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Architecture and Parkour – Interview with Mikkel Mølgaard Frandsen Rugaard

A beast in the the body of an academic and architect; Mikkel Mølgaard Frandsen Rugaard is a P.E. teacher, practitioner, architect and designer. In addition to this Mikkel is also the co-owner of Street Movement. He takes part in everything relating to the aesthetics of Street Movement including architectural design, educating, graphics, choreography and staging.

Street Movement’s work is based on the art of movement – a lifestyle which nurtures the simple joy of movement. Mikkel aspires to add new dimensions to the man-made environment.; to define, shape and re-interpret future spaces, landscapes and objects to ensure they become inspirational and invitational towards physical activity and movement – without compromising artistic vision and aesthetic value.

Below is an interview with Mikkel:

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LB: What is your definition of parkour?

MR: My “first” definition is classic, but long; Parkour focuses on developing the fundamental attributes required for movement, which include balance, strength, dynamism, endurance, precision, spatial awareness and creative vision. It is a way of training the body and mind in order to be as completely functional, effective and liberated as possible in the physical realm. Parkour is a way of thinking based on rigorous self-discipline, autonomous action and self-will.

My “second” definition of parkour is a discipline of self-improvement on all levels. Parkour is an art that reveals to the practitioner his or her own physical and mental limitations and simultaneously offers a new method to surpass them.

A practitioner of parkour aims to be self-reliant and physically capable; fit, strong and healthy, honest and sincere, disciplined, focussed, creative and always useful and helpful to others.

I also believe that all of the above provides me with a method and a set of values and ethics that I apply to my professional work. I insist on exploring and challenging the end outcome, even if I don’t know if and how it will successful. This mentality is the only way to keep evolving my work and my movement. If the space becomes too predictable it has no meaning and no justification in a parkour sense. That is what I call the paradox of designing for parkour – why design for something that evolved from the lack of sameness, right? Unless you add something completely new at some level.

Below is an great video introducing the design philosophy, ideas and works of Mikkel.

LB: Did architecture or parkour come first?

MR: It is difficult to say – It is very circumstantial, I guess, and then again maybe not so much… It’s the same as when people ask you for how long you been doing parkour. The cliché answer is “forever” as it’s really about re-learning the physicality that we were basically born to do (but forgot through age and the rules of society) and then refining, challenging and exploring. It is similar to the architecture design process.

I’ve been moving all my life and I guess I’m one of those people that movement comes naturally to – you know, the type of person who seems to be pretty good at almost any sport. I trained capoeira for about 8 years and through that got into the full-body, playful, exploratory and acrobatic style of movement. This eventually led to meeting people who did something they called “parkour” which movement-wise had many similarities, but also a lot more, which got my attention!

At the same time, in the year 2000, I got into architecture school at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, not really knowing what I was getting into and not taking it very seriously in the first couple of years – but I was interested in design! I started out doing large scale architecture but gradually became more interested in the smaller scale and detailing. I took a year off in the middle of my degree and did a PE teachers training program – I guess I wasn’t quite sure which part of the brain should be more involved in my education. When I returned to architecture school my focus was designing.

My graduate project was a series of sculptural and spatial furniture pieces for schools to invoke our inert curiosity to play and explore movement. These pieces would be placed around the schools’ leftover space, especially those that are transitory or intended for transportation. The idea was to create an alternative route and make you want to move in a different way through the space – adding new dimensions in terms of movement including a new spatial, emotional and aesthetic understanding.  Below is a short video of a full scale test piece:

As you can probably guess this was very much inspired by the movement basics that parkour is also built upon – balance, strength and coordination – and it very quickly led me and my parkour friends at the time to believe there was another potential.

I guess being at that point in that time and in a young discipline, led us carve our own niche. A few years later, it seems like other architects, planners and landscape architects welcome the alternative to generic, out of context products, and appreciate someone who understands their own ambition as well as the actual physicality of the activities that they are often faced with. Also, our main user group is one that is often left out and at times difficult to connect with or provide for.

LB: How does parkour change your experience of the city? How is this different to a regular pedestrian?

MR: I think in general, as practitioners, we perceive the environment differently, mainly looking for options and challenges. This is also a bit of a cliché, but true. We look around and search for “movement problems” that could have interesting and challenging solutions. I don’t think the average pedestrian does this as culture and society has (unfortunately) reduced much of our physicality to simply being a means of transportation – and the faster and more convenient the better. For the same reason I don’t believe we will ever see someone actually “parkour” their way to or from work as it would simply be too impractical and ineffective compared to the alternatives.

This “parkour vision” is shared by pretty much all practitioners but I think I look a little deeper, taking into consideration the material and the vertical space as much as the street level space. I also think about how our movement and the use of the built environment affects our understanding and surrounding – positively and negatively.

When thinking about why architects are sometimes fascinated by parkour a lot of immediate and logical conclusions come to mind. In the documentary “My Playground” Bjarke Ingels states that there is a relation between how parkour practitioners try to reach the unreachable areas of the built environment, and how he, through his work will make accessible, normally inaccessible areas. This is somewhat true, but also a little banal and a very cliché perception of what parkour is: Jumping from roof-top to roof-top, it is here that so many clichés surrounding our activity, and unfortunately most people don’t get further than this level of thinking.

I’m not sure what it is, but I think one of the most interesting things in relation to architecture, is that we physically engage the full spectrum of scale, from talking about how one moves and flows through a space or series of spaces at the largest scale, to how our bodies meet, interact, touch and feel the objects and surfaces – and this, mind you, in ways, planes and levels not intended or planned for by the designer. I wish I knew how to synthesise this and make it a tool.

Below is a short video about a project entitled DRIK VAND; a campaign supported by the Danish National Platform for Street Sports. The campaign is a counter-reaction to the outside commercial influences that try to take control of our culture and use it to push their highly questionable products for the sole purpose of personal financial gain:

LB: How does parkour change the way you perceive and design architecture?

MR: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t – obviously when designing specifically for parkour it does! But I actually think it’s more fair to say that architecture affects the way I design for parkour. We’re almost always going to be able to find movement challenges in any design, but the hard part is coming up with something that brings something new, adds to the space and has more value for more people. For this I believe we need to understand at least the basic rules of not only architecture, but also culture and society. Once all of this comes together, we can start pushing back and challenge what is accepted in a manner that is sensible and effective.

For years I have wanted to create a project that is a temporary art installation, or social and cultural commentary. It will be called “The Inconvenience Store” and it is designed in a manner that will make the user work hard and diligently to get their groceries and other items (organic, of course) – like we had to in the before the industrial revolution. The body needs to be put under physical stress and strain in order to keep regenerating. Today, almost everything we produce does the opposite, which is to make everything easier for us. So basically we’ve been designing our own physical degeneration and we are repeatedly trying to patch this with new designs and medicine, but we are only making it worse by targeting the problem and not the source. It is very negative spiral only leading down… But cheer up and fear not; “The Inconvenience Store” is coming to a place near you in the future! I claim all copyrights to the concept, by the way 😉

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LB: Does parkour have a political and/or social agenda? If so what is it and how does it affect your role in architecture? 

MR: For some people it does, but for the average practitioner I would say no. Most people simply enjoy moving, which is perfectly fine, because that is in the end outcome what drives us – the simple joy!

For us (Street Movement) there is definitely several agendas and they are all connected to the potential that we believe lies within the approach towards our discipline, that we’ve been raised with through our close relationship among the founders. In Denmark, as well as in many other countries, a lot of traditional and organised sports receive financial support from the government. We believe that just because we are not organised or structured like everything else we should still be taken just as seriously – in fact, the lack of formal structure and organisation is a big part of why we are able to reach a group of people who otherwise are left out of the system. We work politically to better not only for ourselves but also for other activities with similar challenges. In order to help things grow you sometimes need to create a better physical framework and facilities, and sometimes it’s simply about doing things right.

Socially and culturally, we believe that we need to be out there and be visible, in order to push towards a society where it is socially accepted to be actively physical in public spaces. We believe that we can inspire others through the visible joy of movement – maybe even to the point where others will want to spectate or join in. Sometimes, to achieve this we create the spaces that allow people to meet on their own terms and within their own comfort zone, and generate spaces that allow for cultural, social and physical exchanges – without limiting the functionality for the activities. This requires  careful consideration and an understanding of the elements that are suddenly in play – this is when it becomes complex, difficult and interesting. Designing for one thing only, like parkour functionality is quite easy and fairly boring as you only have to solve one problem that you pretty much already know the solution for. I know the potential is much bigger and I have the opportunity for a bigger ambition and connection through my work.

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I’d like to thank Mikkel Rugaard for participating in the interview, it was an absolute pleasure. If you’re interested in getting in touch or finding out more about Mikkel, visit their website. (streetmovement.dk)

If you are interested in being interviewed or featured on archi-ninja, please contact me.

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