Higher Education – A guided tour of UBC with an engineering alumnus who enjoys returning to admire the various buildings on campus – and, given the chance, climb them.

BY MASAJI TAKEI, article as appearing in the Sept 2006 issue of Vancouver Magazine.

“THE CHAN CENTRE is hard,” says Ard Arvin, gazing up at the cylindrical performing arts venue on the UBC campus, designed by Bing Thom and opened in 1997. “It’s really hard. The edges on the square metal tiles are angled and super slippery.” Arvin is a 30-year-old UBC alumnus, electrical engineer, rock climber and former skateboarder who now prefers to scale buildings. He’s also a 10-year veteran of UBC’s buildering community and founder of Buildering.net. “The late Guy Edwards had a plan to climb it, a plan that involved a coat hanger and nylon slings to negotiate the glass corona at the top, and some liquid chalk to prevent hands and feet from sweating and slipping on the pre-weathered zinc panels.” Edwards perished climbing in Alaska in 2003. “He may be one of the only guys who could have done it,” says Arvin. “From my perspective, it’s unclimbable.”

Unlike the Buchanan Tower, say, a hundred meters south. Built in 1972, it’s the tallest educational facility on campus at 13 floors. It’s climbed with some effort – and a rope for protection – using a staple move in buildering, called chimneying. Picture someone sandwiched between two walls, in this case five feet apart, pushing out with hands and feet, shuffling upward.

On to the Main Library, described in Dick Culbert’s A Cragrat’s Guide to the U.B.C. Campus (1968) as “without a doubt one of the classic climbs on campus.” Alas, those days are gone. “You can’t really do it anymore,” says Arvin. “It’s all being torn down for modifications. There used to be these drainpipes that people would climb up – scary. They weren’t solid at all. Back in the ’60s they were crazier than we are now.”

Directly west, separated by the library garden and 70 years, is the Koerner Library. A five-storey, glass-fronted monolith built in 1997, it seems an unlikely candidate for climbs. In fact, it has detailing a builderer can appreciate. “These pipes here,” says Arvin, pointing at a grill between zinc panels on the side, “they go right to the top. The hard part is getting past this bulging cement thing at the bottom.” The cement bulge houses the continuous planter that caps the battered granite wall and windows at the base of the building. It’s a good five meters above the deck, overhangs, and looks impossibly smooth.

The south end of the campus includes many newer buildings,” says Arvin. “It’s the old architecture I really like. The materials they’re using are so different now. Instead of concrete or quarried granite, they’re using brick or metal and glass. Everything is smoother. Even the cement now is different.” Much of the new building is also residential, “which we don’t climb as a rule. You can get in more trouble. They assume you’re stealing something, or a peeping tom.”

We come to the new Life Sciences Centre. Built in 2004 for $125 million, it’s the largest building on campus. The first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certified educational building in the country, it’s home to the distributed medical education program. And to what Ard is certain will become some classic buildering lines.

A quick head-swivel – “Any cars?” – and he’s demonstrating classic tight chimney technique. Unlike the wide, strenuous chimneying demaned by the Buchanan Tower, the gaps between the yellow brick walls flanking the windows here are narrow and secure, allowing Arvin to brace his back against one wall. He’s comfortable enough to make conversation as he ratchets his way up. In less than a minute, he’s sitting on the roof. “This is one of the rare exceptions – a new building I’m excited about.” He turns to point out an open wall on the higher section of the building, “A route straight up that face will go, it’s definitely a potential classic.”

He’s down as quickly as he got up. We go behind the building, hop a short retaining wall, duck through a tear in the chain link fence and head past the hospital to a different kind of classic, the “oceanography traverse.” It doesn’t look like much. Only one storey high, it starts behind a dumpster next to a set of stairs behind the Biological Sciences buildings.

Ard sets himself up on the wall. He pinches four-inch ribs of concrete detail, less than half an inch deep, hands a little farther that shoulder-width apart. He wedges a foot in the two-inch gap running between the ribs and with a grunt lifts the other foot off the ground. He’s on the vertical wall, held only by the strength of his pinch grip and the friction of his sticky approach shoes on the concrete.

He releases a hand, reaches up to grab the underside of an overhang and works his feet higher. He’s now about two meters off the ground, somehow adhering to the featureless concrete wall. All that remains is for him to reach left to a concrete platform and pull up and over – but releasing a hand proves to be too much and comes off.

The day finishes with flamed out forearms rather than a visit from campus security. Though preferable to end this way, Arvin quotes “Whipplesnaith,” the pseudonymous 1937 author of buildering bible The Night Climbers of Cambridge, and inspiration to generations of campus climbers: “This official disapproval is the sap which gives roof-climbing its sweetness. Without it, it would tend to deteriorate into a set of gymnastic exercises.”