OFF THE WALL
Allison Ong studies upcycled climbing structures.
Germany, Allison Ong grabbed bullet holes and stepped into shot blasts. Ong, a climber and landscape architecture grad student at the University of Washington, is one of many to climb on Humboldthain Flakturm, aka the Bunker. In fact, climbers have been using this WWII anti-aircraft tower since the 1960s. After visiting the Bunker and Der Kegal, a Berlin climbing gym within a rehabilitated WWII train-repair factory, Ong noticed how local climbing communities had formed around these sites. This past spring, she spent 10 weeks compiling a 25-page research paper with nine examples of urban climbing structures throughout Europe and the United States, showing the benefits of transforming existing urban structures— from WWII bunkers, to old water towers, to bridges—into climbing spaces. (
What was the climbing like on the Berlin structures?
The Bunker sits in a park, and you can walk right up and climb it. You climb more on natural features—meaning, wear and tear from war scars. Climbers have added holds, but you’re mainly climbing on holes created by gunfire. It felt eerie to be touching WWII artifacts for recreation.
Der Kegal feels like a climbing gym except you can also go into the back courtyard where there’s a climbing tower. Der Kegal is also part of an art commune. Basically, it’s this big factory with multiple buildings that were abandoned then re-taken over. The rooms are used as gallery space, concert space, and a club.
Are there any structures like this in the United States?
One is Maple Avenue Bridge in Redmond, Oregon. They had one lead climb and it was ongoing, but then they had to pause due to liability issues. [ Ed. The bridge recently reopened to climbing.] In Seattle where I live, I’m near the Volunteer Park Water Tower, which people climb on even though it’s illegal. Climbers are into the idea of climb- ing on architecture; it’s just not really legal in the United States.
What would the first steps be toward legalizing and promoting such structures here?
A culture change would be needed. This is echoed in playground design. When I was in Germany, I saw these amazing, scary, cool playgrounds, but in the US they’re typically these boring, super-safe structures because everyone is afraid of lawsuits. Equally so, the [Europeans] have climbing walls where people can just walk up and climb, but in the US we have a lot of restrictions on what you can build for climbing. If we could be more relaxed, this would allow more climbing structures to be built on existing buildings.
What is the unique appeal of these urbanstructures?
They’re more accessible to everyone—you don’t need a car because they are buildings in your city. People who climb outdoors could use them as a local option. There’s something cool about up-cycling an old building that isn’t being used [...] since people love to climb buildings anyway, and they’ll do it whether it’s legal or not.
How do these structures fit in with the future of climbing?
In my field, we talk a lot about the future of urbanization, which is just that a lot of people will be living in cities and we’ll have to build more houses and buildings. We’ll need to carve out places for recreation, like these climbing structures, within the density.
What was your favorite structure you uncovered?
Kilimanschanzo [the only climbing structure in Hamburg, Germany]. It’s covered in graffiti, so in that way it’s an art space. It was started by a group of concerned stakeholders who make their decisions with everyone involved. The focus was on people—the group wanted to make the park safe, as there had been a problem with drug usage. I love that there’s this art aspect, this community aspect, and also this mentorship aspect where they partner with different youth clubs and take refugees climbing [on the structure] once a week. It’s a great example of how this was just an empty building and now it’s a center that provides health, exercise, and outdoor recreation.
CRISTINA ROSE PETERSON ON SUMMER VACATION (5.12B), MAPLE AVENUE BRIDGE, REDMOND, OR.