Boiler houses, smooth gradients, glittering windows, Vor Frelsers Kirke, gangways, crumbling cherubs, brutalist basements, fleurs-de-lis
There was a jungle gym at my childhood after-school care called The Fort, though really it was more like a cathedral. Three storeys of primary-coloured metal and plastic and wooden gangways, it dominated the community centre and the library next door. The Fort had towers and antechambers and a great courtyard at the middle, with ladders and monkey bars surrounding it. From the highest point, there was a colossal slide, a hemispheric open tube of red plastic that took you from up among the leaves of the grey gums to the sea of wood chips beneath. The Fort had no walls except for the railings—nothing to stop you from falling except your hands and your feet.
I cannot tell you if my description of The Fort is entirely accurate. If I could go back there now, it might seem smaller, the first floor off the ground coming up to my shoulders rather than looming above my head. There may have been four storeys, or two. Though I never heard of anyone falling from it and breaking a bone, no lawsuits against the community centre, The Fort was dismantled soon after I started high school, as were many jungle gyms in that era. The Fort is now confined to my memory, and no doubt the memories of everyone else who devoted their childhood to its conquest. It stays with me in person, too, in my hands and my feet and my knees when they bend. Wherever I go, I am drawn to the structures we build to reach and reach for the clouds, and I am compelled to climb them like a magnet polarised against the Earth.
From a distance, the church tower spiralled like a seashell, dark brown fringed with gold.
I’ve climbed the boiler house at the Tate Modern. The interior of the structure begins to the right of the Turbine Hall, if you enter from the street—to the side of the great ramp sloping downwards, a brutalist basement, minimally lit. I climbed maybe nine flights of stairs. There’s plenty to see in the galleries on the way up—almost enough to make you forget it’s an exercise in scaling heights. From the top, I saw across the Thames, the new architecture clinging to the banks and the old nestled among it. The London Eye to one side, the city’s heart of commerce to the other. Thick brick walls separated the crowds from the precipice. I took the elevator back down.
I’ve climbed the Eiffel Tower twice, all those hundreds of sturdy metal steps. I remember it in stages: at one, you could pause for a drink. At another, a gift shop. At the top, I walked all the way around the platform as many times as I could, scanning the flags and distances on the inside wall for Australia, for Sydney. These flags are a distraction from the view: Paris surrounds you, so far down it’s like a toy village. There are binocular viewing stations that, for a coin, will let you zoom in on the sights. Otherwise, you’re separated from the skyline by a cage. The first time I was there, I was a child; I know I used one of the viewing stations, but I don’t remember the view. The second time I was there, it was foggy.
I took the elevator to the top of the Rockefeller building, fittingly known as Top of the Rock; the staircase was not an option. You cannot come and go as you please. A friend told me to visit at sunset, so I looked up when the sun would set that day and booked my time slot accordingly. I went through a security screening, and then into a space that felt like a doctor’s waiting room, or an airport gate lounge. From there it was a short escalator up to the roof, which itself had two floors to it. I could see all of Manhattan: the downtown skyscrapers clustered around Times Square, 432 Park Avenue crudely protruding from the uptown grid, and Central Park cutting through the centre of everything. I watched every swatch of colour across the city change, from day to dusk to a dark-blue night, the lights in the skyscraper windows glittering like constellations. I watched as best I could: if there hadn’t been glass walls to keep me from toppling over the edge, there was always the crush of dozens of tourists who had also been told to visit at sunset.
When I was in Copenhagen last year, I booked myself into a tour of the Nikolaj Kunsthal; you couldn’t climb all the way to the top on your own. The Kunsthal—Danish for “gallery”—is an old brown-brick church in the centre of the city, with an unassuming churchyard taking up green space that the nearby shopping strip wouldn’t dare to touch. The first two floors have been converted into white-walled, open art spaces, but the structure of the old church is still there in traces. The tour guide took us higher up, into the wooden heart of the building. She showed us the exposed gears of the old church clock, and from there it was on to the viewing platform. You could walk all the way around, a panoramic view of the city. Copenhagen has no skyscrapers, so each tower—even one as short as the Nikolaj Kunsthal, only a few storeys above the buildings around it—is a valued vantage point and hard to miss.
Wherever I go, I am drawn to the structures we build to reach and reach for the clouds, and I am compelled to climb them like a magnet polarised against the Earth.
I pointed to a tower on the horizon and said to the tour guide, “I keep seeing that place. What is it?”
She explained to me that it was Vor Frelsers Kirke—the Church of Our Saviour—on Christianshavn, an island city wedged in between the two halves of Copenhagen. From a distance, the church tower spiralled like a seashell, dark brown fringed with gold.
“Can I climb it?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but it closes early, so maybe not today.”
I was only in Copenhagen for a long weekend: it was Saturday afternoon, and I had booked a day trip to Helsingør and the nearby Louisiana museum for Sunday. I flew home on Monday evening. Luck was on my side: it was summer, the days were long and Vor Frelsers Kirke was open late on Saturdays.
Thick brick walls separated the crowds from the precipice. I took the elevator back down.
I took the metro to Christianshavn. To me it seemed less affluent than the city centre, or even suburban Amager beach, where I was staying. There were a few fancy cafés, but there was also a large supermarket, several convenience stores, and well-worn apartment buildings. It felt, more than any part of Copenhagen I’d seen, like a city where people lived.
From the metro station, I could barely see the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke poking out above the squat, rectangular buildings. It was close by. I walked down a back street where the walls were painted yellow, lined with trellises and climbing roses in bloom, dark red. The street opened out, and to the right was a fenced and tree-lined churchyard. In the middle of it, the church.
If you look at an aerial satellite picture of Vor Frelsers Kirke, you’ll see that it’s shaped like a square cross superimposed on another, smaller square. But from the ground, its sheer size was such that I couldn’t make out the shape around the corners. There’s a ticket office at the base of the spire, through a side door and up a flight of stairs at one of the points of the cross; the actual entrance to the church is around the other side. Once I’d paid, there was one more staircase before I got to the bowels of the spire.
I watched as best I could: if there hadn’t been glass walls to keep me from toppling over the edge, there was always the crush of dozens of tourists who had also been told to visit at sunset.
It’s all wood on the inside of the tower—the stairs, the walls, the supporting beams holding it all in place. It’s dark, too; the only light comes from small portholes. I understood why the tour guide at the Nikolaj Kunsthal had said it usually closed early. In the few clear shafts of light, I could see whole walls covered with graffiti. I passed strange exhibitions of stone contained in metal cages: an array of cherubs, crumbling but smiling; disembodied wings with teacups resting amongst their feathers; the detached bases of columns and a demonic mask nestled among them. There were intricate iron machines kept behind glass, and lengths of rope dangling from the ceiling. It was unclear if this was deliberate art or just odds and ends that were lying around and needed a home.
My trip through this strange tower ended on a landing, leading to a ladder. There was only room for one-way traffic, so I had to wait for a few people who’d just climbed the spire to leave before I could mount the ladder and come to the base of the spire itself, in full view of the sun. And it was viciously bright. I wore my sunglasses, my regular glasses dangling at my neck, and I had my phone at hand to take photos. I felt precarious, standing on a platform with a view across the city. I was ready to keep climbing.
The spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke is clad in a bronze-coloured metal, with a staircase winding around it like a helix, made of the same metal and ringed by gilt railings decorated with fleurs-de-lis. There are stickers on the walls. The steps are well worn and slippery; the railing offers little protection. There was one hell of a breeze that day. With every step, I could feel a thrill in the soles of my feet; it would have been so easy to fall. I climbed higher as the staircase closed in around me, narrowing to the peak.
I passed strange exhibitions of stone contained in metal cages: an array of cherubs, crumbling but smiling; disembodied wings with teacups resting amongst their feathers; the detached bases of columns and a demonic mask nestled among them.
There is no second route up the spire. After a while it becomes like the ladder in the tower, a queue forming in the last patch of shared space. I pressed on as far as it was possible to go, to the point where there was barely room between the spire and the railing for me to squeeze into. I crammed myself onto that tiny stair and looked out over Copenhagen. I could see the sea. I could see Sweden. Above me was a gold-domed clock, its underside decorated with messily scratched names and dates: JN ’99; an isolated 2011; BELLUCCI OG WERGE carved inside a heart. I have these names with me because I paused to take a photo. There were people waiting behind me, but I never felt any pressure; we were all climbers. Though none of us marked our names, the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke was a monument to all of us.
On the way down, I spent five minutes standing at the ladder as the next group of climbers made their way out to the spire. I went back down through the tower full of sculpture. I passed the ticket office again and bought a fridge magnet showing off a photograph of the spire at sunset, the sky fading from blue to soft purple in a smooth gradient. My hands shook as I paid.
It was six in the evening, but the sun wouldn’t set until half past ten. I didn’t want to leave yet. In the churchyard, I sat on the grass with my back to the church’s granite base. I tilted my neck, looked up to see the spire looming above me, figures shuffling up and down the staircase. I was giddy with the thought that I’d been there too, just minutes ago. Now the spire began to settle into my memory alongside The Fort, in the space I reserve for every beautiful and hazardous reminder of the human obsession with height. I held my phone camera up to the sky to memorialise what I’d done: an unchanging Vor Frelsers Kirke, more personal than a fridge magnet, less fallible than memory. At the very moment I took the photo, someone on the platform before the spire staircase stuck their arm out, over the edge; it’s all I can see of them, captured in the moment as though they’re waving to me. I wish I could reach through time and wave back. I’d call out to them, “Enjoy the climb.”
I. L. Sherman is an author, essayist and analogue game designer. More of her work can be found at essivecase.carrd.co/#portfolio. This story was a finalist in the Nowhere Magazine Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Tim Trad