Getting to the top is hard. It requires the cover of darkness, dodging security, climbing ladders and, naturally, getting your hands dirty. But for Geoffrey Yuen, few things count more. And so, shortly past dawn of one of the last warm days before winter, he balances on the roof of a building in the center of Vancouver. Just beyond his toes the facade drops 37 floors straight down. Another day begun with an adventure. While the city is only waking up, showers running and coffee brewing and the sun rising into a cloudless sky, he puts his hand on his hips and looks out over the concrete forest. An explorer examining his discovery. "When I’m on a roof, I‘m the only one here,“ Geoffrey says, staring into the distance. “It‘s mine." This might well be true, as there is a certain loneliness high above the ground. A moment in time that is all yours.
From above, the noise of the city is but a distant hum being carried by the breeze. Geoffrey leans over the edge. He watches people no bigger than tiny specks, crawling about like ants. The photographer is looking for new angles, ways to redefine his home. He looks young, younger even than his 23 years. His black hair tied up in a man bun, he is mostly wearing clothes in matching dark colors – a hoodie, tracksuit bottoms, Yeezy trainers, a frayed denim jacket with a large hole in the elbow. He could pass for an unlikely motorcyclist at first sight. But during the time with him in Vancouver we learn that he is part of a new generation of riders. Passionate about exploring their urban surroundings in a new way, the rookies choose motorcycles with a straightforward and subtle design, which allows them to swiftly become skilled bikers.
Born in Hong Kong, he only lived there for the first year of his life. When the British handed the Asian colony back to China, Geoffrey’s family decided to move to Canada. Even though he also does portrait and event photography, Geoffrey was always fascinated by buildings. He takes out his phone to show a picture of the city skyline seen from across the harbor bay. It’s the view from the house where he lives with his parents, located at the very end of a North Vancouver street. “I have grown up with this view. Maybe that’s what has inspired my photography,“ he says.
Most people venture into the renowned Canadian wilderness. Up the rugged mountains that rise from the city limits or into the dense wet woods where moss covers entire trees. Geoffrey, on the other hand, is much more intrigued by urban architecture and its sharp lines.
This has lead him onto roof after roof in Vancouver, as well as in Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, Taipei and Tokyo, making him one of the most prolific figures in the roof topping scene. The photos he posts on Instagram show him and his friends climbing at dizzying heights, on cranes, bridges, high-rise spires. They also show the drop below, the man-made abyss. “This is crazy!”, users write in the comments. “I have no words!” And: ”You win Instagram!” Several times, neighbours have called the police and while his photos have ended up on the evening news at times, he has never ended up on the wrong side of the law.
Getting on a rooftop can feel like an almost religious experience, which becomes apparent on this autumn morning in Vancouver. The view gives clarity, enabling you to see not only the entire city at the turn of your head, but also the stunning history of humanity, of people who lived in caves and went on to build steel and glass giants.
We came up here to see his city that is so different from the one almost everyone else experiences. And while we are leaning over the railing with a hint of fear, Geoffrey seems in his element, smiling and taking deep breaths. “I feel comfortable up here“, he says.
Geoffrey started climbing roofs towards the end of 2014. Initially only wanting to discover new spots where he could hang out with his friends, he soon bought a cheap camera with a cracked screen and started documenting his adventures. At the time, he was still studying art, but soon he found himself skipping class after class to take photos, until he eventually dropped out of university altogether.
With more time on his hands, he discovered a side of Vancouver he had never seen before and set out to capture the city from above. “I realised I didn’t really know my city prior to that”, he says. “Most people don’t know it. They go to a bar maybe and then home and they need a satnav for it.”
“I’m always at the edge of my comfort zone, but I feel pretty comfortable when I’m on a roof”
What he learned sounds trivial: sometimes you need to venture further from the Earth in order to feel close to it. And since a space shuttle is rather hard to come by, Geoffrey had to find another way up. He does not mind obstacles – quite the opposite. They motivate him. “If something seems impossible, I’ll try harder. If someone doubts me, I’ll try to prove them wrong”, he says. Two people he has failed to convince so far are his parents, both retired. They would much rather see their son succeed with something less dangerous. Still, knowing how much roof topping means to him, they support him by not stopping him.
It was this same attitude that got Geoffrey into motorcycling. Until recently he had no experience of riding a motorbike. Then he decided to hit the road on two instead of four wheels, got a Vitpilen 401 and a driving licence. After watching the sunrise, he wants to take us around his city. In front of the building, a man approaches us, pointing at the Vitpilen 401. “It’s definitely a very beautiful bike, I love it”, he says and goes on to explain that he owns a Kawasaki, but is considering getting a 701. He takes a picture and waves goodbye. We follow Geoffrey, who is leading the way on his bike. Just as rooftops are a new way for him to explore his hometown, the 401 allows him to rediscover the road. The simple and sleek design is what attracted him in the first place, the white accents and the lines he describes as “very, very sharp”.
We pass through little streets turned colourful by the Canadian autumn. Leaves in all hues of red are spread on the road. We head west, where the tall buildings of the city give way to Stanley Park. In reality, it’s more of a dense forest with half a million trees. We drift across the Lions Gate Bridge, the city’s iconic gateway. Geoffrey climbed the 111 meter suspension tower several times in order to be the first person to post a picture from the top on Instagram.
We arrive at a greenway in North Vancouver, located above an industrial area with grain elevators, train tracks and docks. A rather nondescript place, yet one where Geoffrey often hangs out with his friends, who all live nearby. And, as Geoffrey puts it: “It’s a low-key spot, not many people would find it. It’s like a rooftop.”
His friends Blake and Behrooz stop by. The latter is wearing a white hoodie with three black stripes on the back. It’s part of the clothing line of the streetwear company he started with Geoffrey a few years ago. “Clothes we would like to wear”, they say.
The friends smoke and chat, initially about their days, then, for whatever reason, about the benefits of dictatorships and issues with the imperial system. But the conversation quickly turns to Geoffrey’s motorcycle. Behrooz talks about how he sold his bike last year and is planning on getting another one the next summer. “After trying the 401 a few times, I miss the feeling too much. This is a good city bike, a really good city bike. After you get into second gear, you just fly”, he says, with an emphatic arm gesture. Similar to Geoffrey, he likes the bike’s modern design philosophy, stripped to the bare bones, making it lightweight and agile. As a child, he tells the others, he would ride along on his father’s motorcycle, sitting on top of the fuel tank and holding onto the lid.
Blake and Behrooz tell stories of how they went roof topping with Geoffrey all over the city. He would force them out of bed before dawn, even when it was pouring outside. When they were unsure, he would tell them that roofs were made for humans and people were meant to be there. “Ladders are made to climb”, Geoffrey adds.
It’s now late afternoon, the sun heading towards the horizon. And since the photographer in Geoffrey only cares for the first and last light of the day, he and his two friends debate where to watch the sunset. Is it worth driving all the way to Horseshoe Bay, one of their preferred locations? Or up to the High View Lookout in the mountains instead? This goes on for several minutes. “The lighting, man, it’s all about the lighting”, Geoffrey says at one point. But then the sun dips behind thick clouds and instead of showing us his favorite sunset spot, he takes us to his favorite burger place in Vancouver.
Sure enough, it’s typical Geoffrey, the place you would least expect: not a greasy fast-food joint, but a fine-dining place. The Boulevard Bar & Oyster Kitchen is filled with men in suits and women in heels, the waiters appear at once. On the menu we find foie gras and caviar – yet no burgers. “It’s a secret item”, Geoffrey says. Of course it is. And so we end a long and unusual day by unusually eating burgers at an oyster bar.
We meet up again a few days later, because I want to show Geoffrey a place I read about online. A place most people in Vancouver have never heard about. In the southern part of the city, on the central reservation between four lanes of traffic, stands a unique tree. Its branches have grown in such a way that it’s possible to climb almost all the way to the top. “That’s pretty cool“, Geoffrey says seeing it for the first time. As a child, he explains, he would climb trees all the time. Then he starts to work his way up the evergreen. I follow him and as the branches become thinner and fewer, I wonder whether they will support my weight. But Geoffrey proclaims, “I’ll go as far as there are branches!“
With birds chirping and cars zooming past below us, we’re eventually high enough above the ground to be wondering about our chances of survival when suddenly, the train starts moving. We are gazing toward the Vancouver skyline when, suddenly, the tree starts moving. We look at each other wide-eyed, before deciding to let the wind gently rock us back and forth for a little longer.
“I need to come here with my friends,“ he says after we are back on the ground. And maybe that’s all you need to take away from this story: even places you think you know inside out always hold something new to discover. But if you don‘t look, you‘ll never find them.