The 76th storey of The Shard (whilst under construction) is probably not what you’re imagining. Ask Bradley L. Garrett, the above question, and The Shard will be high on his list, as the opening of his book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (EEPHC) documents his own account of a euphoric assent up the skyscraper.
In a world full of rules, regulations and CCTV, Urbex (Urban Exploration) offers its practitioners an escape from the norm, tapping into a childhood psyche of not knowing, or being afraid of what’s out there. UE practitioners, who often operate under aliases, are able to infiltrate usually off-limit places like abandoned buildings (derps), buildings under construction (live sites), sewers, and transportation systems. Once on-site, Urbexers admire the views, take photographs, and then leave without trace.
Garrett’s early forays into the world of Urbex began as an ethnographer gathering research for his PhD in Geography at the University of Oxford, however, he quickly became intoxicated on Urbex; buzzing off the adrenalin rush that comes with avoiding the seccas (security guards) of live sites, or cracking a location that very few other people will have ever seen. The most gripping passages of EEPHC are the descriptions of Garrett Urbexing in situ, like infiltrating a derelict Soviet submarine on the River Medway, exploring the catacombs of Paris, mapping abandoned stations of the Tube, and even breaking into an abandoned Government nuclear bunker.
In EEPHC, Garrett comes to live and breathe UE, sleeping amongst ruins, befriending fellow urbexers and researching which site to crack next. The result of his exploits is Explore Everything, a philosophical and visually stunning account of Urban Exploration which is filled with shots of decaying buildings, over-exposed cityscapes taken from up high, and back-lit sewers and drain systems taken from below. The book also chronicles clashes between separate Urbex groups when the movement’s code of ethics, summed up by the motto, “Leave no trace” (28DaysLater.co.uk) is broken or bent.
Garrett’s book explores how Urbex photography captures the relationship between the past, present and the future, and how the movement has evolved since the early 2000s. He argues that Urbex has now become more about the ‘flow’ and interaction of person with place, and the experience of being in the ‘now’, which seem to underpin his own personal experience of Urbex. Garrett’s thesis converges on the idea that urban spaces are horizontal sprawls which everyone can navigate; walking along pavements, driving along in cars etc, whilst vertical spaces represent capitalism and privilege, access points that are often denied to people. It costs for example, £25 to take a lift to the top of The Shard’s viewing platform, and the same cost to jump on a giant trampoline that has been installed on top of The Dome.
After trespassing, the biggest criticism fired at the Urbex movement is that Urbex activities demonstrate how ‘easy’ it may be for terrorists to access some of the nation’s landmarks such as The Shard, or the London Underground. On the flip side though, it can be argued that Urbexers actually bring to light security breaches that can be consequently tightened. After all, terrorism is usually directed towards places of public prominence and not abandoned train lines. Garrett’s book looks at this in detail, and in April 2014, Will Self wrote an article for The Evening Standard which supports this latter argument far more eloquently than is summarised here (see link below). Garrett has collaborated with Self on his forthcoming Urbex book, Subterranean London: Cracking the City which is due to published October 2014.
Films, Books, Articles and Documentaries
Earlier this year Channel 4 broadcasted Don’t Look Down, a documentary about UK freeclimber James Kingston, who scales high things; very high things, like 500ft cranes and Ukrainian transport bridges.
Stand By Me (Dir. Stephen King)
The Road (Dir. John Hillcoat/Novelist Cormac McCarthy)
Fight Club (Dir.)
The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)