words Alex Wiltshire
Definition of buildering: to climb a man-made structure of which the design is for purposes other than climbing.
The great postmodern sprawl of LA is no stranger to being seen as more than just streets and buildings. Skateboarders have been using its surfaces as complex systems of texture and incline since the 1970s, re-appropriating its suburban swimming pools and storm drains for kinetic pleasure. Skateboarding is now formalised as an urban extreme sport; its tenets of alternative thinking are relatively established, with the swimming pool replaced by the half-pipe emblazoned with multi-million dollar sponsorship. But groups of people are continuing to redefine urban environments. Parkour, or free-running, was invented by a group of friends near Paris in the early 1990s. Balletically following straight lines across maps, they developed a sport that sees the city as a series of linear playgrounds; walls not as barriers but as facilitators of ever more acrobatic stunts. But closer to the intrinsic materiality of the buildings that make up a city is buildering – the sport of climbing man-made structures that weren’t designed for it. And appropriately to its heritage as the post-modern city, a British artist called Alex Hartley has written LA Climbs, a new book about climbing LA’s rich array of modernist and postmodernist architecture, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollywood Bowl, Piere Koening’s Stahl House, dinosaurs in Palm Springs and the Hollywood sign.
Buildering – a corruption of the term bouldering, which refers to very technical low climbs without ropes – has actually been around a long time. Its official presence began in 1899, when the climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young published The Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity, a collection of practical descriptions of routes around the Cambridge college. Stars of the form, such as Johnny Mayer, “The Human Fly of America”, Harry F Young and most recently Alain Robert (the one that got stuck up Canary Wharf tower) have in turn wowed, terrified and outraged the public right the way through the 20th century with high-profile climbs of large buildings. But Hartley’s book is about a far more personal relationship with man-made structures – furtive climbs on loved architecture.
For Hartley, the book is a document about his year in LA and his relationships with these buildings, built up over visits and revisits as he planned routes and made attempts to climb. It’s also a dryly witty and often affectionate guide to an alternative view of the city. Looking over the description and photograph of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall at first you see the familiar stainless-steel sail-like structure, but next it’s a complex system of overhangs, faces and steep ridges picked out by a “topo” line zigzagging from the ground to one of the peaks. Planning the book meant that Hartley couldn’t look at anything without thinking about how to plan routes up them. “It’s about looking at cities as surfaces so that they take on totally different meanings. It became an obsession which I’ve only finally slipped out of – not very healthy really,” he says.
Hartley furthers the subtle transformation these structures undergo with details that note areas with loose cladding that provides good handholds and recommendations that, for scaling Disney Concert Hall you should “climb early, or hang out for cloud as the steel gets hot”. It’s the careful re-consideration of such details that’s fascinating. One man’s “lazy pseudo modernist” detail on Arco Parking in downtown LA is another man’s foothold (“watch for loose pigeon-shit buildup on the ledges”). Alain Robert reportedly – and understandably – spends a lot time stopping to minutely examine the structural integrity of the materials the building is composed of. I suppose when you’re without ropes 100 feet above a busy street it doesn’t do to assume the metal siding you’re about to hang from was designed with your purpose in mind.
Such materiality and contact with surfaces is at the heart of climbing. Megan McLaurin, a climber and engineer at Techniker, says: “I’m immersed in materiality. It’s about being outdoors, physical and tactile. It’s the joy of climbing the rock.” For a builderer it’s also about what the structure is made of. With Richard Maier’s Getty Center in Wilshire the walls of rough, regularly cut marble blocks create a relatively easy and extensive range of climbs, and the mixture of plain and patterned blocks provides interesting and varied holds on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis-Brown House in East Hollywood.
For Hartley, climbing these buildings exposed new characteristics that normal views and functionality don’t reveal. “Some are amazingly flimsy, actually! [Richard J] Neutra uses strong horizontal lines, but they’re actually just tacked on so there’s nothing to hang on to.” The number of visits that Hartley made made him consider just what it was that made these structures special. Another element that struck him was gravity: “It’s a big thing with LA architecture because many are built on stilts or in canyons.”
To be honest, architecture doesn’t necessarily provide the ideal climbing experience. Rock climbers tend to say that climbing buildings is boring compared to a real rockface because they’re made up of flat planes. Hartley agrees: “The modernist architecture that I featured in the book isn’t actually that interesting to climb on a pure level.” But the book is really about the relationship between Hartley’s love for both climbing and LA’s architecture. But you can’t help feeling that much of his feeling is born from the trust he puts in them to sustain his weight and the time he put in planning and preparing, much as the final climb often seems to have been held on the fly. “Trying to photograph them I’d end up climbing up around the edges of the property, then nip in and do it. Some we arranged permission to do but the rest we often decided to wing it and deny we were ever there. It was often a scary thing to be doing; the laws in the UK are clearer and people don’t have guns here either.” He and his team were caught trying to hide in some bushes in Palm Springs by the police, but luckily his camera equipment convinced them that they weren’t burglars.
Security at the Disney Concert Hall meant that Hartley spent a week watching the routines of the guards. Once he’d identified an hour window it was a matter of climbing as fast as possible – not really the best condition for climbing. He estimates that he has climbed 70 per cent of the routes in the books, and believes that most of the others have been climbed by his teammates. It’s useful to learn that the official definition of buildering says that it also refers to the creative application of climbing skill to man-made structures, without intent on actually climbing them.
Ultimately LA Climbs is a strange mix of humour and seriousness, fiction and practicality – much as the concept of scaling the outside of a private building is both a ridiculous and a mortally dangerous thing to do. The bending of meanings and purposes that buildering imposes on architecture are at once profound and utterly impractical, and the sense of new freedoms and implications of control and mastery over the urban environment are at once important for its enhancement and dangerous for its balance. If everyone did it there would be chaos. But maybe that’s the magic behind skateboarding, Parkour and buildering – they remind us that the road to the supermarket, your office building and the telegraph pole outside the window aren’t just banalities, they’re also conquerable summits.
LA Climbs: Alternative Uses for Architecture
Alex Hartley, Black Dog, £19.95