Architecture and Parkour

I watched him hop the construction barrier that blocked the “easy” route to the sidewalk for the long months of building. Two quick hops and he continued walking. The herds of people shuffled around the barriers, under the scaffolding, through the curved construction fence and out on the other side, where the young man had passed multiple seconds before, taking the shortest route after what I presume had been a long work week.

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It reminded me of last winter when a trailer was blocking the crosswalk for a good distance in either direction, including the intersection it had just attempted to cross during rush hour. Some people stood like deer in headlights, unwilling to veer away from the crosswalk that is usually dedicated to them. Others began the treacherous task of walking to the rear of the trailer while avoiding traffic and still others were moving toward the front of the trailer, hoping to pass within sight of the driver. I went straight up and over the trailer. I heard people talk behind me, but wasn’t I just maintaining their “dedicated crosswalk” position? I heard another say “whoa,” as if jumping onto and off the back of a trailer was somehow more dangerous than running onto traffic. To each his own, I suppose.

I never did Parkour, but I wonder if this is how they see the world? A series of opportunities or obstacles, which simply require the necessary skill, muscle memory, strength, and brains to think through the “how-to” of their movement…I made it over to the other sidewalk about 30 seconds before my counterparts who darted into traffic.

You could call me a Darwinist. I think Parkour somehow engages in Darwinist thought, possibly without knowing. People become spider-monkeys, they harness their ancestral movements to climb and jump. They become leopards, sprinting and darting. With every bit of technology that is made to improve our lives, it seems that more of our natural capacity and skill becomes less. Parkour defies that.

Parkour says that “even if I don’t have to, I will.” I will jump the barrier, I will scale the wall, I will jump over the trailer. I will challenge my mind and body in movement not because I must but because I can. It is interesting to note that ‘buildering’ pre-dates parkour by about 90 years: whilst the term was not coined until recently, the first buildering guidebook was published in 1895. Climbing man-made structures existed before parkour became something meaningful in the late 1990s.

There is numerous places where Parkour can occur, similar to skateboarding, another sport or activity that is often associated with rebellion and renegade. Despite every effort that may go into finding the path of least resistance, those who practice Parkour also succeed in finding the challenges that exist within everyday spaces. As Parkour becomes more popular, Architects are becoming more aware of our physical capabilities and the importance of designing for the challenge of movement. One such architect is Mikkel Mølgaard Frandsen Rugaard, co-owner of Street Movement. Mikkel’s definition of Parkour goes beyond the simple physical traits of the athlete and delves into their psycho-emotional mentality including self-discipline, honesty, sincerity, focus, and creativity.

Mikkel agrees that Parkour suggests a denial of traditional technology and “ease,” which so many often seek these days, in favor of self-betterment, self-preservation and the awakening of the innate human capacity so often given away to GPS, cellular phones and computer technology. “We’ve been designing our own physical degeneration,” he says, “and we are repeatedly trying to patch this with new designs and medicine but basically only making it worse.” His own description of how he utilizes his understanding of Parkour in his studies even specifically mentions his ability to “keep evolving not only in my work, but also the way we move.” He absolutely recognizes the innate energy and desire to participate in the world through movement when he explains that most people will tell you they’ve been doing Parkour “forever”: “it’s really about re-learning the physicality that we were basically born with (but forgot through age and rules of society…)”

Mikkel’s work has ranged from large-scale buildings down to detailed furniture design, the latter of which he hoped would provoke curiosity, playfulness, and movement of users. He did this in one way by taking a space used solely for direct movement and introducing sculptural pieces that essentially created a new point of interest to draw people from their direct path through into a path of discovery of place. In many ways, Mikkel’s architectural sculptures defy contemporary architecture and theories of design, which push the designer, like members of society, to take the easiest and most direct path and to create ease of movement. While Mikkel’s design still provided ease, it also provided distraction: Distraction from the norm, from the dull, from the commute. It distracted people from the drab and boring and gave them interest and curiosity. It inspired them to open their eyes and see the world and life around them, instead of simply passing through.

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Andy Day is a photographer that captures the physicality and movement of Parkour. His definitions of Parkour are both deep and humorous; he takes a lighter approach in his simple explanation by saying Parkour is “jumping around.” Andy appropriately made the connection between Parkour and our ancestry during our interview while mentioning “Buildering” as a newer-age shoot-off of Parkour. The prior is about movement through space and the challenges of many different types of movement while the latter is about scaling and climbing….it’s a human-graffiti of sorts, taking on buildings as surfaces, grappling with textures and edges in a vertical plane. He sees this as a sort of new rebellion, now that Parkour is more mainstream. Buildering is definitely defiant of rules and regulations…and not just the societal norms of movement, but also the written laws! Of course, there is fun in the challenge not only of the chosen building but also in victory of rule-breaking.

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Both Mikkel and Andy find useful additions to their personal lives from participation in Parkour. They have grown to design for it, to photograph it, and to process it, not only physically but also emotionally. They both note the hope that comes with exploration and challenge and the focus and understanding it gives us about life, discipline, and engagement with the present. Mikkel hopes that by speaking and designing for movement, he will continue to contribute to the creation of an engagement of space and a joy about moving and participating physically in our world. Andy gives permanence to the ephemeral, capturing moments of motion that will last long after.

Art and architecture are rebellious, in similar ways to Parkour; they evolve just like we do as people, they deny norms, they distract us and bring us to our everyday realities. It is no wonder why so many of us have moments of joy about our own movements, a sense of satisfaction about barrier-jumps and trailer-leaps.

It is no wonder that we maintain a sense of wonder about the world around us. By challenging ourselves we also encourage the world to seek challenges. We inspire others who gasp and gape, to recognize their own capacities as humans. We beg designers and planners to think of people as capable as we are and not as incapable drones. Parkour challenges all of us to regain sight of our innate and buried past as humans, to create a new balance and understanding of what “ease” really means.


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