The Esoteric City: Urban Exploration and the Reclamation of the Built Environment
Entire swaths of the built environment are off-limits to most people—sites of infrastructure, the remains of yesterday’s heavy industry, outmoded hospitals, dead shopping malls— representing the shadow side of urbanity. A few dedicated people defy the prohibitions against entering these spaces, creating an unsanctioned (and often illegal) practice of independent urban exploration and archaeology committed to investigating and documenting the largely unseen corners and vestiges of the city.
As much as these sites are the byproducts of social, economic, and technological progress, they tie back to phenomena that fascinated people of an earlier era—the shattered agorae of antiquity or the stripped medieval abbeys that littered the English countryside. The intrepid people who explore the ruins of the relatively recent past—not just from the industrial era, but now an even more recent service/retail age that dominated American culture until the crash of the late 00s—do so for their own desire to forge a unique relationship with the largely invisible city strata. But whether they lean towards libertarianism or the pursuit of an atmospheric environment for creating art, urban explorers engage with the built environment on such an extraordinary level that they invite—or perhaps actually perform—critique on our relationship to postmodern urbanity. Those who infiltrate these sites comment on the kinds of quotidian urban experience the rest of us normally have.
Parallel to this shift in value and meaning of the heroic era of architecture, and countering a strictly pessimistic reading, is an expansion of the criteria for spaces that can serve the public good. A reevaluation of the administration and role of public, semipublic, and private space now coincides with a resurgence of public and political interest in infrastructure. We are seeing the fruits of these trends in popular new hybrid spaces, notably the celebrated High Line in Chelsea or Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, to name notable examples in New York alone. The conceptual tools of urban theorists can help make sense of this landscape as well, from the political act of purposeless wandering of the dérive of the Situationists to using locative media for liberating acts of remapping the city and urban gameplay.
These additions of public space to the city and interpretive theories would seem to be positive achievements for the reconciliation between citizen and city, but another, and still graver, side of the story is the concurrent net loss in free and unserveilled access we have to public spaces since the terrorist attacks of 2001. And we are reminded since that disaster, which was architectural as well, that each new optimistic urbanistic plan—from yesterday’s utopian socialist garden cities and hyper-mechanized megalopolises to today’s dematerialized networked publics—cannot erase a collective sense of ambivalence about the city.
Cumulatively, it is hard to know what a “normal” relationship to our architectural environment today should look like—but notably, some people are forming alternative connections with it. Emerging from this atmosphere of civic, economic, and architectural disorder is a hybrid cultural figure: the urban explorer. Succinctly and popularly defined, urban exploration is the practice of direct physical infiltration and investigation of derelict industrial sites, abandoned institutions, infrastructural facilities (defunct or still in operation), and other spaces largely inaccessible to all but property owners, technicians, and authorities. The convenient but often-unloved moniker “urban exploration” is the default for practitioners who differ in motivations, philosophical approaches, attitudes toward authority, and preferred territories. Like many emergent cultures, it has accrued a definition without centralized guidance or even consensus.
What most can agree upon is that the definition of the practice proceeds from the target sites, summarized by the title and subtitle of the seminal publication about the activity: Infiltration: The Zine About Going Places You’re Not Supposed To Go. Its ethos, encapsulated in the introduction to the November 1996 issue is the “freedom to look around.” Several characteristic qualities emerge from there. First, these places are human-made and filled with objects, and therefore “urban” even if they are sited in remote rural areas. Second, the act of entry to the place is usually unsanctioned, or explicitly forbidden, by property owners, administrators, or government. Third, whether abandoned or still in use, the spaces most often attended differ in purpose, scale, and/or degree of disrepair from “everyday places,” the kinds of residential, commercial, educational, and civic spaces we are usually permitted to visit.
Because the urban explorer negotiates territories off-limits to the rest of us, his and her activity is one index of how we value architecture and infrastructure in our lives today. The practice tells us about our present moment and the kinds of experiences that have meaning for us—even experiences that can favor negative undertones and belie ideas of starchitect-driven progress and the possibility—or usefulness—of the utopian ideal city.
Trespass is key to urban exploration, and its practitioners proudly, if not at times self-indulgently, proceed from an attitude of transgression. By its nature urban exploration is a form of investigation and interpretation, and is an adventurous, defiant, and sometimes dangerous practice; yet it also generates levels of symbolic association. What are these other, less visible, factors at work in the draw of this practice? Might these nonconformist expeditions also exhibit a yearning to confront that which we almost never encounter in the built environment anymore—twilight emotions such as nostalgia and melancholy, even powerful experiencesof the sublime? Do excursions into the architectural remnants of the recent past correspond to those guided ventures of the Enlightenment era into strange environments, such as show caves? What are we supposed to make of the practice when an urban explorer deploys rhetoric reminiscent of druggy transcendentalism when trying to describe it. Here is Jeremy Blakeslee, speaking of the Bethlehem Steel plant, via email, on November 21, 2009:
These places become like a drug for some reason. Places of this magnitude get you high, a combination of the history, the architecture, the light moving through, the smell of one hundred years of motor oil in the internal combustion blowing engines all over the floor like blood. And you are just another layer in the history of the place.
And ultimately, might there also be a genesis of new categories of experience in sites where, as Tim Edensor, writing in Industrial Ruins, puts it, “the becomings of new forms, orderings and aesthetics can emerge?”
Though the practice is called “exploration,” the spaces interrogated are obviously not equivalent to the unmapped territories of the Age of Discovery. For all of its apparently macho scofflawism, nothing about this culture is even really secret anymore. Urban exploration is now a trendy practice, spawning abundant Web sites and online forums, books, and a veritable new genre of photography. The seductive atmospheres of corroding postindustrial sites and magnificent scale of infrastructural spaces are alluring aesthetic categories unto themselves, not least in the popular realm where they serve as backdrops for films and adventure video games. The whole venture is suggestive of faddish post-apocalyptic exoticism; the settings and practices of urban exploration evidently capture the public imagination but, as with many cultural trends, the more intriguing line of inquiry is why this may be. What are the precursors to these environments and what are the philosophical currents, old and new, that feed into the practice?
The indeterminate terrain of urban exploration—depersonalized, institutional, machinelike, but also shattered, peeling, and crumbling—is met by the figure who drops out of the social and temporal flow of the rest of the city. Whether the combination of this individual (the psychological profile is not as important as his agency, her intentional presence) with this space creates an opportunity for urbanistic truth seeking, or simply permits a brief transcendental fantasy (or perhaps both simultaneously?) is unclear.
Though the target site itself permits wandering, the act of arriving, penetrating, and retreating with predetermined intention is key. The political implications of this intentionality lie not just in the transgressive action itself, but also in the resistance of the status of passive citizen. Or as Henri Lefebvre describes in his Critique of Everyday Life, an even more apathetic category, which substitutes “the ‘user,’ figure of daily life, for the political figure of the ‘citizen’. . . Not only does the citizen become a mere inhabitant, but the inhabitant is reduced to a user, restricted to demanding the efficient operation of public services.” Lefebvre wrote his third installment of the Critique of Everyday Life at the dawn of the era of home computing, before “user” would come to have as many interpretations as it does today. The urban explorer and his precursors (Baudelaire’s wandering, crowd-intoxicated dandy, the flâneur, as well as the dériviste, the ludic psychogeographer of the Situationists) demonstrate that in the experience of urban environment, as in our media, the shift is toward the user.
The user has to take up the mantle despite the passive barriers of programming and the more active ones of control structures. As Michel de Certeau establishes it in his seminal essay “Walking in the City,” published in The Practice of Everyday Life, the task demands a monastic effort of scrutiny: “one can try another path: one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay.”
De Certeau goes on to introduce an element of the metaphysical into the power the user has to shape his or her experience. Recounting the experience of returning to earth after visiting the observation floor of the World Trade Center (“an Icarian fall,”) Certeau describes the subject of urban epiphany as “the pedestrian who is for an instant transformed into a visionary.” In this sense, the power of the “visionary” in the architectural environment has transferred from the heroic architect to the cunning and aberrant user. No longer content to wait for the mediated fantasy of new architecture programmed by the firm, the public-relations apparatus, and complaisant trade press, the urban explorer opts for a more direct (not to say less fantastical) experience with space—not all space, of course, but the kinds of space that lack value in the chief ways we assign it in capitalist society: through either exchange- or use-value. Even amid or underneath the accessible parts of the city, these spaces have effectively disappeared.
If the accessible fabric of the sanctioned world represents the exoteric environment, then a primary rationale for urban exploration is ostensibly truth-seeking, an effort to reveal the historical and infrastructural skull beneath the urban skin. But perhaps the quest for the sublime encounter is for some made consciously, and the truth-value of this knowledge is less political than poetic. Except for those categories of people for whom derelict spaces and engineering sites are experienced regularly (contractors, demolition teams, inspectors, engineers, cleaning and maintenance staff, security personnel,) we are still left to be surprised, enthralled, and seduced by these environments. The rhetoric of altered experiences—visually, emotionally, psychologically—is one of the most common features I have found in asking urban explorers to describe their experiences, especially any formative experiences with derelict spaces in childhood.Descriptions of these experiences include such phrases as “this was a whole ‘nother world! . . . I was completely blown away.” (Blakeslee, Nov. 21, 2009) “It totally warped my little mind . . . That moment of transcendence/enlightenment is the feeling that you, and the rest of the world, are very small and transient. . . Spending time in these places changes you.” (Paiva Nov. 19, 2009) “. . . the feelings can range from adrenaline charged excitement . . . to a calm, meditative observation (the quiet, my heartbeat, the stars).” (Reifer, December 5, 2009).
There is a resulting tension here in the status of the city and the ostensible truth-value of urban exploration. If the city is a constructed reality—civilization’s dream—enforced by a society of control, the urban explorer is a truth-seeker who pierces the scrim of the illusion to behold the city’s more authentic physical and psychic status. If, on the other hand, the urban explorer enacts a sort of waking dream within the city by executing a wholly personal and nontransferable experience of deranged reality, then the truth value derived is dubious, and of little or no cultural benefit.
The first poet/philosopher/historian of the urban dreamtime, whose influence encompasses and suffuses the questions at the heart of this thesis, is of course Walter Benjamin. It is impossible to describe in any appropriate detail here the bearing his work has on the yearning and curiosity that lurks in the hearts of so many urban explorers, but these now-common notions of the city as a phantasmagoria, a “dreamworld,” derive almost entirely from his work. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Benjamin scholar Susan Buck-Morss asserts the difficulty that Benjamin’s thoughts about the city pose, especially in his massive, fragmentary, unfinished Passagen-Werk: “Every attempt to capture the Passagen-Werk within one narrative frame must lead to failure. The fragments plunge the interpreter into an abyss of meanings, threatening her or him with an epistemological despair that rivals the melancholy of the Baroque allegoricists.” His primary terrain for contemplation—the nineteenth-century glass-and-iron shopping arcades of Paris—are not physically ruined, or in other important ways analogous to the places urban explorers go. Yet the psychic landscape they represent—liminal spaces of an earlier era—defines the problems presented in interpreting built space today. The dreamtime is seen in the architectural vestiges of the past, certainly, but perhaps also applies to virtually all newly built space, the ubiquitous tragicomic banality of Rem Koolhaas’s “junkspace.”
The urban explorer reclaims and reinvests space with meaning not just through presence, but through intentional agency, in creating a uniquely possible journey that connects sensory and psychic impression with mythopoesis. By this agency, he and she reweaves disappeared space back into the urban fabric, acknowledging that that tapestry has always been partly knit from the gossamer threads of fantasy. The urban explorer returns the intimacy of meaning to space that had been rendered insensible through disregard (or in the case of infrastructure, sequestered inaccessibility). “Although for most people the leap from simple curiosity to an actual exploration is a large one,” writes Julia Solis, in New York Underground “it is a means of transforming the anonymous city into a personal space.”