“Just walk in like you own the place. When you look suspicious, people get suspicious.” With confident strides belying jangling nerves and the first turbos of adrenalin, the exploration team crosses the busy street towards a tall barbed-wire fence at the end of a cracked driveway. The route veers off the path and disappears into the nearby undergrowth. Darting into the bushes, a gap becomes visible at ground level behind a dense thicket. The team quickly passes through the makeshift entry point and breaks cover.
One set of decrepit iron steps later, and the vulnerable open spaces of the yard are replaced by the eerie, cool silence of the decommissioned labelling plant. Inside the building (above), which ceased to exist as a business in a Brussels suburb some five years ago, evidence of infiltration is everywhere. “Someone has always been there before you; nothing is ‘exploration’ in the sense of finding something undiscovered by humanity,” says Koen L, this expedition’s leader, shining his Maglite on a collection of beer bottles on top of a smashed control desk. “But we all take different experiences away with us.”
This is the essence of urban exploration: marking out new territories in the world behind the barriers. Boundaries have been breached for centuries. Long before razor wire and security cameras dared explorers to discover forbidden locations beyond, inquisitive minds sought to discover hidden and unseen places.
The urge to explore is inherent in human nature. “We are all born explorers,” says researcher and urban explorer Dr Bradley L Garrett. “It’s a natural, almost primal instinct when we’re young to spend time exploring the environment around us. But then, as we grow older, the social conditioning sets in. Explorers are people who ignore this or choose to rediscover those suppressed natural instincts.”
Urban explorers, also known as the UrbEx community, are thought to number in the tens of thousands. They climb cranes and bridges, descend into subway networks, infiltrate monuments to industry and commerce old and new. Wherever there’s a sign which says “No”, there’s a team of adventurers saying “We don’t care”. These groups have been around in the US and Europe since the 1960s, but there has been a surge in last dozen years.
The UrbEx bible, Access All Areas, was published in 2005, and urban exploration is now a global underground movement connected via websites and forums sharing info, photos, films and experiences. “Some people explore to fight the system,” says Koen L. “Some see it as urban archaeology, discovering secrets of the industrial pyramids. For others, it’s like playtime, exploring with friends.”
Most urban explorers adhere to good-practice guidelines found on UrbEx websites. Others feel that rules run contrary to the essence of urban exploration. “Trying to make rules or codes among people who exist because they don’t follow rules or codes is somewhat hilariously paradoxical,” says Moses Gates, an experienced explorer and author of upcoming memoir Hidden Cities.
When it comes to the rules of the legal system, however, urban explorers seem to be united in breaking them. The legal- illegal argument has little impact on the planning and execution of a mission, other than to change the risk-reward ratio. Explorers believe everyone has the right to access public infrastructure, by which they mean anything funded or maintained by public tax money. Some extend this to corporate property and anything that noticeably affects the community or society around it.
In April, Garrett and the London Consolidation Crew climbed to the top of The Shard: at 330m, London and Europe’s tallest building. The publicity they received generated backlash within the UrbEx community. “Some say we are exacerbating the security culture by publicising our exploits, which leads to more locations getting sealed and locked down,” Garrett says. “I don’t see that evidence yet; we’re still out every week cracking new places, but maybe in time that will happen.”
“It’s getting tough to find new locations,” says Koen L, exiting through the hole in the fence outside the Brussels labelling plant, satisfied with the four hours spent exploring and photographing every level, every ransacked office and storage bay. “But the world’s a big place and when you look beyond the fences and walls, it becomes even bigger.”
Perhaps one of the most notorious and impressive ‘place hacks’ of recent times is the London Consolidation Crew’s infiltration of London’s Shard skyscraper in April 2012. “It was pretty daunting,” says Otter, photographer and explorer with Silent UK. “I struggle climbing 30-floor buildings, but over 72 with an additional crane? The mind was willing, but the body weak.” Almost half an hour of stairwells later, they reached the summit and scaled the rooftop crane. Their reward? The most exclusive and breathtaking view of London.