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The final frontiers

The view from the top of London’s Shard in December 2011

The view from the top of London’s Shard in December 2011

The photographs, splashed across UK newspapers and hundreds of websites, were spectacular. A nocturnal London seen from so high it resembled a glowing circuit board, stretching to a dark horizon in every direction. The images could easily have been glossy press material for the tallest building in Europe, were it not for the appearance in some of them of  figures in hoodies, clutching on to ladders in the night air or sitting in the cab of the crane used to put the finishing touches to the structure’s tip.

The Shard had been hacked. ‘Place hacked’, by a group calling itself the London Consolidation Crew. The photos had been taken in December 2011 by Dr Bradley Garrett, a member of the Crew who has also written a PhD thesis on place hacking. When the pictures went public, Garrett claimed the Crew had accessed the Shard half-a-dozen times, as well as numerous other spaces – including the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Olympic Stadium, Battersea Power Station and 18 abandoned tube stations.

As the images from the Shard infiltration were going global, a spate of similar incidents of “recreational trespassing” was happening in other world cities. The previous week, Tyomka Pirniazov had climbed the 577-foot Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building in Moscow without a safety harness. The building is one of the Stalin-era skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters, and Pirniazov had previously climbed another – the Red Gates Administrative Building – in 2011. He posted the dizzying footage of both climbs and the stunning panoramas from the top on YouTube.

“There are few uncharted jungles or deserts left to map, or mountains that can be climbed for the first time –even Everest has been climbed over 5,000 times, by over 3,000 people”

On 3rd May, Vitaly Raskalov and two friends – this time, amateur first-timers – ascended the pylons of the nearly-complete Russky Island Bridge in Vladivostok. Again the event became a YouTube hit, with footage of the three gripping the metal struts, more than 1,000 feet up, while dangling their feet over the edge. Unimpressed Russian authorities fined them 300 roubles (£6) each for the escapade.

A member of the London Consolidation Crew admires the view from the top of London’s Shard in December 2011

Alain Robert, known as the French Spiderman, climbs the Grande Arche de la Defense, Paris, in 1999

Finally, on 11th May, Alain Robert climbed the 758-foot Tour First office building in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie. Robert, known as “Spiderman”, has serious form in such endeavours, having used nothing more than climbing shoes and a bag of chalk to climb the Sydney Opera House, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai and numerous other skyscrapers around the world.

Despite these incidents hitting the news so close together, the climbs were not in any way coordinated, and the perpetrators are not  members of a cohesive or organised group. They do, however, have a common lineage – with its roots in the shadowy world of ‘urban exploration’.

Urban exploration, or urbex, is the exploration of the areas of a city that are off-limits. The spaces may be abandoned buildings (from amusement parks to missile silos), catacombs, sewers, utility tunnels – or sites, like those mentioned earlier, where entry is supposed to be strictly invite-only. Given the furtive nature of the activity – the ability to post videos or photos online being relatively recent – it is difficult to accurately trace the history of urbex. Certainly rapid industrialisation and the ravages of World War II (both on physical spaces and populations) helped create many of the spaces that urbexers target. In Japan, a country with no shortage of either urban industrialisation or war damage, the word for “urbex” is the same as for “ruin”: haikyo, literally “abandoned space”.

The incidences of urban explorers publicising their activity obscure the fact that many don’t, and can actually carry out their missions undetected for years. In 2004, police in Paris discovered a fully equipped cinema in a 400-square-metre cavern linked to the catacombs under the 16th Arrondissement – complete with viewing terraces and chairs. The ceilings were daubed with a bizarre range of symbols: swastikas, Celtic crosses and stars of David. At the entrance, a security camera was set to record new arrivals, and set off a tape recorder that played the sound of barking dogs.

There was even a rudimentary restaurant and bar. “There were bottles of whisky and other spirits behind a bar, tables and chairs, a pressure-cooker for making couscous,” a spokesman for the police told The Guardian.
“The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system and there were at least three phone lines down there.” When the police returned three days later with representatives of the electricity board to find out where the power was coming from, the whole thing had been shut down, and a note lay on the floor: “Do not try and find us.”

In 2005, an underground “cultural guerrilla” movement calling itself the “Untergunther” infiltrated the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the grand old church that acts as a mausoleum for France’s most distinguished citizens. Again setting up an electricity supply – plus internet access, armchairs, a fridge and a hot plate – they set about the highly skilled work of restoring the building’s 19th-century clock. The illicit project took a year, and the first anyone knew of their activities was when they announced it was complete, and asked the Panthéon’s administrator to wind the clock up.

Philippe Petit walks on a cable between the Centre Pompidou and Saint Merri church in Paris in 1983

Where some urbex practitioners drill down into a city’s guts, others – like the Shard hackers – head upwards. “Buildering”, a portmanteau of “building” and “bouldering”, is the art of climbing buildings or other artificial structures without ropes. As this is a more conspicuous activity than burrowing underground, its history is easier to trace – alpinist Geoffrey Winthrop Young was documenting his climbs over the roofs of Cambridge University as far back as 1895, and in the early 20th century buildering in New York became so rife that city authorities had to outlaw it. Alain “Spiderman” Robert is the most famous current exponent of the craft, carrying out legitimate, paid-for climbs as publicity stunts, alongside his illicit ascents.

Lofty explorations don’t need to involve buildering. Others, such as those of the London Consolidation Crew, take more conventional routes – bypassing security and infiltrating lifts and ladders to get to a building’s summit. Reports of how this has been achieved do nothing to reassure us about the security of large-scale buildings. As Garrett explained of his Crew’s infiltration into the Shard: “The security has got better over time but you just can’t secure a site that big. There was usually only one security guard, so we waited until he had finished his round and gone into his hut, then swung off London Bridge [station] on to a walkway.”

Some climbs involve a combination of this shrewd infiltration and exceptional athleticism. Philippe Petit sneaked into the Twin Towers in New York several times to ensure he could get past security and to the roof, before famously walking a high wire between the two in August 1974 (later made into the documentary ‘Man on Wire’). His preparation included making fake IDs, building a scale model of the towers for research, and posing as a French architectural journalist to ask the Port Authority for permission to interview construction workers on the roof – which they granted.

The risks for explorers are significant. They include unstable structures, flooding and drowning, falling from height, asbestos, carbon monoxide, gas explosions, exposed electrical wiring, guard dogs, hostile squatters, infected syringes, trigger-happy security guards, and arrest and imprisonment.

Given these hazards, the motivations for these actions must be strong. For some it does seem like it’s the thrill-seeking more commonly associated with extreme sports – the young men on the bridge pylons in Vladivostok are more reminiscent of Base-jumpers in a Pepsi Max commercial than anything else. For others, the conquering of heights through skill is an obvious driver – builderers are fundamentally climbers, triumphing over man-made mountains like a mountaineer conquering the Alps. With this analogy, subterranean urbex is akin to potholing or cave exploration. And some see their actions as transgressive art. Petit said obtusely of his tower walk: “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”

The Ranelagh Sewer, formerly London’s River Westbourne

Whatever the motivation, there’s a natural desire to share the resulting achievement (Petit’s co-conspirators captured his walk, having lugged the heavy ’70s film kit all the way to the top). On online forums such as 28DL (www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums), new posts appear several times a day from anonymous explorers detailing their latest infiltrations and posting pictures. 28DL is broken down into categories, including ‘asylums and hospitals’ (17,639 posts), ‘underground sites’ (17,059 posts) and military sites (6,390 posts). The forum is moderated, with an FAQ page and advice for newbies –  such as not posting details of explorations in advance, using respirators, and the use of climbing rope in storm drains.

On Silent UK’s site (www.silentuk.com), meanwhile, there’s a collection of beautiful photography from successful urbex raids across the world, including shots from the top of the Shard, from the guts of rotting ghost ships and from abandoned industrial sites. Defining the make-up of its disparate membership, Silent UK says: “We’re just like you, we have jobs, go to school, watch TV and go to bars over the weekend. However, every now and then, if the urge takes us, we sometimes choose to spend our time wading in sewers, climbing skyscrapers, accessing abandoned buildings and infiltrating infrastructure.”

The internet is the medium that’s allowed urbex to become a genuinely global community and culture – sharing practical advice, but also the beginnings of an ethos, or even manifesto. Any kind of vandalism, for instance, is frowned upon – the mantra is: ‘Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.’

The web also allows explorers to share their exploits with the wider world, outside of urbex. There are undeniable bragging rights that go with a successful ascent or infiltration, with video-sharing websites and blogs offering rapid distribution. And there’s a hungry audience of those of us wanting the vicarious thrill of a vertiginous video, or a unique view of our city from above or underneath, without having to risk life and limb for the privilege.

But the most serious of the urban explorers – those who carry out the most spectacular missions – deny their motivation is to produce some kind of sub-‘Jackass’ YouTube hit. Part of the lure of urbex is that it reclaims locked-away spaces in the city – spaces that have either been abandoned or closed off from access to citizens. Opening up these spaces – even if it’s vicariously for most – is a kind of public service, a giving-back of parts of the city to the people who live there.

In all of this, the urban explorers are just that: modern incarnations of the explorers of the past. Most inaccessible parts of the planet (on land, at least) have now been visited. There are few uncharted jungles or deserts left to map, or mountains that can be ascended for the first time (even Everest has been climbed over 5,000 times, by over 3,000 people). So this is exploration turned inward, to the condensed areas of our civilization, rather than the wild and untouched ones.

These explorers can be the first to conquer the newly built, the first to map the abandoned or ruined, the expert guides to subterranean networks. And like old-world explorers bringing back tales from elsewhere, we’re fascinated by the strange worlds they find – even as we walk under, over or past them every day.

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