Bradley Garrett was returning from a monthlong study project in Cambodia, and seeing his adopted city of London again he thought about all the incomparably strange and wonderful things he had witnessed there over four years—all the dizzying heights and hidden depths.
The 747 touched down and taxied, its passengers cramped and bleary after the thirteen-hour flight. But when the aircraft reached the gate, its doors didn’t open. After several minutes, the pilot came on the intercom, and Garrett fired off a tweet: “Just landed at Heathrow and we are told the police are boarding our aircraft. Welcome home. x”
A group of uniformed officers from the British Transport Police entered the plane and came down the aisle. They stopped at his seat, 42K. “Dr. Garrett?” “Yes?” “We need you to come with us.” An officer gripped each arm, and they led him down the aisle, past scores of wide-eyed passengers. In first class, former British prime minister Gordon Brown was furious over the delay.
Photos – Bradley Garrett
Garrett was handcuffed and led through passport control, where his ID was seized. Fingerprints, mug shots, and DNA swabs followed. He was eventually led to a holding cell and then an interrogation room. There he was not formally charged but was informed that he was being investigated for burglary, property destruction, and criminal trespass, among numerous other possible charges. He was told he had been the subject of a manhunt by the British Transport Police.
But it was his doctoral research itself that was perhaps most punk rock. His dissertation in human geography, which he had defended the previous year, was entitled “Place Hacking.” The title came from his argument that physical space is coded just like the operating system of a computer network, and it could be hacked—explored, infiltrated, re-coded—in precisely the same ways. He conducted a deep ethnographic study of a small crew of self-described “urban explorers” who over several years had infiltrated an astonishing array of off-limits sites above and below London and across Europe: abandoned Tube stations, uncompleted skyscrapers, World War II bomb shelters, derelict submarines, and half-built Olympic stadiums. They had commandeered (and accidentally derailed) an underground train of the now defunct Mail Rail, which once delivered the Royal Mail along a 23-mile circuit beneath London. They had pried open the blast doors of the Burlington bunker, a disused 35-acre subterranean Cold War-era complex that was to house the British government in the event of nuclear Armageddon. The London crew’s objective, as much as any of them could agree on one, was to rediscover, reappropriate, and reimagine the urban landscape in what is perhaps the most highly surveilled and tightly controlled city on earth.
The catch-all term for these space-invading activities is “Urbex,” and in recent years it has grown as a global movement, from Melbourne to Minneapolis to Minsk. The Urbex ethos was, in theory, low-impact: no vandalism, no theft, take only photographs; as one practitioner put it, “a victimless crime.”
First published by Matthew Power at GQ Magazine Online, March 2014 – Read the full story at GQ