In 1976, New Yorker George Willig visited the World Trade Center and took some casual measurements of the South Tower (2 WTC) – specifically the window washing tracks.
A year later, the 27-year-old mountaineer took a personal day and returned with a few buddies and some homemade, custom climbing implements.
He ascended the 110-story building (then third tallest in the world) in about three and a half hours.
According to the New York Daily News, he was arrested at the top and charged with criminal trespass, reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct.
But the crowds in the street, 1,350 feet below, cheered so loud that he could hear them, and people started calling him “the Human Fly.”
“Buildering,” or urban climbing – on buildings, sculptures and other architectural structures – has been around since the end of the 19th century, when Cambridge University students would clamber up to campus rooftops under the cover of night.
It seems to be amidst a resurgence as high-profile climbers like Alex Honnold, Timmy O’Neill, and Chris Sharma share their urban conquests on Instagram.
The myriad of reasons for climbing man-made structures includes everything from notoriety to necessity.
Contemporary builderers’ motives seem more like those of buildering’s forefathers than the daredevils in the middle: They’re in it for the challenge, the novelty, the satisfaction gained from repurposing someone else’s objet d’art.
“I think that builderers are often from urban areas,” says “Urban Ape” Timmy O’Neill, who has several first ascents and speed records to his name.
“I’m from Philadelphia, and I started climbing buildings at a really early age. We were raised in a family that was not only permissive, but celebratory of, climbing urban installations,” O’Neill continues.
How is climbing buildings different than climbing rock faces?
“One is made by man and in some ways, it’s an endeavor to replicate what is natural. We have these huge, impressive walls in Yosemite. They often talk about El Capitan being ‘three Empire State Buildings,’ one on top of the other. So, I’ve always felt [that skyscrapers are an effort to create] these giant, granite monoliths around the world – that strikingness, tension and beauty that are inherently eye-catching and spiritually enlightening,” says O’Neill.
O’Neill says that there is one architectural route that beckons to his very being, but he prefers not to disclose where it is, as he hasn’t climbed it yet.
“There are things that I see that I’m like, ‘Wow, look at that!'” he says. “And there are building facades that are designed in ways that are eminently climbable. And as a climber, you’re looking for egress; this way up or out. There’s this opening, essentially. And some buildings provide that in a very natural way — and the same thing with sculptures.”
It’s almost always illegal to climb these things, which lends buildering an inherent air of irreverence, but though How Stuff Works lists it among the urban sports likely to get you arrested, most builderers mean no disrespect.
“This isn’t about celebrating [or] flagrantly breaking the law, this is about interpreting the urban environment from a climber’s point of view,” explains O’Neill. “We’re not looking to piss people off, but inherently, it does. I think that’s because you’re utilizing something in a way that is not only unexpected, but it’s seen as chaotic and possibly leading to other harm.”
Its unseemly status in the eyes of the law, however, often dictates the buildering “code of conduct.”
“I think that [with buildering] you’re looking for spirit of the law, as opposed to letter of the law,” O’Neill says. “And you’re also looking for forgiveness, and not for permission. Those are two of the main tenets of buildering.”
“You don’t want to climb buildings that have facades that are so fragile that you’ll break them, because not only will you be breaking somebody’s private property, but you could probably break yourself by falling,” he says.
As for equipment, Parkour and buildering photographer Andy Day has written, “The ethics of buildering – if ethics even exist – suggest that the best style of ascent is [using] no climbing shoes, no rope and no mat.”
“You’re generally soloing when you climb buildings because there aren’t opportunities to place protection, and if there are, it’s going to require you to be [open] to detection longer,” O’Neill says. “A lot of these things aren’t about planning. They’re more spontaneous. They’re more about being in a particular place at the right time – and that time is generally when there’s no one there. But once you’re about three or so stories up, people don’t really see you any longer because they’re not looking up.”
The final (and arguably most important) rule of buildering is don’t talk about buildering. Or at least try to avoid mass exposure.
No one appreciates the blowing up of secret spots. That being said, photographic evidence of buildering exploits isn’t rare. O’Neill says that capturing the human body in unusual locations and acts is part of the fun of it.
“And it’s about playing,” he says. “It’s about fun. There is an irreverence to it: This is a building and typically, people are inside working, but I’m outside climbing it … and it is really beautiful, I feel, the interplay: [Inanimate, urban objects] with a living body in there. [To capture it] is counterintuitive because you’re going to have a copy of it that could condemn you, but you want to share it so that you can celebrate it.”
And yes, it is contradictory, but as O’Neill says, “There’s an inherent contradiction in so many things.”
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