis will reignite a need for the large ghostscraper.
Abandoned since: 1980s
top flickr image via country_boy_shane