Urban Exploration, UrbEx or UE is the practice of ‘going places you’re not supposed to go’, places that are inaccessible and off-limits. The buildings and spaces that this exploration takes place within, on, or around can be categorised loosely into two categories, both of which are based around inaccessibility; the first are the buildings and spaces that are functioning and occupied. However, the parts of these buildings and spaces that are explored are inaccessible due to the control of the owner/occupiers. Explorers cross lines based on the private ownership of a building or space, the opening hours of it, the rules set out by those concerned with building laws and regulations and by the operators who designate front of house from back of house.
The second category involves buildings and spaces that are inaccessible mostly because they have been abandoned. Explorers of these buildings and spaces still cross lines of ownership but with the breaking down of a building or space’s occupation comes the subsequent breaking down of barriers related directly to a building’s occupation. As a building or space ceases to function because of a lack of operation an explorer no longer crosses rules concerned with opening hours or space designation and although a lack of occupation also compromises the rules and regulations associated with building law because of a lack of operation and function those rules and regulations concerning health and safety become a significant ‘line’ that an explorer crosses.
springfield mill & spear works, manchester, 28 days later
Through the practice of these unauthorised excursions Urban Exploration addresses the issue of occupation and accessibility within Architecture. A building’s state of functioning occupation and authoritative inaccessibility are directly related; as a building becomes unused it falls into disrepair, as this state of disrepair worsens the risk to those who occupy it increases, as this risk increases the worry for the owner from causing injury and accruing legal problems and possible financial implications rises, and as these worries rise barriers around these buildings and places are erected.
occupation to inaccessibility, author's own
Urban Exploration acts in the opposite direction to this sequence. Explorers cross the initial barrier (whether it is literal in the form of a fence, railing, door or other threshold or metaphorical in terms of a ownership boundary) then face the possibility of criminal prosecution through trespassing, risk injury through the movement across an unoccupied building, engage with a building’s state of disrepair, often through the photographic recording of it as part of a temporary occupation.
order of urban exploration, author's own
This sequence of events terminates in the explorer leaving the site unnoticed, seemingly one of the underpinning ‘rules’ of Urban Exploration. In their book ‘Urban Maps, Instruments of Narrative and interpretation in the City’ Brook and Dunn say that Urban Exploration is wrought with contrived ethics in an attempt to legitimise the practice. The evidence for this is ethical code is visible on the forums of 28 Days later, an Urban Exploration forum, with “....Take pictures and leave ONLY” forming part of the signature of the forum contributor ‘Ojay’ as well as the ‘No Disclaimer’ page of the ‘infiltration’ website by ‘Ninjalicious’, who is seen as one of the founding fathers of the Urban Exploration movement.
forum user ojay's signature, 28 days later
Brook and Dunn also make comparisons between Urban Exploration and the act of Graffiti. They note the shared factors associated with both practices including the risk involved in both, the sensations attached to the act of both, the isolation and endeavour beyond the everyday through the practice of it and the attitude that unless you are active within the practice of it then you cannot fully understand it.
urban maps, Brook & Dunn, Ashgate Publishing.
This comparison is interesting not only because it highlights the shared values associated with both practices and how they directly engage with the built environment (often photos from Urban Exploration sites often feature high volumes of Graffiti) but how they are fundamental opposites in the visual records of each practice. Graffiti leaves a visible mark while Urban Exploration is concerned with leaving no trace of the explorer even being there. The record of UE is digital and posted on a forum compared to Graffiti where the physical is posted directly to the environment it is a part of.
This ethical ethos that runs through Urban Exploration is also evident in one of the most notable and exceptional physical interactions with the built environment; the case of the restoration of the Pantheon Clock, Paris by the group ‘Untergunther’. In September of 2005 the group clandestinely established a workshop at the top of the pantheon employing clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Viot to restore the 19th Century ‘Wagner’ clock to working order. Through the work performed by Untergunther, Urban Exploration became a part of both a social and political cause. There is an obvious social gain that can be recognised from the restoration of the clock but the restoration was a manifestation of a political statement to the Parisian authorities from the group who went as far as to again decommission the clock before attempting to sue the group unsuccessfully for almost 50,000 Euros in November 2007.
untergunther's workshop, pantheon, paris, ugwk
However, in contrast to this rare incident, where an overriding social and political cause was the motivation for the exploration and actions, Urban Exploration remains a practice of leisure where the motivation for those involved in it is more often than not for the pleasure of experiencing a place they weren’t supposed to go, supplemented with the endorphins that follow the risks associated with the practice of it. This does not however mean that it does not offer anything to Architecture. As Brook and Dunn point out it presents the built environment through different eyes with the 28 Days Later forum laden with beautifully presented images of buildings and spaces that would otherwise remain largely overlooked and outside of the focus of those interested in the built environment. In addition to this, and as covered above, Urban Exploration also highlights the issues surrounding abandoned sites and forgotten architecture addressing directly issues relating to the accessibility through and authority over the built environment.
urban maps,instruments of narrative and interpretation in the city, brook & dunn, ashgate publishing