Haunting images of faded grandeur of Italian villas and blocks in USSR

Haunting photographs by an urban explorer show the faded grandeur of Italian villas, crumbling brutalist blocks in the former USSR and the desolation of the famous Motor City of Detroit

  • Belgian former airline pilot Henk Van Rensbergen has documented abandoned places across the world
  • Life as a Boeing 787 captain took him to stunning buildings in the former USSR, America, Italy and Japan
  • The faded spa towns of Abkhazia show how the de facto state in Georgia has rotted since Soviet times
  • A theme park in Japan, villas in northern Italy, a Detroit church and a Croat WWII memorial feature in his book

Haunting photographs by an urban explorer show the faded opulence of Italian villas, crumbling brutalist blocks in the former USSR and the desolation of the famous Motor City of Detroit. 

Henk Van Rensbergen, a former airline pilot from Belgium, journeyed across the globe during his career, combining his fascination with the abandoned and his passion for photography.

His latest project provides a fascinating glimpse into Abkhazia – a partially recognised state in northwestern Georgia – which has defied Georgian rule in bitter and violent conflict since the dissolution of the USSR.

Van Rensbergen’s new book ‘Abandoned Places: Abkhazia Edition’ illustrates how the collapse of the USSR has left Abkhazia in limbo, with many of its war-ravaged buildings standing in ruin.

In addition, his book includes a rotting amusement park in Japan, decaying mansions in northern Italy, empty churches and hotels in Detroit and a stunning war memorial in Croatia.

The Saint Curvy abandoned church in Detroit, Michigan. The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church was built in the Gothic style in 1911 and had a thriving congregation of more than 2,000 before WWII. But its faithful began to decline as more citizens moved out to the suburbs and into the 1990s its congregation dwindled to just a couple hundred. It closed in 2005 and has been bought in recent times for potential development into a homeless shelter

The abandoned Gruziya sanatorium in Gagra, Abkhazia sits on the water’s edge of the Black Sea. It was a famed spa town and health resort due to its subtropical temperature and favoured by the aristocrats of Imperial Russia. During Soviet times the state made efforts to encourage their citizens to journey to sanatoria by issuing vouchers to provide workers with renewed vigour with restful weeks in warmer climes.

A once-grand ballroom in an Italian villa has been battered by wind and rain. Its skylight has been blown through and water damage can be seen throughout. Shattered windows and mirrors can be seen at ground level, while soaring above stunning plaster work has begun to decay and crumble to the floor

Petrova Gora Monument – or the Monument to the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija – is a WWII monument in Croatia celebrating the resistance movements against the Nazis and commemorating those who died. The crumbling concrete and reinforced steel were designed by Vojin Bakić and it was built in 1981.  Ethnic Serbs and Croats fought together against Nazi and fascist occupation during the war.

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The Teatro Blu in Italy – former Boeing 787 captain Henk van Rensbergen often journeyed out from his hotel room while flying around the world, while his cabin crew and co-pilot lounged by the pool. His talent for photography and passion for abandoned places has lead to the publication of six books, sale of his photographs at gallery auctions across the world and invitations to lecture

The decaying sports complex at Eshera in Abkhazia. The Black Sea location was chosen as the Central Olympic Base of the USSR, but like many of the places visited by the photographer Rensbergen, it was badly damaged during the conflict of the early 1990s. The facilities included football pitches, basketball courts, running tracks and a swimming pool and were used by the USSR’s Olympic athletes during training. 

Overgrown grass surrounds the fading Flash Dance ride in Nara Dreamland, a Japanese amusement park which opened in 1961. The park – which was demolished two years ago – was the brainchild of Japanese businessman Kunizo Matsuo after he visited the Disneyland park in California in United States in the 1950s. He had hoped to secure a deal with Disney but talks broke down and Matsuo forged ahead with building Nara Dreamland

A rollercoaster stands at Nara Dreamland in Japan’s former capital of Nara, in the Kansai region. Its wooden rollercoaster was based on the famous Cyclone ride at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. At its height the park had more than a million visitors every year but began to decline in the early 1980s after Disney built their park at Tokyo.

The Screw Coaster, was a double corkscrew steel ride, designed by Arrow Development – an amusement park specialist from California. In 2001, two further theme parks opened close to the Nara City amusement park and its numbers saw a massive drop to just a few hundred thousand visitors each year. In 2006, it closed down and lay abandoned for a decade, during which time Van Rensberg was able to capture its faded glory

A grand piano lies slumped on the debris scattered floor of the Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit. The 15-storey block was built during the booming years of the 1920s and rivalled some of the other architectural feats of Motor City. During the Great Depression the market for luxury apartments fell and the owners began renting rooms for short stays before it was turned into residencies for retirees in the 1960s. Earlier this year city authorities announced it would sell the building for $350,00 to a developer for retail

The stunning Romanesque architecture of the Palace of Prince Smetsky, built in 1913, shows how the country would have looked in pre-Soviet times. Its tropical gardens full of palm trees and the ornate facades of its white exterior later became the grounds of a sanatorium. The Principality of Abkhazia emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries during civil war in Georgia, later coming under Ottoman rule before the Russians took it into their Empire in the late 1800s

The overgrown interior and crumbling staircases of the war ravaged Abkhazia Parliament in the capital city. Since the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict the state has been in limbo, with Georgia claiming its right over the region, while Russian and a handful of other states recognise its independence. Subsequent sporadic outbreaks of violence have hindered the recovery of Abkhazia and its buildings continue to rot 

A bathtub sits in a decaying bathroom in the Abkhazia Parliament building. The expansive structure at the capital in Sukhumi was badly damaged by fire during the conflict of the early 1990s. Bullets whizzed through the air and shells decimated the capital during the Abkhaz-Georgian war which lasted 13 months and began in August 1992. Significant human rights abuses were recorded on all sides and Sukhumi was the site of a months-long siege which resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

Sukhumi railway station in the capital of Abkhazia – Sukhumi – opened in 1940 it became part of the Transcaucasian Railway which provided the Russians with a key route from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It provided the Russian army with control over the volatile Caucasus region and the railway station at Sukhumi was in use until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Mountain Village Theater in the United States has fallen into ruin. Van Rensberg has been taking photos since he was a teenager and his career as an airline pilot allowed him to explore his fascination for urban decay, journeying throughout North America, the former USSR, as well as Italy and Asia.

This gorgeous photograph is taken above a lake in northern Italy with a glorious red dusk setting in over the mountains overlooking the water in the high country where this villa’s Reconnaissance brilliance still emanates. Van Rensberg joins a host of other photographers who have wondered at the abandoned architecture in this stunning region of Italy

The antechamber of a hulking mansion left to ruins in northern Italy. Ornate frescos and plaster workings line the archways and roof of the interior, while chains once attached to chandeliers dangle from the dirty ceiling. Two badly damaged armchairs stand on either side of the archway and the glass of the windows lets is opaque with grime

The dilapidated staircase of the Aegidium cinema in Brussels, Belgium. Plaster peeling from the walls and dust covering the floors cannot disguise the former grandeur of the building built in 1906. It was originally designed for parties and balls before it became a cinema in 1933. In 2006, it was acquired by the Brussels authorities and has undergone redevelopment

A biblioteca – or library – at an opulent mansion in northern Italy which has faded and crumbled, its interior becoming exposed to all the elements. Foliage can be seen creeping into every nook and cranny of this former home for aristocracy, which stands among other such brilliant structures in one of Italy’s famed ‘ghost villages’ 

The stunning interior of an Italian mansion – magnificent blues of the sky painted across these walls still tell a story of grandeur as rubble lies across the floor. There are believed to be more than 300 ghost villages – ‘paesi fantasma’ – containing these magnificent mansions and rotting villas across Italy

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