Not long after we got ourselves to the top of the then uncompleted skyscraper at 122 Leadenhall Street, there was a bit of a shitstorm. For once, it wasn’t the media on a puritanical terrorists/think of the children crusade or the City of London police wanting to lock us all up, this time, it was a few of our mates, and they were furious.
The Leadenhall Building or ‘The Cheese Grater’ as it’s become known since its completion, was at that time the big ticket on the London skyline. I wasn’t directly aware of it, but I was pretty sure most of the usual suspects who were active in the London scene back then had been holding back and waiting for it to top out before having a go. Like the miraculous effort of restraint displayed around the time the Shard was being constructed, with everyone bound by a gentlemen’s agreement not to start trying to get to the top until the core had topped out (and thus making life harder for everyone in the event of alerting security after a potentially failed attempt), there was presumably an assumption that the same degree of respect would be given to 122 Leadenhall.
So when the news came out that we’d tried it prematurely, a few people got a bit mad.
When the news came out that we’d tried it 5 deep after 6 pints, got to the top of the then 20m short-of-completion core, got seen by workers on the way out and elicited a police response due to a spot of hastiness, people were absolutely fizzing.
I never saw the group chats, but I imagine comments were to the tune of:
‘why the fuck couldn’t those northern monkey cunts just hold on for like 2 fucking months?’
‘we’ve been scoping that for like a fucking year? and they just turn up from their shit city and fuck the whole thing up in one night!’
‘it was fucking hard enough before now its going to be basically impossible’
Today, with the nightly police call outs to tall construction projects in the City of London caused by of the hundreds of youtubers and instagrammers that now swarm the streets looking for their next viral video hit, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the reaction we encountered after our little blunder was a tad over the top, but it was a very different era.
A New Chapter.
No one really saw it at the time, but early 2013, and the Cheese Grater episode in particular was a bit of a turning point.
A few months previous had seen the last big media storm of the old world in the form of Brad Garrett and Otters coordinated twin-posting of the Shard photos and video on their blogs, which generated headlines around the world, made them a tidy packet and brought the subject of urban exploration into the focus of the UK mainstream.
Even with the increasing awareness of the practice at the time, UE, in the UK at least, was still the sole domain of the nerd squad.
We were the kind of people who saw mooching round an abandoned factory, climbing a crane, wading through a sewer, and dodging moving metro trains as part of the same basic thing: all fun activities that got you closer to man-made infrastructure and environments you hadn’t seen before, and the public assumption of what it was reflected that quite well. Even with the slight cultural splinter in the formation of ‘HDR ruin porn’ as a thing in its own right, there was still some cohesion amongst these now rapidly diverging activities. We all knew the same people, we were all on the same forums and the motivations all came from the same basic place. The ripples from original foot-dangler Tom Raiboi’s ‘I’ll Make Ya Famous’ that had begun to erode the old scenes in North America had reached our shores, but the only people who were really influenced by it were still people like us.
The point of all those explorations and all those photos we had taken thus far had really been about the man-made environment, but in 2013, the year that instagram really took off, the man made environment as a subject in its own right looked kinda boring to those hundreds of millions of selfie taking school kids.
It was 2013. Wasn’t the most interesting thing… yourself?
A Quick Buck
Looking back, it was quite fitting really. We spent the evening drinking beers in the company of who-else-but French Marc and Bradley Garrett, the media’s darling of the moment, watching the sunset behind the giant tower blocks in the square mile from the roof of Marc’s house. Bigjobs was busy taking Brad to task on his modus operandi, pulling out stories of the fallen heroes of UE ancient history and trying to figure out what his real motive was for all this anarchic taunting of the BTP and where things might end up after the court trials had finished.
It was an interesting couple of hours, and I rather enjoyed the clash of the unabashed Californian confidence against a few well timed ‘you what mate?’ faces.
Its worth saying before we go on, that it wasn’t just Brad flogging his wares to the highest bidder of the day against a crowd of puritanical angels that flew above the temptation of the mass-media, he was just better at it than everyone else. There were plenty of explorers that did have a go but they were all still trying to make money from the traditional channels and with comparatively limited and sporadic success (and varying degrees of backlash from others on the scene). There were magazine articles and photos-in-the-papers a-plenty, but they didn’t pay amazingly well: No one had yet dared to plumb the depths of the dignity abyss to hone the skills and techniques in click-baiting that were required to make any serious money from the brave new world of social media. A few photographers like Gina Soden and Rebecca Bathory made a smart side-shift into fine art photography, jumping into a hitherto untapped market that I’m sure is teaming with money, but there are very few examples of others that managed it quite so well.
There were attempts to directly commercialise UE itself: urbexlocations.be and a stupid iPhone app being early forays into charging ruin photographers for the locations of abandoned buildings (so that they could take the same photographs as each other). I remember people being furious at the time, but the numbers were what really talked. For all the venting about destroyed trust and ‘betraying the community’ urbexlocations.be netted about €20k in the 4 days it was up. There was gold in them-there hills, but it took took 2 lads from Russia who were sat in the wings and revving up their sponsor game to show the Euro kids how it was really done…
Lets have a go then
We discussed the pros and cons of trying the Cheesegrater based on the reccie I’d done in the day, which did in fact confirm a valiant effort by the construction company to keep people like us out. The haphazard arrangements of razor wire and patches of hoarding smacked of a reactive approach to perimeter security, so someone had clearly been having a go, although I’d not heard anything on the grapevine. The BASE jumpers maybe? Although they normally want to wait till the buildings topped out so they can say they’ve ‘done’ it properly. In any case, we expected to be expected.
The group consensus seemed to be:
– Its really difficult to do now, people are already probably trying it, it’ll just get harder
– It’s near enough topped out anyway
– If we don’t do it now, some other cunt will
– Can anybody be arsed to drive 4 and a half hours again in 2 months time?
– What else are we going to do tonight anyway?
We’d convinced ourselves, at least.
The access we’d found to side step all this razor wire and clusters of sensors was rather neat, going over a scaffold pipe gantry from the adjacent (and then inactive) building site of the stalled Pinacle tower. We could approach the Leadenhall site and remain completely hidden on the other side of the hoarding until we were next to it, and could then just climb round the razor wire looped around the scaffold tower on the Pinnacle side and crawl over the pipe gantry straight into the first floor of Leadenhall.
We only saw the security guard sat on his chair he was directly beneath us, lazily reading a paper. They had at least tried to guard this route I guess, but we’d committed by this point so just silently carried on, one by one, across the scaffold bridge and into building site. I’ve no idea how no one saw us. As well as this guard, the ground floor was still active with a few men working, and none of them seemed to notice the huge slam from massive wooden board that everyone managed to stamp on when traversing over the temporary scaffold supports and into the staircore at the side of the building. Miraculously, myself, Kate, Jobs, Millhouse and Sho had made it and were now traveling up 50 stories of stairs to the top.
There ain’t much you can really write that hasn’t been said already about ‘The Views’,™ that well practiced cliche churned out again and again in blogs, reports and as an explanation to pissed off security guards and police men when it all goes wrong. It’s the City of London, it looks like blade runner and its really high up. Yeah, The Views are really cool, but the real reason you’re up here is the fact you’ve just beaten a security team and having a temporary space to yourself for free in some of the most expensive land in the country.
The way out was a little more eventful. By the time we’d reached the bottom of the stairs and retraced our way out on to that noisy wooden board, the workers downstairs must have woken up a bit. The first I heard was a very loud BANG, which was then followed by a very loud “OI!!!” from below. We all looked down to see 4 or 5 dudes in orange construction outfits and hard hats looking up and pointing from the ground floor.
Myself and Jobs made a nice quick dash across the scaffold bridge, and did a hang and drop on the public side of the fence for what we thought was going to be a quick getaway. In about 5 seconds, there were 3 or 4 workers next to us, with about another 10 all climbing over the locked back gate of the site and rushing towards. The guys that arrived first didn’t actually know what to do. I remember looking them square in the eye, all dressed in black and hurrying past them, and saying
“Site Photography service mate, just doing some work for the council”
At the time, I thought they must have bought it for a second, and they just watched us as we quickly made our way round them and off into the back streets where we sprinted off as fast as we could, but in hindsight, that blatant nonsense i’d just spewed was probably so confusing that it took him off guard. If i’d have said
“Digger? scrambled waffle platters, does feel cosy, hmm?” he’d have probably have had the same reaction.
While me and Jobs had managed to get away and were waiting a good few blocks away on some steps, the others had not been so lucky. We could only assume the workers had come to their senses and grabbed the lot of them until the police arrived, and so we just had to hang out and wait for a phone call.
40 minutes later, we got one. They were free to go and we went and met up with them by St Paul’s Cathedral to see what had happened. In short, it was the usual. Took details, no problems, sent them on their way. Some of the officers had no idea what was going on or why anyone would want to climb up a building site (it was 2013, remember), but a few of them were a bit more clued up. They mentioned that they had been called to this site a number of times already with people trying to climb over the fences, and that the construction firms were aware of what was happening, especially with all this UE lark being in the papers a lot.
Race to the Bottom
The dust had hardly settled from the Shard photos going public, and many of the major construction companies began to formulate a coordinated response to an activity they had (unbelievably) been largely unaware of before, or at least in the capital. This began to manifest itself, as we had seen that day, in increasingly impressive fortifications around construction sites. More anti-climb cages on cranes (that actually worked), higher hoarding, more motion sensors, more guards.
There was plenty more to come though, as meanwhile, in Russia, two young upstarts on the Moscow and Novosibirsk exploring scenes, Vadim Makarov and Vitaly Raskalov were getting their act together. They had already made a name for themselves (and pissed off the local explorers in the process) on the Russian scene, and by cleverly persuading a whole host of commercial entities to give them money and air tickets to Western Europe in return for a few viral photos, they smashed it out the park in the blog posts they dropped in the fall of that year, stacking on a bit of class to the already saturated ‘top 13 crazy Russian videos’ buzzfeed articles that had laid the ground over the previous 18 months. They perfectly bridged the gap between the deranged (and corporately untouchable) post-soviet acrobatics of Mustang Wanted, and the cool, street savvy perfectly produced look of the Europeans of the day.
These two have a lot more to answer for than they think. Not only did that blog post in particular send a message to the thousands of dormant rooftoppers in the UK and Europe that is was possible to get paid to do this stuff, it also introduced the concept of ‘do it in the day, who cares if you get arrested?’ to the masses. What followed would probably have happened anyway, but the particular timing of these events, crowned with their next viral YouTube offering of the Shanghai tower crane climb in early 2014, were instrumental in propelling the new breed into the stratosphere.
The ‘big’ European explorers of the time had also flirted with the idea of corporate involvement, but no one had really gotten much further than getting a free rucksack or a pair of trainers. Aside from the nervousness of many of the companies concerned to get involved with ‘unregulated/illegal’ activity, a bunch of paranoid autistic nerds trying to do the whole ‘be discrete, go at night, cover your face, keep it quiet’ old man style UE hammered up against the requirements of the modern day viral marketing campaign was a marriage that was never going to work.
On top of all this, the UK scene itself didn’t even know what it was. To an outsider and by extension, the thousands of advertisers who might have wanted to get involved on the act and make some cash from this burgeoning phenomenon, the picture was extremely confusing and complicated for them to properly grab hold of and use. UE seemed to be in the news every other week but one minute it was people going on about documenting architecture and creating art from abandoned buildings, then next it was about abseiling into sewers and running around train tunnels. This chunk of Newsnight I dug up the other day highlights this perfectly. For all the wrong reasons, its an amazing piece of television. The narrative jumps from one concept to another, never really resolves itself and includes contributors who have almost nothing to do with each other, talking about different things.
I think it was part of the press hype in the run up to Brad’s book release, and features him trying desperately to conceal a shit eating grin from a terminally disinterested reporter, presumably wondering why he got this nonsense and not something more serious to cover that evening, fielding Brad terrible questions, answered terribly, that at best make our American friend out to be a new Alain Robert, at worst, make the whole pastime look like pointless waste of time we should all bloody well grow out of. Ahem.
Even the bloke who’s the head of the National Trust jumps in and talks about his days of youth running around abandoned buildings, before we cut to Danny Barter and his mute friend stood in a subway like a pair of blinkered stoners trying to ascribe meaning to damp houses they went to in Belgium.
Thanks in no small part to pieces like this (and the proponents themselves), to the casual observer the whole thing seemed elitist, aloof and entirely unapproachable .
When this was the landscape the new breed were about to step into, it’s not surprising they took everyone to the cleaners.
I can only assume, but by looking back at the Youtube archives I’d wager the 2013 parkour scene were getting tired of doing roley poleys over bike racks and dicking about on mid-tier rooftops in Cambridge. It should have been painfully obvious that we weren’t the only kids on the block but for some reason, most of us thought that even with the relentless release of photographs and writes ups over the previous decade, no one else would want to have a go at this UE lark off their own back.
The first thing I saw that really brought it home was this article in the metro about the Storror parkour lads who’d smashed about 13 floors of a box hoist climb to get into the same Cheese Grater site we’d been stressing over earlier that year, and presumably realised that compared to all the shit they’d been putting their bodies through for those youtube free-running montages, this urbex stuff was fucking piss easy.
The parkour lot were way more tuned into the world of social media (and the money it could bring) than any of us were and their paranoia-free culture worked with it a whole lot better. They hadn’t just been put through the wringer by the transport police, had never had a chat with the men from MI5 and weren’t really interested in critical urban infrastructure or anything that could get them into any actual trouble anyway. All they wanted was the same thing the public (and by extension, the advertising agencies) did, images of pretty young things doing dangerous stuff on familiar backdrops, and by the summer of that year, we had Dangle McKingsface doing his Russian inspired party trick on crane in Southampton.
James Kingston didn’t really have a message. He wasn’t banging on about his love for structural engineering, public/private spaces or the history of the tube. He just wanted to nearly kill himself on camera. He was a mum-friendly, clean-cut jack-the-lad, and most importantly, he was a lot less Russian than all those kids everyone had seen on the internet. Gone were the turd-covered waders, the sacks of complicated-looking mountaineering gear and shitty abandoned buildings, and in came the trainers, beaming unmasked faces and tracksuit bottoms. This new ‘condensed and simplified’ urban exploration was one the media and the public could understand…
“and therefore”, the advertisers rejoiced in unison, “We can finally make some fucking money out of this thing!”
Looking back to the time I had to make peace with a bunch of my mates, indigent about the fact we had been seen once on one particular building site in ‘their’ city and not told them, seems utterly incredible; not for the fact that they were pissed off, believe it or not I could kind of understand it, but for that fact that we were really the only ones who were even thinking about doing what we were doing back then. The trillion dollar skyline of the most famous city in the world in the hands of probably less than 20 people. That to me, and the fact it lasted as long as it did, is mental.
James Kingston is sort of history now, and with hindsight its amazing how unsophisticated those early approaches to the monetising of dicking about on rooftops really looks when compared with the stars of today, and the current lot really do have the whole show on lock down. Daily uploads, hoodies, t-shirts, phone cases, posters, snapchat stories, endless drone footage, coordinated collaborations… As much as anyone says they hate the self aggrandising poster boys and girls of this relentless brave new world for cherry picking the best bits of a decades old fragile, paranoid underground culture before throwing a molotov over their shoulder on their way out, you can’t help but being just a little bit impressed. They’re making an absolute fortune, laughing in the face of the courts and the police, and nothing really seems to be happening to them as they get caught again, and again, and again and again.
All this fame, money and seeming total lack of consequences are obviously an absolute honeypot, and after 4 or so years of this growing tsunami of dangling kids chasing money for uploads and ‘going in the day, who cares if you get arrested’, the Police and building managers are switching tactics.
We’re now seeing a new kind of coordinated response by property owners in the big cities in the UK to stop youtubers climbing their buildings for profit, and its not just bigger fences. Efforts range from court injunctions (criminalising future trespass and penalising the defendants with huge legal bills) to HMRC investigations to shut them down through other channels (presuming they’ve not been paying the tax they owe on their youtube revenue and merchandise sales). They’ve also started to build up and circulate absurd intelligence documents of who they think are the ‘main players’ in the scene, which as far as I can tell, doesn’t bear any relationship to anything other than who has the loudest mouth (at least some things never change eh?).
Oh, and if you were wondering, all the people that were moaning back when we hotted up 122 Leadenhall did make it to the top eventually, they were (and still are) more than capable of beating the security of a poxy building site, but those days of us having the tower blocks of the city to respectfully share with a handful of BASE jumpers are long over and they will never come back. You could probably draw a few parallels with what happened to the graffiti scenes and rave culture in their heyday, starting from grass roots cultural creation, hitting the mainstream, buckling the current legislation to breaking point and seeing new laws being created to shut it down, just before adoption by the commercial world and the popular cultural canon; leaving a hardcore who are still painting trains and throwing massive free parties against the odds and just keeping quiet about it. Whether this new hyper-wave of social media hype dies down is anyones guess, but you can surly only go so long before you’re sued into the ground (or just swop to doing overnighters in Homebase and cementing your head into microwaves for your ad-money). In any case, when trespass in the square mile finally becomes a criminal offence (it probably will), it’ll take some very brave kids to take the baton from the current flock and try to eek out a living on youtube CPMs and channel-branded fidget spinners (if the public still care by that point).
We’ll still be about though.
At The Golden Cross, St Pauls Cathedral, December 2017.