An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
14 November 2012
It was a bright and sunny Sunday in November, and the city’s main shopping centre was alive with bustling crowds and garish Christmas decorations. However, while the people below shopped and queued and ate and bickered, little did they know that we were right up on the roof – scampering around in an industrial landscape of pipes, fans and cooler exhausts.
Getting up onto the roof was easy enough; marked with an emergency exit sign, a large double door led into an unlit service corridor.
Luckily these doors were unalarmed, and so from here the torches came out as we made our way through the dark, past numerous signs marked ‘access prohibited’, and then out into a stairwell. Moving swiftly past the CCTV camera that stood sentry on each floor, we headed up to the top, and through an access door onto the roof.
Before us lay an open expanse of asphalt veneer; blue aluminium pipes sprouting here and there like extraterrestrial undergrowth. First checking to make sure the door could be opened from the outside, we followed a series of ducts that ran the length of the rooftop.
There wasn’t a lot to see in this central area, but as we followed the pipes they were joined by others, eventually fanning out and twisting into a great, gleaming circuit board. Here a series of steel steps led up to gantry above the pipework, allowing access for maintenance workers. Every now and then we passed by extractor fans the size of jet engines, which blasted us with warm, stale air.
The terrain became more interesting the further we moved from those areas designed for human traffic. Following a ganglion of vents where they passed under a low gap in the wall, we found ourselves on a kind of balcony – a concrete observation platform, looking down upon the forecourt, the car park, and the milling crowds below.
Heading back the other way, we were afforded a panoramic view of the city around us – houses, shops and Soviet-era apartment blocks faded away into the distant hills.
Beneath us on a lower level, we watched two teams playing a five-a-side football match on an outdoor rooftop pitch. From up here the distant traffic was inaudible, blending into the nondescript background hum of the city.
We left as easily as we had arrived… back down the stairs, through the dark service corridor, and then straight into the public areas, mingling into a crowd of Sunday shoppers. I had prepared in my head an excuse about looking for the toilets and getting lost along the way, but nobody questioned us as we emerged from the door marked ‘staff only’.
I have always been fascinated by ‘accidental’ landscapes.
As a species, we are unique in that most of us are constantly surrounded by a world that has been designed for our comfort and convenience; tarmac, hand rails, street lights, benches and bins.
How refreshing it is then, to escape all of this and enter into a realm which was never intended for human traffic. To forge a path through the unseen infrastructure of this societal bubble, amidst the trailing roots and unkempt offshoots of our shared artificial world. This is the very essence of exploration.
The rooftop of this particular shopping centre was neither special, nor unique. It was no different from thousands of other rooftops, in every corner of the world; no history, no secrets. We had seen all there was to see here in about ten minutes, and yet we lingered… between the blue skies above and the haphazard growth of aluminium tentacles beneath, it made as good a place as any to enjoy a lazy Sunday morning.