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Parkour & Paper Architecture

March 2, 2021

Ealier in my life I developed an obsession with what I called "paper architecture"–buildings that architects would dream up and potentially theorize, but that for the most part remained unbuilt. They were mostly unbuilt because they were not functional buildings perhaps, rather they were either demonstrations of a theoretical underpinning (as in many of the structures created by Peter Eisenman) or rather constructions intended only to communicate a poetic impulse (such as the work of John Hejduk or Lebbeus Woods). There are more examples (other favorites of my own that sit as slightly more obscure include Lars Lerup, Raimond Abraham and Dougles Darden), but what I found so fascinating about the structures was that they were architectural constructs dreamed up not to fulfill a function (architecture is often inescapably the most utilitarian art, and this leaves space for style that functions as nothing but decorative flourish of course), but rather to project a sensation, an experience. One might not want to inhabit these spaces long term, but to visit them (whether in person or through mediums of representation) would provide a unique experience that a "normal" building (divorced of narrative context) might not.

While the ideas of these spaces still fascinate me (and I imagine if I were to revisit the many books that currently sit on my shelves devoted to these follies, I'd still find they echo inspiration), at this point in time I prefer experiencing things with my body in total rather than just with my mind. I want to experience a space through sensual perception more than just imagining events that could unfold in any given presentation.

I recently came to the realization (& when it hit me, like a brick, it felt nothing if not obvious) that part of my fascination with parkour & free-running grows out of a subversion of the interest seeded years ago: parkour suggests a unique experience of an architectural space despite the intentions of the architect (somewhat contra the "paper architects" and their architectural suggestions of unique experiences despite [client] functionality). In my last post regarding parkour, I suggested the idea that interacting with architectural space (via the body in a full sense) requires a paradigm shift: a wall must be viewed as something beyond structural support, it must become the other in a partner dance. This comes into play here, but, in a way, entering this active way of thinking about space undermines the functionality of all architecture. Instead of seeing what the architect intended, the free-runner sees the potentiality of movement. This is nothing new in presentations of "parkour" as some wildly idealistic action sport. The rhetoric surrounding the way the market tries to sell parkour as a sport for kids who "can't sit still" or pushes the idea of "healthy competition" and creative exercise (as if all movement of the body isn't inherently expressive in some capacity!); it might play to the emotional resonance of the flow space, but what it most often seems to overlook is the insistence on a sense of, to quote both Grotowski and the gnostic gospels, a "movement within repose."

There's enough to unpack in that term that I'll avoid going into it here (for now), but suffice to say that one of the inherent qualities I find the phrase suggests is the idea of a non-functional sense of movement, movement not towards a goal, but rather movement for the sake of experiencing movement itself. Eschewing linearity (or even the inherent momentum of conflict-based narrative that dominates most hegemonic Western thought) delivers a body in a space without any inherent "goal" to fulfill. While a bedroom's inherent utility is to provide a space for sleep, the interstitial space between two walls that define a perimeter serves no utility other than demarcation. To be able to interact with space not in terms defined by the function of the space, but rather by the possibilities the space provides taps deeply into the same inherent motivation behind dreaming up an architectural structure that suggests a poetic import rather than a function. It also shares motivation with architecture that demonstrates a theory rather than actually creating a space — here I'm specifically thinking of Eisenman's impenetrable "Fin D'Ou T Hou S" — see this subject heading in Nina Hofer's consideration of the work: "THE LIMITATIONS OF SUBJECTIVITY". Eisenman's project presents the axiomatics for a structure constantly in transition, never settling into objective space in a given reality. But this is just a theoretical exercise — in the corporeal world the free-running body is capable of viewing all architecture as unstable and constantly in transition, for any structure is refused a single utilitarian purpose. Free-running opens up a multiplicity, refusing any insisted semantic imposition, and allows the body to speak with the space in a mode that refuses didactic meaning.

With all this said, I'd like to close with a final thought — I've always thought the most interesting architecture, like the most interesting poetry, pays as much attention to the blank space between the structural elements as it does to the structural elements themselves (walls, windows, doors; words, paragraphs, punctuation). Tom Weksler, in his "From the Mind of an Archer" newsletter, states the following: "In the language of architecture, emptiness can be seen as space, and human movement happens in the space between the framing walls and not ‘within' the walls. Focusing on the walls will give a logical understanding of safety, but the movement that happens between them is what amounts to one's experience of life." The free-runner takes this one step further; viewing the walls not as a container, but rather as an additional element to communicate with.

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Mike Kitchell, 2020-2022