How Buildering Works

By: Mark Boyer

Buildering in Popular Culture

From the early days of urban climbing in beginning of the 20th century, climbing feats have drawn crowds of onlookers and brought personal fame to the climbers. And it wasn't long before climbers figured out ways to commercialize their stunts. Some early builderers wore promotional signs on their backs and unfolded banners once reaching the top.

In the early days of buildering, newspapers reported breathlessly on the climbs, just as they did with tightrope walking and other public stunts. But in television era, urban climbers enjoyed a different kind of fame. After climbing the World Trade Center in 1977, George Willig became an instant celebrity and was shuttled from Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin and several other talk shows to meet the public [source: New York Press].


Urban climbers have also been recruited as stunt men in action movies. In contemporary culture, climbing stunts have become a fixture of big-budget movies. The 2006 James Bond reboot, "Casino Royale," featured a combination of buildering and parkour (or "freerunning") by stunt double Sébastien Foucan.

But perhaps the most famous example of buildering in recent years was when Tom Cruise climbed out a window of the Burj Kahlifa in Dubai -- the world's tallest tower -- and climbed around at a vertigo-inducing elevation of about 2,717 feet (828.1 meters) above ground. Cruise wasn't free soloing; he had the aid of a rope, but at age 48 he deserved some serious kudos for doing his own stunts [source: Littlejohn].

Even Alain Robert, the world's most accomplished free soloist who has used his platform to promote social and environmental causes, hasn't been immune to commercial interests. Although he has been jailed and fined for climbing buildings in many parts of the world (Robert is banned from even entering China), his stunts are welcomed in some places, as building owners pay him thousands of dollars to draw attention to their structures. In 1994, a documentary filmmaker invited Robert to come to Chicago to climb skyscrapers for a documentary about extreme sports, bringing him worldwide fame. Today, Robert even has a sponsor -- Norgil, a hair augmentation company [source: Collins].

But even the world's most accomplished urban climber hasn't been immune to the dangers of buildering. In the next section we'll discuss some of the safety and legal issues associated with urban climbing.