The metal staircase starts at the bottom of the tower, and with each step we were climbing ever closer to the top of the trees. We were in the grounds of the old Beelitz Heilstätten, a sanatorium set among the pine forests south of Berlin. Looking up we could see the walkway stretching out from the tower, winding its way between the old sanatorium buildings and above the trees.
Our corner of Germany is pretty flat. It’s not always easy to get a view, to get a feel of the lie of the land. To get a sense of the scale of the forests that surround Berlin and stretch out in all directions. But at Beelitz there is a way, one step at a time up the metal staircase. And once up there it really felt like there was nothing around us but trees, and though we knew that somewhere out there were towns and villages, railway lines and motorways, it looked like the forest simply stretched out, unbroken, all the way to the horizon and beyond.
Since the treetop walkway opened in 2015, Beelitz has become a popular day trip destination for Berliners and others who live in the surrounding region. Before then, the Beelitz Heilstätten was the domain of urban explorers and others willing to jump the fence of the ruined tuberculosis clinic. They were drawn there, like many of the paying visitors today, to the strange beauty of the ruined buildings and the stories contained within their peeling walls; the strange fascination that many of us feel – known as Ruinenlust – for places of abandonment.
Beelitz was opened in 1898 and was one of the biggest tuberculosis clinics in Europe, a place where new treatments were developed in some of the most highly advanced medical facilities anywhere in the world. The clinic would continue in its important work until the end of the Second World War, where the complex was taken over by the Soviet military who remained in place until the Russian Army finally left in 1994.
Although the clinic’s buildings are landmark protected, twenty years of being abandoned to the forest have left their mark. Guided tours take visitors through some of the more structurally sound buildings, but even from the treetop walkway it is possible to gaze down and in through the open windows, to see rooms where rusting equipment shares space with scattered rubble and trees growing up through the floor, where Cyrillic graffiti left by the Soviet soldiers decorates the peeling walls and plants occupy the balconies where patients were once wheeled out to take the country air.
At the top of the tour we made our way along the walkway, looking down into the sanatorium buildings and out across the treetops to a horizon where it might be possible to spot some of the taller landmarks of Berlin in the distance. It may have been an entirely human-made structure amidst the ruins of an old hospital, but there was something about being up there that allowed us to understand a familiar landscape in a very different way.
Back down on the ground we followed a footpath through the woods, following in the footsteps of the patients, soldiers and urban explorers that had gone before us. As so often happens in a situation like this, the decades of being pretty much left alone have made the grounds of the Beelitz sanatorium unusual in a corner of Brandenburg known for its pine plantations with their uniform, straight lines of trees. Behind those high fences some 65 different tree and shrub species have been allowed to grow without hindrance, reminding us that so-called abandoned places are only ever abandoned in a certain way, and that they remain very much alive and occupied in another.
The path led us to a walkway next to the frame of a building, where women patients were once encouraged to take ‘air baths’ as part of their treatment. It made us think of the recent trend for ‘forest bathing’ – namely, going for a walk in the woods – and how each generation finds for itself the benefits of being out among the trees.
In Beelitz, at least, it felt like the forest had escaped the control of the plantations around. The old wards were embraced by the trees and the bushes, and even the structure of the treetop walkway seemed to be more part of the forest than imposed upon it. A place of abandonment had become a place of possibility. Of regrowth and return. To be viewed and understood from above the treetops, or down on the forest floor.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton