Whose space is it anyway?


Pictured: Harry Gallagher, the Urban explorer known as ‘Night Scape’ - on top of One Canada Square, February 2017


On the same day images of Norman Foster’s Tulip – a viewing tower for the Square Mile – made London the centre of the great global skyscraper debate, the fate of five trespassing urban explorers tells a more vital story of the city’s tall building fixation writes Rory Olcayto


Urban exploration involves seeking out man-made structures, abandoned ruins and rarely seen components of the man-made environment, and increasingly, documenting the experience online, with photos and film clips. When academic Bradley Garrett posted shots of himself on top of the nearly completed Shard in 2012 he gave the practice a worldwide audience. His definitive book on the subject, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, was published a year later.


Last year a video posted on YouTube showing teenagers breaking into Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square bolstered the scene’s outlaw reputation. The final few moments at the skyscraper’s steaming pyramid peak are genuinely thrilling (and very dangerous and obviously illegal).


A global phenomenon driven by social media, urban exploration is a vital cultural force that has even begun to shape UK property law. In a sector where workplace fatalities are still frequent and large building projects are considered vulnerable to terror attacks, urban exploration serves to amplify these concerns.


It's why this week five young men were in court after flouting an injunction first enforced in February banning trespassers from a Canary Wharf building site. The men allegedly clambered up 43 storeys of the Newfoundland Quay building, Horden Cherry Lee’s distinctive, cylindrical trellis tower. On Monday, a High Court judge said the alleged trespassers face "overwhelming" evidence – they seemingly posted their exploits on social media – and warned that they could be sent to prison when the case, being brought by Canary Wharf Investments Ltd and 68 other interested local parties, is heard next week.


Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The injunction effectively bans five named individuals as well as "persons unknown" – meaning anyone else  from trespassing on their site. Indeed of the five facing jail only one is named in the injunction. None however should be locked up.


In correspondences between Canary Wharf Group and those named in the injunction, we learn that one couldn’t attend court in February “as I’m away training for BMX championships”. Another, a handwritten letter to CWG’s solicitors, begins: “Dear Mr Wortley, I have signed the undertaking and have enclosed it. I have not been able to get this witnessed because after having spoken to a few solicitors unfortunately I cannot afford their fees.” A third response to the threat of legal proceedings reads:


Why you trying to ruin a young boys life?

Like for real, just tighten your security!

In fact we are strengthening your team from a real terror threat, so

why treat us like we are the enemies?

Make sure this goes to your boss!

We mean no threat or danger!

Kind regards



That the defendants were eventually made liable for the injunction’s cost shows how deeply ingrained the rights of property owners are held to be by the Court. Nevertheless the Canary Wharf injunction is a logical response. A trespasser was killed on a site belonging to the developer in January this year. The health and safety of the developer’s staff really is put at risk by the actions of these ‘explorers’. But it’s hard to celebrate laws that bar public access. 


And while there were reportedly 17 attempts in 2017 to climb the Lloyd’s building, urban exploration is largely basic fun, low on criminality. The YouTube film “*CAPTURED* CRAZY KART INSIDE A MALL!” – a 16 minute clip of an after hours go-karting break-in at Brent Cross shopping mall – has had just shy of 9 million views. It’s pretty funny. Its sheer silliness makes it hard not to wonder if the impulse here is a kickback; a reaction to the hyper-curated city experience London is assuredly perfecting, where things unfold as you expect them to, in discreetly managed environments like the South Bank or King's Cross.


The bigger picture looks particularly skewed when we consider the alternative to urban exploration that the property sector offered this week: plans for a giant platform in the sky raised upon a hulking stem that you can Instagram pictures of London’s skyline from. The design by Norman Foster (an Instagram star himself these days) is startling in that it resembles a sex toy.


There’s no details yet of how much it will cost to enjoy the summit, but from the Shard (£27.20) to the London Eye (£25.20) to the Orbit (£27), this city is already well-served by simplistic ‘big-top’ architecture. We need a third way – not breaking in, not paying through the nose – to give Londoners access to the soaring heights of their city. Ironically, at ground level in the City of London where the Tulip is to be located, it's getting harder every day to take photos, as private turf is aggressively guarded by square shouldered guards. (Try snapping the lobby of Rem Koolhaas’s Rothschild building – even from the outside –  to see what I mean.)


In the meantime, be assured that urban explorers everywhere won’t slam Foster’s design like the critics have. Hell no. To these guys and gals Foster’s glowing orb is a sign. One that reads: 'climb me'. YouTube awaits.