Lately, I have become addicted to skyscraper porn. In particular, I can’t stop looking at ontheroofs.com. It is the website of two Russian daredevils, Vitaliy Raskalov and Vadim Makhorov (which I suspect are aliases), who display themselves perched at the edge of various tall structures around the world, gazing out at a scene their photography turns into the most luscious, pearl-strewn oyster. In the opposite of ruin porn, they transform the achievements of late capitalism into objects of desire.
Raskalov and Makhorov combine their obvious love of human constructions with the techniques and aesthetics of extreme sports—their sponsors include companies such as The North Face. Their standard M.O. seems to be to sneak into office buildings, hotels, or apartments structures, find their way to the roof, and then go as far out on the building’s parapet, climb its cell towers, or find some other perch from which gaze out like the Notre Dame gargoyles that the photographs make them resemble (in one image they actually show one of those instead of themselves). They take images and videos, often at night or twilight, that show cities basking in all their urbanity, their gleam and their glow, spread out in front of them.
The technique is most effective in cities that are both newer in their construction and higher in their reach, so that the thrust and the sheen are both more evident. Recent trips to Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong show them looking down and over at towers from impossible heights, surveying a world that is all steel and glass. Nature disappears into the blackness of night or the desert, as does human activity.
The people in the shots are the photographers themselves, in their hoodies and sneakers as latter-day versions of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary figures gazing out at the immensity of nature. What is missing is the notion of cities as places where people are together, working, living, and playing, while negotiating their way through their shared space and relationships. This is not a real world, but one that has become fantastic.
Ontheroofs.com epitomizes the viewpoint of those who see themselves struggling not against political, social, or economic oppression, but against the limits of both their bodies and any structure, whether physical or legal, which might constrain them. Makhorov and Raskalov are more interested in the intensity of experience than in the accumulation of goods, and more focused on effect than on achievement.
The photographs and videos are so beautiful partially because we get to share their thrills, imagining ourselves being out there on the beam 50 stories above the Hong Kong pavement in the middle of the night, or rising upon a spire to lord it over all of Dubai. To those of us that love architecture, they also give us the beauty of buildings reduced to abstract objects from a vantage point that otherwise only rendered flybys provide. And then there is the sense that in these images the visions of sci-fi movies from Blade Runner on turn out to have been realized.
I was reminded of that vision by my recent attendance of graduate thesis reviews at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Stay tuned to this website for this story in a couple of days ...
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.