There’s something a perverse about buildering, the sport of climbing buildings, that makes it akin to bike polo or urban skiing: taking a sport normally performed in nature and translating it into an urban environment. The techniques and equipment of climbing, developed for over a century to be used on rock and ice, are now used to climb man made buildings. It’s a sport that characters in dystopian or post apocalyptic movies might take part in, once the wilderness of the world has yielded to the encroachment of cities.
But people have probably climbed man made structures for as long as human have created them. Just like what Mallory said about Everest, buildings are there, and that’s reason enough to climb them. And the sport is currently enjoying a surge in popularity, thanks to another urban activity, Parkour. Parkour, the sport of artfully interacting with the urban environment, uses climbing techniques to climb buildings.
The most famous builderer ever, Alain Robert has climbed many of the world’s most prominent buildings: The Eiffel Tower, The Sydney Opera House, The Empire State Building and the Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. Much like other builderers, Robert most often climbs unroped, with just rock shoes and climbing chalk for gear.
Robert has a career unlike any other climber in the world. Most professional climbers are sponsored by climbing apparel companies and are written about in small-market climbing magazines. Robert, on the other hand, is written about it in international publications, like The New Yorker, and is paid by companies like Sony, who used Robert’s climbs to promote the Spiderman movies. (Robert’s nickname is the French Spiderman.) “When I climb a building, I get paid up to $50,000– that’s for one hour of work,” he said in a recent interview.
In many ways, it’s more dangerous than traditional climbing on rock, where it’s possible to protect yourself from falls through various means, like using camming devices in cracks. Most of the times, there are no such opportunities on buildings. This was apparent in 2004, when Robert fell from a building in Korea, resulting in 40 stitches on his elbow. (He has also taken bad falls while rock climbing, which resulted in even worse injury.) This isn’t a problem for Robert: Rock climbing has become tame, he says, because of improved safety techniques. “With buildering, I get to keep that element of danger.”
Others, such as Dan Goodwin and George Willig, have also made noteworthy ascents of tall buildings.
Buildering comes in various different stripes. The sky scrapers that Robert climbs are the Everests and Denalis of the buildering world, but many builderers would never conceive of climbing a building that large. More often than not, they climb small buildings or interestingly shaped public sculptures, which resemble the short problems found in bouldering.
Ard Arvin, one of buildering’s biggest proponents, running the fantastic website buildering.net. (“Misinterpreting Architecture Worldwide” is its tagline.) The site catalogs videos, pictures and interviews of builderers around the world.
Many climbers don’t respect buildering – on the climbing hierarchy, buildering is one rung below climbing in a rock gym — a fact Arvin resents. “Buildering is the first, pure center of climbing,” he says. “It’s climbing in whatever environment you live in. We’ve been doing that since we could first walk. Since I spend most of my time in the city, I climb buildings.”
Arvin, and the athletes that are featured on his website, are a different breed of builderer than the likes of Robert. Arvin and his tribe climb more modest structures. They’re after interesting routes and problems, rather than an large trophy to brag about.
“And coming from a skater background, I’ve always enjoyed re-interpreting the urban environment,” he says. “Like that handrail isn’t for holding onto, it’s for skating. Same with buildering, ‘oh that’s an ugly sculpture, but it’d make a good lieback’.”
Legality of Buildering
Arvin’s comparison of buildering with skateboarding is apt: both are urban sports of dubious legality in many cities. Often when Robert climbs a building, the authorities are waiting at the top to arrest him. Most municipalities don’t have laws that explicitly outlaw buildering, but many builderers can be charged with trespassing.
Authorities often turn a blind eye to this victimless crime. George Willig, an American builderer, once climbed the South Tower of the former World Trade Center in New York City. The city’s mayor fined him $1.10 –one cent for each of the buildings 110 stories.