Johnny Turner was a talented free runner and photographer. He had a special “touch” when landing his jumps, balancing elegantly on thin rails or walls almost without making a sound. He also loved London’s architecture – from train lines to abandoned construction sites to tower blocks and housing estates – and photographed it obsessively. Johnny was able to combine these two passions in urban exploration, an activity that took him to parts of the capital most people never see.
“He was the type of person who would just ride his bike and do parkour so naturally, he came across these environments from an early age,” says Will, a friend of Johnny’s. “He grew up in Balham in south London, so he’s always been around places like Stockwell, Brixton, Clapham. I think that's why he drew a connection with this type of architecture.”
In September 2019, Johnny fell to his death when climbing a block of flats in Waterloo. He was 23 years old.
Urban exploration, also referred to as “urbex”, is the practice of entering or climbing a city’s uncharted buildings. It could be the top of a block of flats, an abandoned building site or in the case of Bradley L Garrett, who scaled the Shard in 2012 and brought the often nocturnal activity into the spotlight, one of its most iconic skyscrapers. Many “explorers” take photos of the views they encounter, often sharing on social media. London-based urban explorer Harry Gallagher, also known as @night.scape, has more than 240k followers on Instagram and posts shots from the sides of buildings and inside tunnels. Ally Law has earned over 3 million subscribers on Youtube with his urbex videos, and once broke into the Big Brother house. Viral videos of urban climbers like Vadim Makhorov and Vitaliy Raskalov, who run the YouTube channel On The Roofs, have also brought the activity to the mainstream. The hashtag “urbex” now has over 7.5 million entries on Instagram.
Like any extreme sport, urban exploration carries certain risks. Depending on the kind of building an explorer decides to climb, floors can be unsafe or even collapse, while bad weather conditions leave scaffolding wet and slippery. Abandoned buildings are littered with trip hazards that may be impossible to see in the dark, when many urban exploration missions take place. Entering a building without permission can also be considered trespassing, and in some cases punishable by law.
Roman, another of Johnny’s friends, says that he knew the risks involved with urban exploration and was respected within the community. “If you do it [urban exploring], it’s not necessarily dangerous, because with everything you do, there’s always calculated risks,” he says. “You’re not going to take a risk you know you’re not ready for.”
Johnny leaves behind a fascinating body of photography that shows London from a completely new perspective. One photo centres on two tower blocks in Stockwell, not far from where Johnny grew up. Another was taken on the Golden Lane housing estate, which he used to describe as the “hat” on top of the block. He also photographed the Wyndham and Comber estate in Camberwell, a popular training spot for parkour that featured in the music video for Goldie’s “Inner City Life” – his favourite song.
“Johnny found beauty in the grittiness of tower blocks,” says Will.
Johnny’s goal was to document these buildings before they disappeared. According to a study from the London Assembly, redevelopment projects between the years 2004 to 2014 led to a drop in social housing, and a huge increase in private housing. Many council estates and tower blocks that were not listed buildings were demolished. The most famous of these is the Heygate Estate, a housing estate in south London made up of more than 1,200 homes that was demolished between 2011 and 2014 as a part of a redevelopment plan for the Elephant and Castle area.
“Johnny loved seeing the world from up there,” Roman says. “Maybe not 24/7 but 23/6, he was out there [exploring].”
It wouldn’t be unusual for Roman’s phone to ring at 2 AM and for it to be Johnny’s number. He would answer and listen to his friend enthuse about cycling to east London to “check out a new spot.” Sometimes, though, it was a struggle for Roman to keep up with Johnny. “He was the king of the blocks,” he says. Johnny's friends hope to one day show his photos in an exhibition.
Johnny loved urban exploration despite the risks. But what is it about seeing London from often dangerous viewpoints that can be so inspiring? “For different people, it’s different reasons but the biggest one is simply that they are extremely beautiful and striking and carry a very powerful aesthetic experience,” says Barnabas Calder, an architecture historian from the University of Liverpool and author of the book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism.
Calder adds that London's council housing is also interesting from a social history point of view. “Its [aim] was to improve the housing of ordinary people, and bring up the lowest standard of housing to the highest quality, in terms of technical performance and quantity of housing available.”
For Roman, urbex is about more than just a beautiful photo or even a building's purpose. “As much as it’s about getting the view and sights it’s also a mission,” he says. “It’s a journey.”
Pedro, another friend of Johnny’s, sums up why he thinks Johnny loved urban exploration.
“For Johnny, it wasn’t about being on a roof and doing dangerous things – despite what people may think,” he says. “It wasn’t even close to that. His passion was to document the constantly changing city.”
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.