This group of rogue photographers illegally scales Toronto’s highrise buildings to capture breathtaking images. We tagged along to find out how and why they do it.
Tom Ryaboi sits gargoyle-like atop the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, his legs dangling over the ledge. It’s cold up here—you feel the wind chill a lot more when you’re 350 feet in the air—but Tom is still and confident. He looks at ease up here, striking a pensive pose as he looks off into the distance. Mies Van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre towers provide a black backdrop dotted with specks of light, and a snapping shutter breaks the calm. Tom’s camera, a Nikon lens on a Canon body, captures the moment, and he hops down from the ledge to examine his photos.
This is rooftopping, a photography trend that has spread to cities all around the world, and is particularly popular in Toronto. There are about 20 regular rooftoppers in the city, and Tom’s friends Neil and Ronnie are with us on our Royal York mission today. Together, they’ve broken into most of the tallest buildings in Toronto, but they don’t like to specify which ones, for fear of being caught. From the summit, they take vertigo-inducing photos of the city’s evolving skyline, sometimes dangling their feet off the edge, and always providing a different perspective on a building you thought you knew.
Tom, a broad-shouldered and genial 28-year-old, tells me there’s a bigger picture of the city that you can’t see from street level. Eager for me to experience it first-hand, he builds a measure of suspense. “I want you to see it for yourself,” he says as we meet near Union Station. “I won’t tell you anything just yet, but tell me what you get out of it.”
If Tom meant to pique my interest, he didn’t need to. No city is growing vertically quite like Toronto, and rooftopping seems like the ideal way to experience its evolution. But how exactly do you take in the city differently when you’re standing higher than the CEOs? And how do you actually get up there?
Rule No. 1: When you walk into the hotel, just act like you’re going to your room. As much as you don’t want to get caught, they don’t want to wrongly accuse guests.
Toronto is a city on the rise. The Fairmont Royal York at Bay and Front Streets was once the tallest building in the British Empire, but it’s now dwarfed by shinier upstarts. According to real estate tracking website Emporium, there are currently 2513 highrises or skyscrapers that are either completed or have building permits in Toronto. This includes three buildings over 200 metres built in 2012, which is one more than was constructed in the entire United States last year. Don’t look now, but at a recent planning conference, Toronto was identified as the fastest growing city in the world.
For some people, the influx of blue and black glass buildings has been an imposing change. These structures—anything over five storeys, really—are regularly opposed at community meetings, with residents objecting to the ways they alter the character of the street, cast shadows, or put a strain on infrastructure.
But for Tom, the increasingly vertical city only sends him further skyward. “I can see how people are intimidated [by the highrises], but that’s why I rooftop. You get a different sense of space up there, you get a sense of control.” He pauses and reflects. “That might be the biggest reason why I do it.”
Tom’s passion for rooftopping has a natural origin story, and his father frequently recounts the way it all began. When he was two, Tom was left alone in the kitchen for a couple minutes, and when his parents returned, they didn’t see him. He was on top of the fridge. No one knew how he got there, but he looked down, grinning happily.
He got into photography as he traveled in his late teens and early twenties, and started rooftopping in 2007, when he was 23. He’s now the photo editor for BlogTO, a position he earned after being noticed for what he describes on his blog as “the photo that changed his life.”
Out rooftopping with his friend Jennifer Tse, he took a photo of her jeaned legs and Converse sneakers dangling over a King Street skyscraper, looking as carefree as they would on a curbside stoop. As soon as Tom went home, he knew he had something special, and the photo went viral almost instantly. He received 500 e-mails in a couple of days, including interview requests from National Geographic, the BBC and the Daily Mail. He still gets multiple e-mails a week requesting to use the photo, and frequent requests for him to provide photography mentorship.
“I don’t know how to respond,” he says. “I’m not a rooftopping tour guide.”
Rule No. 2: Have a good idea of where you’re going. Explore, but remember how to find your way back.
For all the carefree adventuring in rooftopping, there’s obviously an element of danger. Some rooftoppers, like those in the Moscow scene, laugh at those risks by doing chin-ups from construction cranes that tower above the city. “We’re not like them,” explains Neil as we start our Royal York climb. “They’re just crazy.”
Crazy or not, accidents happen. In December, a Chicago couple ascended the Windy City’s 42-storey InterContinental hotel to photograph its famous dome. 23-year-old comedian Nicholas Wieme wanted a better vantage point, so he climbed the adjacent smokestack, but plummeted 22 feet down the scorching hot chimney. The fall didn’t kill him immediately, but he was critically injured. It took 125 firefighters four hours to extract him from his precarious position, but their effort wasn’t enough. Wieme was pronounced dead upon being taken into intensive care.
Tom, Neil, and Ronnie are different. Ronnie, the most reserved of the group, argues rooftopping doesn’t have to be dangerous so long as you use common sense. In other words, be smart, push yourself to find better shots, but don’t take undue risks. It’s an ethos they all seem to live by, and at the risk of reading too much into it, it feels downright Torontonian.
Neil, a full-time photographer for the past year, cautions against finding too much significance in small things. “I think it’s stupid to attach great meaning to this,” he says. “It’s just fun.”
The three of them lead me up a Royal York elevator. We walk down the hallway, open a window and toss ourselves onto a gravel-laden roof. Neil’s right that there’s something exhilarating about this, but I hope there’s more, some way to appreciate the city differently.
Rule No. 3: Dress for the environment you find yourself in. If it’s a construction site, wear work boots. If it’s a bank tower, wear a “Business Person Costume.”
There’s a larger Toronto context to rooftopping. For years, the likes of Jeff Chapman (a.k.a. Ninjalicious) and other Toronto-based urban explorers broke into the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant, Lower Bay subway station and underground rivers and collected their findings in the zine Infiltration. But Toronto has limits. Says Tom, “There’s a finite amount of Toronto history and interesting buildings to explore. This is a different way of doing it.” If Infiltration unearthed Toronto’s past, rooftopping is a way to explore the city’s future.
In October, Tom released a time-lapse video to show Toronto’s changes and trends. Set to Hans Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line,” the epic music belies the sweeping changes moving across the city’s skyline. There’s a cascade of cranes, a sea of streaking lights and a backdrop of dramatic weather that promises more. The four-minute video makes Toronto the Good look downright sexy. It’s as efficient at telling the story of Toronto’s rapid change as any politician, developer, or tourism bureau, and racked up the views when it was released.
While Infiltration shared secrets, it was limited by its zine-based readership. Photos and videos shared by rooftoppers, and published on sites like flickr, 500px and YouTube, are much more discoverable. More people can connect to their city in different ways, and can see it for the first time from the roof of a skyscraper.
Rule No. 4: There’s no right or wrong way to rooftop. Just be safe and get something out of it.
After traversing 10 storeys of scaffolding, I’m finally atop the Royal York. It’s cold, and I really should have worn gloves, but the sights are sufficiently distracting. I reaffirm my belief that the Gardiner is lousy from a planning perspective, and learn that the Union Station roof is really ugly too. But there’s a lot more to see. There’s the symmetric corridor that leads the eye up Bay Street to Old City Hall, and the jutting glass that lends the slightest bit of character to the bank towers. There are constellations of light in the distance, where you can pinpoint Burlington, Hamilton to its left, and even Rochester on a clear day. And then there’s looking down, where you see miniature people, like figurines in an architectural proposal. From far above, everyone appears to move in slow motion, but I try not to look down for too long.
Neil is partially right, that much of the allure of rooftopping comes down to the fun factor (we are, after all, hopping around the roof of one of Canada’s most famous hotels). But there are other elements too. There are hidden gargoyles to discover, and a silent history to be told by the old hotel’s weathered copper cladding.
But as much as it is a visual discovery, it’s also a great place to think. I stand beneath the red glow of the hotel sign—it’s warmer here than the other three sides—and there’s a simultaneous sense of immersion in and distance from the city that I don’t get elsewhere. Tom likens the immersion to riding a motorcycle, but the other half of the analogy is incomplete. After all, you don’t get the distance of looking at a map while you ride a Harley.
For all the discovery in rooftopping—exploring a building’s peaks and crevasses, sharing a new angle on the city—it’s more a kind of urban mountaineering. People climb for reasons as varied as the people themselves, whether it be for self-discovery, exploration, or just plain old fun. But mostly, things are climbed because they’re just there.
These days, there’s a permanent sense of newness to Toronto with every towering building that gets built, and so it follows that rooftoppers will chase that originality as the city evolves. When everything changes so quickly, there’s a certain pride to being first and staking your claim. It’s the sense that you noticed something before everyone else, and had the moment all to yourself before sharing it with a snap of your camera.
Or you can just look down over the city, like a two-year-old atop a fridge, and grin.