Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A 19-year-old scaled NYC’s Trump Tower Wednesday. The outlaw grandfathers of “buildering” would not be impressed.
The Gspaltenhorn was never enough for Geoffrey Winthrop Young.
That was one of the many mighty Alpine peaks that Young, a notorious mountaineer, conquered during his lifetime. But he always wanted more. Eventually, he turned his sport toward the next-best thing: the structures around him at Cambridge University.
“Since the supply of unconquered Alps is limited and the dangers of Nature's monumental exercise grounds are yearly increased by the polish of frequent feet and the broken bottles of thirsty souls, aspirants with the true faith at heart have been forced of late years to seek new sensations on the artificial erections of man,” Young writes in The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity, his cheeky 1900 guide to scaling buildings. “Such is the origin of modern Wall and Roof Climbing.”
The so-called art of “buildering” was born as a lark. While daredevil students had climbed the architecture of Trinity College and other Cambridge structures before, Young was the first to call attention to the act—to make it a thing. Written in the stilted, stylized prose of a naturalist tract, his guide established wall- and roof-climbing as an athletic enterprise, but also showcased its power as a demonstration.
Young’s Guide inspired more Cambridge climbing treatises a generation later. In 1921, a group of students (under the name “A. Climber”) published a sequel to Young’s work with The Roof-Climber's Guide to St John's. And in 1937, under the pseudonym “Whipplesnaith,” Noel H. Symington documented the activities of more than a dozen renegade students with The Night-Climbers of Cambridge. He payed homage to Young, who had written his book anonymously and was not yet publicly identified as its author, and lamented the sparse writing on the subject. Scrambling over the elaborate architecture at Cambridge was simply too dubious from a legal perspective—and that was central to its appeal. Whipplesnaith writes:
The college authorities, acting presumably on purely humanitarian motives, have set their official faces against roof-climbing, and no one would have it otherwise. It may lop off many a would-be climber who cannot risk being sent down, and keep many an adventurous spirit from he roof-tops, drain-pipes and chimneys, but this official disapproval is the sap which gives roof-climbing its sweetness. Without it, it would tend to deteriorate into a set of gymnastic exercises.
By that time, buildering had grown into a notorious practice. Harry H. Gardiner, an American that the press dubbed “the Human Fly,” started climbing in 1905 and scaled more than 700 buildings. He died after falling off the clock tower of the Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. George Polley, who was also known as “the Human Fly,” climbed some 2,000 buildings in his day. He was arrested for trying to scale the Woolworth Building.
Many, many more have come since. Alain Robert, arguably the most famous skyscraper climber, needs no introduction. The French daredevil, who earned the nickname “Spider-Man,” climbed the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, putting an end to the furtherism that drives the sport, at least until architects manage to build some taller buildings.
Robert was invited to make that historic climb, on the condition that he used ropes. Whipplesnaith would have disapproved. The art wasn’t born to become a kind of high-valence publicity stunt, like the one demonstrated by the 19-year-old Trump Tower climber on Wednesday. Buildering was a cat-and-mouse game with the law, a rite of passage, and an induction into a silent fraternity.
“Modesty drives the roof-climber to operate by night; the proctorial frown makes him an outlaw,” Whipplesnaith writes. “And outlaws keep no histories.”