Toward a Pedagogy of Urbex

Urban exploration, or “urbexing,” (sometimes abbreviated as “UE”) is the act of exploring structures in the built environment, particularly abandoned buildings, although it may also include sewers, storm drains, caves, and other man-made dwellings. For those who engage in it, it borders on an obsession. For those who don’t, it’s probably baffling: why on earth would people actively seek to enter decaying, and—in many cases—dangerous structures? Why go where it’s off-limits to go? What’s the appeal of trucking around in asbestos, dust, mold, animal feces, and God-knows-what-else?

In this post, I explore urbex as not merely a culture, hobby, or sport (though it is arguably all of these things and more), but as a radically different kind of pedagogy—one that offers an alternative to traditional forms of education upheld by (and increasingly embroiled in) late neoliberal capitalist economies.

I’ll approach what I’m calling a “pedagogy of urbex” by highlighting six areas of deep learning that I view as inextricable from the activity of urbexing, as well as how these processes are manifested within the learning and teaching framework of urban exploring:

1. CURATORSHIP:

A graffitied piano in the now demolished Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO. Photo by Valéria M. Souza

A graffitied piano in the now demolished Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO. // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

Urbexing is more than just entering structures, exploring them, and taking photographs or video. It is, properly speaking, a form of curatorship.

Most urbexers, in addition to constantly seeking out new venues for exploration, have a regular circuit of locations to which they return to repeatedly over weeks, months, or even years. More than just “visiting” (although this is certainly one aspect of the appeal and I’ve heard some people report that they do develop a strong attachment to certain spaces), this practice of return allows explorers to periodically check on the buildings they most care about—to make sure all is in order or, if not, to at least document changes that have taken place. A prime example is St. Mary’s Infirmary, where urbexers have created photographic records of the removal of entire staircases by “scrappers.[1] These explorers act as the living witnesses to the lives and deaths of buildings.

Many of us abide by the slogan: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and this policy dictates how we care for the sites we visit. A solid urbexer does not cause any damage to a building and may even make minor repairs while present (such as replacing an item previously on a shelf that has been knocked onto the floor, for instance).

What’s remarkable about the photo above is that the graffiti artist not only enhanced the aesthetic value of the piano by adding the carefully placed, spray-painted eyes, but also replaced the hymnbook where s/he had found it after completing the artwork. This kind of attention to detail and careful consideration of buildings and their contents perfectly encapsulates the spirit of curatorship shared by ethical explorers.

*

2. TEAMWORK, LEADERSHIP, PROBLEM-SOLVING & CRITICAL THINKING:

An explorer, encouraged by teammates both above and below, descends a ladder during a team expedition somewhere in the Rust Belt. // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

While some people choose to explore alone, others prefer to work in pairs or small groups. For those of us who do like company, urbexing offers unique opportunities to experiment in different roles—both as part of a team and as a leader.

Urbexing often requires teamwork. When half a staircase is missing, what do you do? Wait—where does it lead, anyway? How badly do you all want to get down there? Perhaps most importantly: what materials do you currently have at your disposal?

With a team, you not only have the manpower to lift, push, move, pull, and assemble heavy (or complex) pieces, you also have the collective brainpower to suss out a wide range of different solutions to any given problem. One person may suggest using pieces of wood as makeshift steps, while another may realize that the stack of ladders lying nearby, discarded, would be a perfect substitute for a staircase. You never know what might work. In this sense, urbexing is also “labwork”—it’s about puzzles, problem-solving, and creativity. Because every member of an urbex team is likely to have different strengths and weaknesses, in addition to bringing different skill sets to the table, everyone enjoys opportunities to lead (teach) and to follow (learn).

*

3. PLAY, RISK & DISCOVERY: 

Jeff (a fellow urbexer): “It’s like a playground for grown-ups!”
Me: “It is a playground for grown-ups!!”

I call this "IRL Chutes & Ladders." // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

I call this “IRL Chutes & Ladders.” // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

For me—having grown up in the 1980s—urbexing evokes fond memories of playing outside. Of the best parts of being a kid. Recently, The Atlantic ran a terrific article by Hanna Rosin entitled “The Overprotected Kid.” It was about a unique kind of playground called “The Land,” located in North Wales, where children are allowed unstructured, unsupervised play that involves elements of danger and risk-taking (including, yes, playing with fire).

The kind of idea that sends helicopter parents off into a tizzy, “The Land” is what used to just be called “childhood.” I grew up in New England with an Irish Catholic mother—one who worked me hard from a young age but also felt children should spend the majority of their free time outside playing, not inside annoying their parents. My mother did not interfere in sibling conflicts or supervise play dates. She did not schedule “activities” for my brother and I. She did not micromanage, thankfully.

My fondest memories of childhood are of being kicked out of the house after breakfast each summer day and being told sternly to only come home for lunch, and then again before dark. As kids, my brother and I—along with the rest of the children in our neighborhood—were expected to find ways to entertain ourselves, resolve conflict, and refrain from bothering adults. As a result, we had intimate knowledge of the woods that stretched for acres behind our homes. We built treehouses. We climbed trees, invented games. Sometimes we got bullied or fought or broke bones. We got up again. We learned. We played.

In fact, the excerpt of Rosin’s article that most resonates with me deals with Roger Hart, a researcher who sought to map a “geography of children” in rural England in the 1970s:

The children spent immense amounts of time on their own, creating imaginary landscapes their parents sometimes knew nothing about. The parents played no role in their coming together—”it is through cycling around that the older boys chance to fall into games with each other,” Hart observed. The forts they built were not praised and cooed over by their parents, because their parents almost never saw them.

[…]

The kids took special pride, Hart noted, in “knowing how to get places,” and in finding shortcuts that adults wouldn’t normally use.

This reads like the childhood I remember, and urbex is the only activity I’ve ever found that even comes close to taking me back there. To me and countless other explorers, urbex is delightful precisely because it allows opportunities for unstructured and “unsafe” play. There is no urbex environment that is “controlled” (in the sense of “specifically designed for purpose X”) or mundane (in the sense of being predictable). In a world that is increasingly over-gentrified, with buildings and neighborhoods rendered box-like and homogeneous and carefully surveilled by private security firms and ever-proliferating affixed cameras of all shapes and sizes, urbex architecture remains the one gorgeous, awe-inspiring wildcard of the urban landscape.

There is no “defensive architecture” in abandoned buildings. There are no anti-urination devices; no anti-pigeon devices; no anti-skating fixtures; no anti-sitting (aka “anti-homeless”) benches. It seems slightly bizarre to write this, but abandoned buildings—the buildings left to rot, the ones nobody wants anymore—are paradoxically more suited to unfettered, undisturbed human activity than virtually any other structure in the 21st-century built environment.

Even when visiting the same building multiple times, explorers will rarely find it in exactly the same condition in which they last observed it. Perhaps another urbexer has stopped by in the meantime and built a new makeshift staircase or slide. Perhaps someone has revealed another secret entrance. Perhaps there has been a lot of rain and suddenly the basement is flooded. You never know until you’re right there in it…and that’s half the fun.

Urbexing is the closest thing to being a character in a video game—and yet it’s physically challenging and active in a way that playing video games is not. Can you squeeze through this hole in the ground? How high of a ladder can you ascend? Is this makeshift staircase safe? How good is your balance? The decisions you make in urbex, unlike those you make while playing Super Meat Boy or Fez, have real-life consequences. There is always a chance you could get injured or die while urbexing, but at least you’ll have died while living.

*

4. SKILL-BUILDING:

...not scary at all, amirite? // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

…not scary at all, amirite? // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

Related to items 2 and 3 on this list, skill-building is a core feature of urbex education. Urbexing, while obviously risky, provides opportunities for civic participation and related forms of mastery that are lacking (or have been greatly diminished) within all spheres of neoliberal capitalist society. Within the culture of urbex—if one can say there is a single “culture”—participants still enjoy the ability to receive instructional scaffolding as well as active mentoring from more experienced explorers. Unlike in capitalist work environments, where individual workers may be ignored, overlooked, or abused by superiors, in urbex people’s unique assets are recognized and valued. Because urbexing is based around a culture of friendship and learning instead of one of hierarchy and competition for limited resources, more experienced participants are often willing to “invest” in less experienced ones (colloquially called “n00bs”)—provided the less experienced participants show sufficient promise and interest in the hobby/sport/culture. Urbex is an environment where people can interact unmediated by capitalist logics of spending, earning, and consumption. I’ll return to this point shortly….

*

5. AESTHETICS & THE SUBLIME:

Me to J. (another fellow explorer): “The only time I ever believe 100% that there is a God is when I urbex. That’s the only time I feel God.”

The now-demolished Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

The now-demolished Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

There is such beauty here. There is beauty in finding a particularly elegant method of entry into a building. In the posture of a friend as he descends a ladder. In the play of light and shadow inside a hallway. In the position of a Bible, just so, on the floor of an abandoned church. The silence: the absolute, perfect silence that does not exist in the outside world. That world above, below, beside, all around us. That world from which we are temporarily hidden. I have seen beautiful things—things no one else (or hardly anyone else) will ever see.

That spark of fear when faced with a sudden, precipitous drop or an especially shaky floor: ah, the sublime of exploration. I’ve found such beauty here. The first time I stood inside Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I felt my jaw drop. I experience that feeling in virtually ever place I enter that is abandoned. And ultimately, I would rather be in a decaying building than in an art museum.

The thing about urbex is that it’s not an aesthetics for or of the privileged—which is to say, there is no concept of Kantian “aesthetic disinterestedness” or “distance” in urbex. “Aesthetic disinterestedness” or “distance,” as I read it, implies passivity: it is the passivity of the art museum and the stagnant spectator who visits it. You are not in the painting; you merely gaze (disinterestedly, of course) at the painting. From several feet away.

Urbexian [2] aesthetics is both an aesthetics of immersion and one of profound interest: you are in the building. You occupy it. You are not separate from it. You are part of the building. From within, you observe. But you don’t merely observe. For this aesthetics is decidedly not ocularcentric. In urbex you smell, taste, hear, feel, see. You affect the building and it, in turn, affects you. It is all-encompassing and very much immediate. You are not sheltered from this beauty that could easily kill you: instead, you are intertwined with it.

I think Kant got it wrong—or at minimum, he really missed out.

*

6. HISTORY & POLITICS:

Parallel curbs (the older one is closer to the grass) running down the street near the location of the demolished Pruitt-Igoe, a housing project first occupied in 1954 in St. Louis, MO // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

Parallel curbs running down the street near Pruitt-Igoe (demolished), a housing project first occupied in 1954 in St. Louis, MO // Photo by Valéria M. Souza

Make no mistake, urbexing is a political act. The trial of Bradley Garrett, which began earlier this week in London, makes clear the extent to which urban exploration (Garrett prefers the term “place-hacking,” which I dislike) is a politically-charged activity that challenges accepted notions of public vs. private space. Most of the areas that urbexers infiltrate (whether in the U.S., the U.K., or elsewhere) are technically “private property,” with the irony being that such properties are designated “private” and then systematically neglected, ignored, and allowed to rot, sometimes without ever being officially demolished. [3]

In his astute analysis of the charges leveled against Garrett, published in the Evening Standard, Will Self notes:

[…] the aggressiveness of the authorities’ response reflects a deeper level of anxiety about the city and the way we all live in it. For the most part we behave ourselves — we walk this way and not that, we stand on the right and go up the stairs on the left. Our movements about London are closely circumscribed, and while we may imagine ourselves to be free, the truth is that the vast majority of our journeys are undertaken for commercial imperatives: we travel either to work or to spend.

All about us during our daily existence we are presented with buildings we cannot enter, fences we cannot climb and thoroughfares it would be foolhardy to cross. We are disbarred from some places because we don’t have the money — and from others because we don’t have the power. The city promises us everything, but it will deliver only a bit.

The place-hackers draw our attention to how physically and commercially circumscribed our urban existence really is. Some of the defendants were involved in a daring ascent of the Shard while it was still under construction; others have trespassed in the great Modernist ruin of Battersea Power Station. In all cases, whether going up, down, or around, the place-hackers demonstrate a willingness to truly experience the city as it is, rather than be satisfied with the London that only comes with a price tag.

Besides troubling and blurring the line between public and private, urbexing represents a fundamental refusal to engage in consumer behavior: it is an activity that does not involve shopping, spending, buying, selling—in short, participating in the neoliberal capitalist economy. The interesting thing for me is that, because within late neoliberal capitalism citizenship is reduced to consumption (that is, one is only constituted as a citizen by and through the act of consumption), urbexing is not only a simple unwillingness to participate in this system, but also a working blueprint containing alternatives to it. Urbex, as one of the few remaining social and cultural activities not explicitly inserted within and sanctioned by the paradigm of neoliberal capitalism, introduces the radical idea of something other than neoliberal capitalism. In this sense, one could say that urban exploring is a mode of critically (re)thinking the status quo.

It is no coincidence, then, that urbexing could be called “the sport of the poor.” At least within the U.S. it is most popular in the Rust Belt and parts of the Deep South. It is both a symptom of and a response to poverty, for urbexing necessarily relies upon the architecture of poverty (an abundance of buildings and other structures that are neither inhabited, nor re-sold, nor kept up, nor demolished — all largely due to a lack of funding at individual, local, and state levels). People likely to engage in urbexing probably tend to come from lower-class backgrounds: can you picture the Kardashians doing this? What about the over-protected children of comfortably middle-class helicopter parents? No? Exactly.

Urbexing offers poor people (or lower-class people, or lower middle-class people) the opportunity to see “new places”—it opens up horizons of possibility to those who (like myself) would otherwise be unable to experience either novel places or the novelty of placeness that comes with entering into previously unknown territory. When you don’t have the money to travel to other states or countries, urbexing permits access to recreation and to wonder. It is travel without money—but it is not tourism because it is diametrically opposed to the patterns of consumption associated with the leisure class (and, of course, with the upper classes).

At the same time, urbexing affords a chance to “time travel,” in that every expedition serves as a potential history lesson. To visit the ruins of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project is far more enriching and meaningful when one visits with prior knowledge of its history (and, by extension, the histories of racism, segregation, and poverty in St. Louis and in the United States more broadly speaking). Many expert urbexers are veritable encyclopedias of historical, geographical, and cultural knowledge, and are often eager to pass this knowledge on to n00bs. While walking the city, concealed, one learns its history. And, most importantly of all, one participates in its democracy through the political activity of urbex.

Notes

1 – “Scrappers” are utter sleazebags (in my opinion) because they loot and pillage buildings for the sole purpose of profit.

2 – Juuuuust coined this. #nailedit

3 – In other words, this is accumulation and possession of property merely for the sake of accumulating and possessing it (i.e. – capitalism).

[***FIRST DRAFT: SATURDAY, MAY 3RD, 2014 @ 22:24H CDT***]

Photo by Valéria M. Souza

Photo by Valéria M. Souza

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Toward a Pedagogy of Urbex

  1. Reblogged this on creativityinthecollegeclassroom and commented:
    This is a wonderful piece on (among other things) creative pedagogy. Please read this post and follow this blog.

  2. Joel H. says:

    Reblogged this on Joel Hulsey and commented:
    Terrific, terrific, terrific.

  3. Before I forget... says:

    Reblogged this on Before I forget… and commented:
    This is a brilliant post, so well written and illustrated. Anyone who loves photography of urban decay should read this.
    I so wish I could go urbexing from the inside of buildings instead of just wishing from the outside.

  4. Gillooly says:

    GoPro’ed this to Hotmail.

  5. Russ Rosener says:

    I enjoyed your article tremendously! Well written, organized and broken down in an academic way that still places emphasis on the human experience of Urb Ex. My childhood in the late 60s and early 70s was very much like yours. I hope that my son can achieve the same kind of “Adventure in Living”. F.Y.I. the StL Grafitti artist who tagged that piano is Peat Wollager. He has done quite a few public projects in the City.

  6. Great article and extremely well written as always. You summed up my feelings towards Urbexing in a manner I won’t necessarily call succinct but certainly articulate. In the future when I am asked why I enjoy this sport/hobby (what the hell do we call this anyway) I will refer them to this article. #nailedit

  7. Pingback: On Sexism in Urbex. | It's complicated.

  8. Gillooly says:

    One day the urbexicans are gonna outnumber the humans…Wake Up White People!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s