Every climber I know has gone through a phase where everything in the environment looks tantalizingly climbable. We mime sequences in the air, stare at buildings, and say, “I could totally climb that!” For me, this goes back to when I was a kid and everything was fair game. I wanted to return to this mindset—this blurring of architecture and play structure—when I was given a research assignment for a class on Public Health and the Built Environment at the University of Washington. As a master’s student in landscape architecture, I want to design places that promote health, well-being, and community. As a climber, I want to climb everything. So when it came time for the research paper, I decided to write it about how we can use existing architecture as climbing walls.
My research took me to Germany, where there is a strong culture of adaptive reuse. Empty lots and unused buildings are turned into beer gardens, urban agriculture, nightclubs, art spaces, and climbing walls. This contributes to a style of innovation that values architecture of the past to create a more vibrant present. Researching these structures has reminded me that everything can be climbable. Here are five of these abandoned structures turned climbing walls.
The Bunker is one of six flakturm, or anti-aircraft towers, ordered by Hitler to be built in 1940. The vertical walls, once smooth concrete, were violently chiseled by Russian bullets, creating pockets, crimps, and side pulls. Alpinists in Berlin began developing The Bunker in the '60s as a training wall for the Alps, first aid and then free climbing it. Today, artificial holds have been added, drastically increasing The Bunker’s accessibility. Now there are over 70 bolted routes ranging from medium to difficult.
The wall is currently maintained and operated by the Deutsche Alpenviren (DAV) which is the German Alpine Club. It sits on a hill in Humboldthain Park, where anyone can walk up and start climbing whenever they please. The inside is also a protected bat habitat where subculture-themed companies lead tours. Much of the allure of The Bunker comes from its history as a WWII relic. How often are your mono pockets actual bullet holes from WWII?
Kilimanschanzo is a pun on Kilimanjaro and the neighborhood of Schanzenviertel in Hamburg. In the 1980s, the Florapark in Schanzenviertel was known for being unsafe. A large air-raid shelter sat abandoned in its midst. Residents took notice of the air-raid shelter after graffiti art showed up on its walls. In the early 2000s community members held a meeting to consider ways in which they could revitalize the park, and someone had the bright idea of turning it into a climbing wall.
In 2004 the climbing wall was officially registered with the city of Hamburg and open to the public. They have about 50 climbing routes up to 65-feet tall. The founders stayed true to their grassroots origins, creating a strong feeling of community ownership. Decisions are made as a group at monthly meetings that anyone can attend. The club has several social directives, such as Open Sundays where visitors climb for free, youth climbing programs, and a climbing program for refugees. On their website, they advertise that their programs teach skills such as taking responsibility, giving confidence to others, mastery of the body, and cultivating happiness through outdoor activities. Kilimanschanzo is an example of a grassroots movement that revitalized a park, upcycled derelict structures, and continues to give back to the community through climbing.
Der Kegel is pretty much your normal climbing gym, except that it’s located in an abandoned train repair factory and its center is a WWII bunker-turned-climbing wall. The bunker is a Zombeck-Turme, designed to protect civilians from bombs. Its incredibly thick concrete walls (6.5’ at the base) are probably the reason it was never destroyed. Subculture groups took over the abandoned factory in the early '90s and used it for dance clubs, graffiti, skateboarding, and art galleries. Today it is officially recognized as a cultural compound known as RAW-Gelande.
Der Kegel translates to “The Cone”, named after the cone-shape of the bunker. The bunker is over 60 feet tall and climbers climb texture from the bunker as well as artificial holds. For most outdoor climbing walls, winter is just not considered part of the season. However, Der Kegel found a way to get people climbing outside in Berlin’s icy winter. Once temperatures dip below freezing, the staff at Der Kegel spray water onto the surface of the bunker, creating a wall of climbable ice. It is truly a novelty to climb ice in the middle of Berlin.
Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord
Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord is a celebrated work of landscape architecture in Duisburg Germany, known for being one of the first post-industrial parks in the world. The park was previously a coal and steel production plant that was abandoned in 1985. In 1991, Peter Latz won a design competition to turn the plant into a park. His design saw value in the plant’s industrial history and kept most of the structures. Now, there are gardens made from bunkers, scuba tanks that once held gas, and climbing walls galore.
The DAV began developing Duisburg Nord’s walls in 1990, in a room where iron ores were once stored. Latz included their work in his redesign of the plant and the climbing walls are now a key element of the park. Today there are more than 400 routes and 7,000 climbers a year. There is also a via ferrata and a dry tooling facility. Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord is the great story of a group effort. The city of Duisburg worked together with the DAV and landscape architect to transform industrial ruins into places of recreation. If such a place were ever to be built in the United States it would certainly require a partnership between climbing advocacy groups, local governments, and designers.
Kletterturm Leipzig is an old brick water tower that is now a climbing wall in the city of Leipzig. The tower was built in 1907 to supply water to the area and abandoned in 1977. The tower sat forgotten until Olaf Rieck thought to climb it as training for Mt. Everest. Rieck made the first ascent with crampons and ice axes while his partner belayed from the window of the tower. In 2001 the whole tower was converted into a three story climbing facility that combines indoor and outdoor climbing with food and relaxation.
Indoors, the first floor is an artificial bouldering wall for beginners, the second floor is an artificial wall for more advanced climbers, and the third floor is a restaurant. A beer garden sits at the base of the tower where onlookers watch people climb 130-foot routes on the outside of the tower. Kletterturm Leipzipg is a relevant example for the United States, since we have many more abandoned water towers than WWII bunkers.