Where were you while we were getting high?
Feb 18th 2014, 18:58 by N.D. | SHANGHAI
Vadim Makhorov and Vitaliy Raskalov took two hours to climb to the top of the 120 floor Shanghai Tower. On the 100th floor they pause to enjoy the view
PHOTOGRAPHS BY VADIM MAKHOROV AND VITALIY RASKALOV ©2014 ONTHEROOFS.COM
As daylight broke the view on one side of the building was still obscured by cloud. They decided to wait for the cloud to clear before climbing further, to get a real sense of the height
THE desire to illuminate the unknown has sent mankind to the globe’s extremities for millennia. For a new wave of adventurers, the urban landscape presents a novel frontier. On February 12th two urban explorers posted a video online of their 650m ascent to the top of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building. The climb, which involved shimmying along suspended poles and clawing up grates, was done without a rope or harness. Their bird’s-eye view over the city’s skyscrapers, now diminutive and poking out from clouds, is dizzying.
Vadim Makhorov, who is 24 and from Russia, and Vitaliy Raskalov, a 21-year-old Ukrainian, chose the calm of Chinese New Year’s day to attempt this feat. With faces obscured by scarves, they waited until midnight when security guards were, they hoped, nodding off. Then they hopped over the wall encircling the Shanghai Tower, which is still under construction, and climbed 120 floors in two hours. On a crane affixed to the top they spent a further 18 hours waiting for the clouds to retreat, taking photographs and napping. Their aim, says Mr Makhorov, is to show people the urban environment from an unfamiliar perspective. They do not wish to provoke authorities: “we simply explore the city from the inside”.
Cities have always lured explorers keen to scale their heights and plumb their depths. In 1793 Philibert Aspairt forayed into the catacombs in Paris, only to be found dead 11 years later. Walt Whitman, an American poet and another early urban explorer, called the abandoned Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in Brooklyn “a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness”. In the 1950s the clandestine rooftop adventures on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an American university, became known as “place hacks”. (Later “hacking” would pass into technological vernacular.) With the introduction of the internet in the 1990s, urban exploration—or “urbex”—bloomed and divided into subcultures. Among them are rooftoppers, cataphiles, drainers and sky-walkers. There are perhaps 20,000 urbex hobbyists worldwide. Vibrant online forums, such as Urban Exploration Resource, allow users to collate information, swap tips and share “ruin porn”.
Messrs Makhorov and Raskalov, who use pseudonyms, are not the first foreigners drawn to Shanghai’s cluttered skyline. In 2007 Alain Robert, the self-anointed “French Spider-Man”, took 90 minutes to ascend and descend the exterior of the Jinmao Tower, the equivalent of 88 storeys, only to be detained at the bottom.
But the duo represents a new generation of sky-walkers from eastern Europe. Security in Russia is lax, says Mr Makhorov, which makes breaking and entering easier. The country’s array of dilapidated industrial sites presents ideal stomping ground. Meanwhile, social-media sites have nudged urbex into the mainstream. The Shanghai Tower YouTube video has been viewed more than 20m times. Messrs Makhorov and Raskalov can now fund their walks by selling photographs.
Critics see urban explorers as perilous, naïve, self-aggrandising (sky-walkers are fond of shots of their feet dangling over ledges) and even criminal. But while their exploits may be radical, they are not destructive. In “Access All Areas”, a definitive urbex text, Jeff Chapman writes that urban exploration should accord with the Sierra Club motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”. Still, authorities do not always see the value. After Messrs Makhorov and Raskalov place-hacked the Giza pyramids, the pair was banned from returning to Egypt. Mr Raskalov can no longer enter Russia. Shanghai’s government has leaned on Russian diplomats to reveal their real names. There has been little else in the way of official response, save for a rather lacklustre tweet from Shanghai police urging others not to repeat the stunt, and warning construction-site bosses to “strengthen their management”.
Beyond the adrenaline rush that accompanies dodging security and the real physical danger involved, urban explorers describe a feeling of supreme freedom during walks. In urban centres, where governments track the online activities of citizens and CCTV cameras survey streets, theirs are acts of defiance. In his book “Explore Everything”, Bradley Garrett, a British scholar and urban explorer, puts it this way: “Wherever doors are closed, we will find a way through. Wherever history is buried, we will uncover it.”
Photographs of Mr Makhorov hanging off the Soviet star atop a Moscow State University building are poignant for the inherent anarchism. The Shanghai Tower’s tapering form is symbolic of China’s emergence as a global economic superpower. Urban exploration seeks to reclaim public space. In a country where the surveillance of society is especially pervasive, there are few locations more apt.