“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Inspired by Italian writer Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, this BBC 3 Between the Ears explores the hidden, fantastical and surreal stories caught between the cracks of the modern city.
With contributions from writers, urban explorers and mapmakers we explore the imaginative possibilities held within cities, their secret folds. How does the layout of a city’s streets, underground passages and the glittering spires of its skyscrapers capture our desires, our fears and our memories?
From the ghosts contained in a cavernous lost property office deep underground to the view from the top of an abandoned warehouse – what impression does the structure of a city leave on its inhabitants?
A secondary goal on this project was to hold an exhibit at Royal Holloway during the Creative Campus Initiative garden party in 2010. The exhibit was a huge success and soon after we were contacted by the British Library asking if they could host our film on the Sports and Society page. Then, incredibly, we were contacted by The Archaeology Channel, asking if they could play it during their video news. The number of hits on the video quickly exceeded all expectations (relative to most academic work).
I think everyone on the team, at this point late in 2010, was stunned that the project had taken on such a life of it’s own. We were even more shocked when David Gilbert, the Head of Department at Royal Holloway (who initially alerted us to the competition), asked us if he could contribute departmental funds to help develop the research project into a school module with a lesson plan and DVDs. These were eventually sent out to 500 schools across the UK. Then, in one final chapter, we were invited to author an article about the project for the International Journal of Heritage Studies be be included in a special issue about the 2012 olympics which we have been working on for over a year now (yeah I know, academia is slow!). So, with all that said, I am proud to announce the release of London’s Olympic Waterscape: Capturing Transition by Michael Anton, myself, Alison Hess, Ellie Miles and terri moreau.
I wanted to relay the whole story of this project for two reasons. First, I want to encourage budding researchers to write proposals for projects like this when the opportunity arises. Yes, they are a pain and yes, you don’t really have the time, but often these things can spin off into all sorts of wonderful directions you can’t imagine. You also often get to meet a lot of great people who can teach you unexpected things and may one day become collaborators on other projects. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to relay to the wider geography community the power of new media. The way this project took off was a result of our combined use of photography, video and text, mashed up in different ways, some of which we didn’t plan or intend. The end result can be a project imbued with far more gravitas than an article alone.
I would just like to end this post with a thank you to Alison Hess, Ellie Miles, Michael Anton and terri moreau for their wonderful collaboration (and friendship!) throughout this process. This was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a research project. I’d also like to thank Amy Cutler and Elisabeth Guthrie for their valuable contributions and Iain Sinclair, Toby Butler, Rob McCarthy, Nick Bateman, Nathalie Cohen, Alex Werner and William Raban for agreeing to be interviewed for the film. Thanks as well to David Gilbert, Tim Cresswell and Phil Crang at Royal Holloway for the support and, of course, to the London Creative Campus Initiative for the funding the work.
“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.
As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.
Taking the privilege
While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP. Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”
Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.
Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).
So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.
Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:
Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies:
“What is at stake, then, is the practice of genuine democracy, of a return to the polis, the public space for the encounter and negotiation of disagreement, where those who have no place and are not counted or named, can acquire or, better still, appropriate voice…” -Erik Swyngedouw
Place hacking pledges solidarity with everyone across the globe staging occupations and interventions to force transparency from our corrupt global government, financial and regulatory systems.
Political protest takes many forms. Know that when the time comes, we have the keys, the evidence, the locations and the skills you may need for the next step. We look forward to your call. We are the 99%.
Let’s get those photoreceptor cells warmed up and neurons bouncing people, it’s time for Place Hacking Chicago, where secret spatial knowledge leaks out like early-morning pillow drool through cracks in the urban security infrastructure.
Chicago was a slimy glimmer as Marc and I sped in, sleep deprived, stinky and tweaked out on our successes in Detroit. We had been hearing rumours of an extensive tunnel system modelled on London’s Mail Rail where some fiendish little schizophrenic called Dr. Chaos had hidden cyanide stolen from the University of Chicago back in the early aughts. Apparently it was accessible through manhole covers, gated up with steel doors that had pins we could pop out with a hammer and screwdriver. Next stop Home Depot we figured, we’re going underground.
But Chicago presented those tunnels as false idols to be chased and worshipped by neophyte place hackers looking for lone star epics to boost international credibility and couch surfing bonus cred. Marc and I read the runes and realised our destiny lay in the heavens of the Windy City. We first hit the Hilton Chicago where we were advised the doors to the elevator controls were poppable with a credit card. Within minutes of arriving downtown, we were up the fire escape and on the roof.
But the Hilton’s rooftop, sexy as it was, left us unsatiated. We looked higher and noticed a thunderstorm of epic proportions coming to meet us downtown. It was prime time to climb the highest the midwest had to offer and grab hold of Chicago’s gods – big cumulonimbus death eaters ready to thunder down bolts of righteous over Lake Michigan.
The 40-story Ritz Carlton Residences had the Eye of Suaron on them, a bulbous 360-degree inverted black dome swivelling around and gaping at the piddly four-foot fence into the site. By the time we were standing in front of it, the rain was coming in from five sides, threatening to breach our bags and assault the fragile electronics in our cameras. I looked to Marc. He nodded. We ran across the street and gave the camera the finger as we ninja’d the scaffolding and ducked inside. The first set of stairs was easy to find but hominid specific ultrasonic vibrations on the third floor revealed a fat man in a bright vest reading Maxim at a desk facing the wrong way to actually perform the job he was being paid for. We left him to it and hit the crane to bypass third floor stair ‘security’. As soon as we swung onto the crane we got hammered by the gods of Lake Michigan again. Their wrath was significant at this point. The thunderstorm had intensified into a full-fledged sensory cacophony complete with blue forked lighting strikes jabbing in dangerous proximity as our shadowy figures scaled the steel cage toward the stars. A few floors up, past the stair barriers, we snuck back to the concrete steps and climbed. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed 40 floors but the thing is that if you’re in reasonably good shape at 20 you’re fucked. After that, it’s just sheer adrenaline, fear and unquenchable anticipation that keeps the legs moving. Add to that the fact the we were eating primarily trail mix and woke up that morning (14 hours ago? 20?) on top of a port building in Detroit and you start to get an idea of what we are up against here. We chilled for a second.
Then we heard them. Sirens. Everywhere. They converged on our location and the blood drained from Marc’s face. Without a blink, he cinched his pack straps and said ‘if I’m getting busted, I’m getting busted on top’ and resumed climbing. Cheeky. We hit the stairs with renewed vigour, every turn in the case cranking up the heat, the angst, the fervour. By the time we get the top, I’m locked in a perpetual dubstep stair wobble and my thighs feel like they’ve been skewered and stuck over a campfire until they involuntarily pulsate.
Nights that thunder
Dripping, panting and wrecked, we walk outside on floor 40 to a nightmare of epic proportions. The architecture is in the midst of supra-environmental contractions rolling in every two minutes, ready to electroporate holes in our cell membranes. The place is heaving and screaming as the gods of Lake Michigan hurl down forks of fury at this giant concrete and metal phallus we just climbed. I am, quiet seriously, terrified that the air ducts, which appear to be zip-tied to the scaffolding, are going to come down on us. And then I see it. Marc Explo is standing on an incomplete ledge being whipped by the rain, defying the gods of Chicago. And the rain stops. And the sirens stop. We look over the edge and there’s nobody there but methamphetamine-addled cab drivers, confused, jetlagged tourists and drunk dudes in loosened ties cruising the Magnificent Mile for violence. Turns out, the sirens probably had nothing to do with us. More false idols.
To this day I still swear Marc assassinated the gods of Chicago. Or maybe he just appeased them with his audacity, for they appeared to linger in wait, providing us with ample opportunity to take our photos in their image, replicating their relentless bombardment for the sake of the Powerslide. In that brief respite between aerial assaults we became the new gods of Chicago and we didn’t intend to take our responsibilities as false prophets lightly. We immediately ran back down 40 floors, bought a beer and popped a hatch in the middle of the one of the Chicago River bridges, toasting those who failed to attend this feckless roadtrip, and those who were on different ones, while the monsoon continued.
Bobble headed optimist
The next day we found ourselves working harder than we should have to sneak into an abandoned Brach’s candy factory. The two events of note within that dirtheap of a building were (1) a guy living in a tent on the third floor of the Chewy Candies Caramels® assembly line (who had clearly located a superior ingress/egress route to us) and (2) the fact that the whole factory reeked of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate. If Place Hacking was scratch and sniff, I could have bottled and relayed the smell of derelict chocolate. Since we haven’t uncovered that particular technological wonder just yet, you will have to fly to Chicago and climb over that fence yourself. Sorry.
The bridge to Candyland
We saw other places. Events transpired. Sometimes we catalysed them. In other moments we were the victims of dirty tricks and absurd bureaucratic mishaps. I got hurt again falling in a hole somewhere and reinjured my broken rib. Such is life on the road. Then I woke up on a sand dune in Gary, Indiana and Marc wasn’t with me. I found him later at Michael Jackson’s childhood home where he was hanging out with Michael’s cousin Ron (no joke).
Lost only on maps
Part II: The Legacy
“We must act out of passion before we can feel it.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Fast forward a few weeks to Indianapolis where we gathered with the world’s great place hackers, blaggers, security subverters and professional infiltrators. After hearing of our successes in Chicago, Marc and I headed back downtown on our way to Minneapolis with Witek, Craig, Darlin Clem, Babushka, Otter and Adam. Everything is more fun with friends. Especially friends like these.
After nailing the Hilton one more time (in the middle of the day no less), Marc had this crazy idea to try and social engineer our way up the 72-story Legacy Tower by following in residents, acting like we were headed to a party. We all tried to hold our giggles as the residents in front of us swiped their keycard and we packed our crew into the lift with them. On the 72nd floor, the lock to the roof fell off. Must’ve been some lingering remnant of those false god superpowers.
The social building hack
No panic attack
We collectively decided to wait for sunset to see the city light up from 250 meters above the city streets. As night descended, eight of us perched on the ledge, my heart bloomed. It was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.
A surety of
The Great Legacy Tower Infiltration, our final mission in Chicago during the 2011 Midwest Powerslide, was a wonder. I left with the feeling that if I were ever to move back to the United States *gasp*, Chicago would be the place. When we walked out the lobby, security opened the door for us and told us to have a good night. Thus is the gift to those who don’t play by the rules.
Cheers to my family for having us over in Elgin for BBQ, a much needed night’s sleep in a bed and, of course, pool time. A huge shoutout to Chicago for being such a bucket of win – that’s some city you’ve built there people.
The spatial revolution is upon us; join us in making place open access again.