Standing all dark, reflective and shiny in-between Portsmouth’s Victoria Park and Commercial Road shopping misery is the former Zurich House building. Built in 1973 (designed by the Gollins, Melvin and Ward Partnership) and standing at roughly 60 meters it has been a prominent view point on the city’s skyline for some time now.
My first of many trips here was back in 2011. This was the place that got me excited about urban exploration and the challenges the sub-culture presents to a photographer. A couple of friends of mine, who had been into UE for some time, invited me along on a night time explore here and that began my fascination with this building. The building itself is stripped out completely. Nothing remains but dusty floors, broken windows and various items scattering the interior. The real gem of this venture is the roof and most of the UE community who have gone to this site have headed right to the top.
THE WAY IN
The way in involved a climb up and over the security fencing using a corner a-frame to weave through the barbed wire (which later turned into razor wire). Originally there was a section of old fencing that we used as a ladder which was eventually destroyed, so we ended up climbing up the mesh fencing separating the car park from the adjacent park. Originally there were multiple ways in, but these were slowly closed up. The final method involved a crawl in through an air vent, a crawl I have talked fondly about to many many people. This whitling down of entry points felt like it was box ticking exercise by those guys on site who put it up as it never really did the job of stopping people gaining access right up until the planning permission to develop the site when someone did the job properly.
After you dust yourself off and start the climb up the internal stairways you are met with floor after floor of curving nothingness intersected by hollowed out lift shafts.
THE STAIRS TO THE ROOF
14 floors of stairs late in the evening is not fun, if you haven’t packed water you will wish you had. Once at the top you walk into pigeon heaven….or hell…either way, if you don’t know they are there, as was the case for my first visit, be prepared to change your pants. Once through this avenue of the pigeon you hit the ladder to the roof which is conveniently accessible through a hole in the wall…..
The rooftop is a gem. It gives you a better panoramic view of the city than the spinnaker tower and will hopefully cost you less. I shot my first virtual 360 here and is also one of the few times I have hung my camera over a 60 meter drop.
One of my initial motivating factors for wanting to try this sub-culture of photography was a photograph a friend of mine had taken from the roof looking down onto Stanhope Road. I didn’t own, or want to carry, a boom arm for my tripod so the only way of taking this photograph was to pre-compose and focus the shot then lay on my tripod whilst the timer on my camera counted down. The exposure time was also a bit of a guess. I ended up bringing a cable release for future trips which made this type of shot a little easier.
above photo by Mike Deere
The first time I explored this site in winter I didn’t take gloves, but nearly freezing my fingers off gloves became a part of my standard kit. Bike gloves were the most suitable for warmth/protection. Winter gloves are too chunky and don’t offer the same degree of grip and protection. Bikers gloves made from tough material with grip pads I found protected my skin from all sorts of sharp edged crap.
The rooftop was one of those few places of odd peacefulness in the city despite the drunken chaos below. On one trip I witnessed a person kicking the train station doors and shouting “Why arnt you f***ing open” at 3am. But, you could spend a lot of time on the roof photographing every last little thing in view. Each visit in for me lasted several hours and because the site was repeatable (like the Odeon Cinema in North End) I kept finding new ideas to photograph. Each time I went back there was always something else to document.
The first image below is a 111 photograph 15668 pixel wide stitched panorama of Portsmouth & Southsea train station and Portsmouth Guildhall. Shot using an old Nikon 50mm lens and stitched using PTGui.