In his recreational trespassing exploits, Bradley Garrett has explored derelict insane asylums, forgotten underground rail lines, and museum basements that haven’t been touched in decades. He’s scaled the 76 floors of Europe’s former tallest building, The Shard, and kept going, reaching the summit of a builder’s crane so high that, as he told Forbes, everything below “looked like converging river systems—a giant urban circuit board.”
He did it all in the name of “place hacking,” an activity undertaken by an urban, anti-authoritarian subculture of explorers who seek to rediscover the forgotten and the dilapidated, the never-before-seen views and the modern-day ruins that cities throughout the world have to offer. You’ve seen their photos before: black-clad and masked figures, at night, in some unimaginable place that people aren’t supposed to be. It’s wilderness exploration in an urban setting. It’s not about vandalism, but rather curiosity and nostalgia, the appreciation of lost, undisclosed and forgotten places.
Recently Garrett published a book “Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.” It’s a rollicking, inspiring read (and you should definitely pick up a copy). Here he gives us a taste of the world he lives in.
The Clymb: First off, all of this is illegal to varying degree. How do you pull off a place hack?
Bradley Garrett: Mostly it’s preparation: Finding locations, plotting them on a map, figuring out potential routes, and then it’s a matter of going there, looking for cameras, seeing when traffic is heavy, and figuring out how to climb up. There’s this massive bridge—the Fourth Rail Bridge in Scotland. We climbed up the north side of the bridge, then crawled across and through the bridge all the way to the south side, probably almost a mile. We found a way inside the pylons, climbed up those instead of the exterior. We may have been the first people to do that. For the Newport Transporter, you can walk up the suspension cables. With subterranean stuff, you literally spend days opening up every manhole cover and mapping them out, crossing them off a list to connect things.
The Clymb: Do you ever co-opt these spaces?
BG: We do. We had a squat for about six months in London, like an UrbEx headquarters. We threw a party last year inside the London Bridge. We got 86 people in, and it was awesome. 2:00 a.m. in London—it just blended into the city noise. Nobody knew there was this rager going on.
The Clymb: There’s seems to be a transition with some urban explorers; it’s gone from seeking out modern-day ruins [images of these places often called “ruin porn”] to scaling enormous buildings…
BG: That’s what we’re into now: big targets or connecting systems. The whole urban explorer mentality of sneaking into an abandoned asylum doesn’t really register with us anymore. It’s typical explorer mentality, collecting sets and making world records: the highest building, all of the bridges, etcetera. I think that’s much more interesting.
The Clymb: What’s the draw for you? The philosophy behind the action?
BG: So much of our lives are just on rails now. You go to work. You go home. You buy groceries and do your laundry. Even when you try to break out of it, you take up scuba diving or paragliding or anything just to mix it up, you quickly find that that shit’s on rails too. All of their ethics are guided by some association that you have to pay fees to and they want you to have insurance. This stuff just drives me absolutely insane. The thing I love about UrbEx is that there are absolutely no rules and we have no idea what’s going to happen. It can go horribly wrong. But often it doesn’t! You try something that shouldn’t work and then you’re like, ‘My God, that worked. We did it. I can’t believe we’re here right now.’ And then you realize that so much of the reason why we don’t do things is because people tell you it can’t be done or you shouldn’t do it. But it’s all just an illusion. And the more of this stuff you do the more it actually starts to rewire your brain and you start seeing the world in a different way. And I think that’s the hacker mentality I’m always thinking about. Everything becomes hackable.