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Skateboarding, Parkour and Architecture

posted by dru Topics: architecture, skateboarding

September 16, 2007

Skateboarding, Parkour and Architecture


Photo by Jens-Olaf, creative commons 2.0

Back in 2005, I wrote a review of an art exhibit about skateboarding as a critique of architecture.

In the artwork and the narrative that accompanies it, the exhibit is unabashedly theory-driven. In the large-type wall mounted introduction, curator Anthony Kiendl proposes that skateboarding can be the basis of a "critique of architecture, social spaces, and the values constituted by those spaces." Further comments displayed on the walls alongside the artwork by architectural historian Iain Borden (among others) speak of "movement of the body across social space", of skateboarding as "a reassessment of the values of society as expressed through the reappropriation of social space," or as a kind of "performative language".

[...] A discussion of the skateboarder as flâneur invokes Baudelaire and Benjamin, among others. Like the young men of 19th century Paris celebrated by urban critics and poets of the time, skateboarders are not only a part of the cityscape, but a critical, aloof, self-conscious force within it.

The embedded theoretical text also discusses the privilege granted to "the vertical" in urban architecture and posits the skateboarder as a subversive force that asserts her value in the horizontal plane. Emphasis is taken from the towering edifice and transferred to the ledges, curbs, benches and other ground-level surfaces that surround it. The authority of columns and grandiose feats of engineering are rejected in favour of the immediate human interface available on the ground. (In the language of one of the many quoted theorists, "hierarchies" are "reintegrated from vertical to horizontal arrangements".)

The viewer leaves mulling over the interaction between architectural theory and the visceral experience of the speed, sound, and hard surfaces of skateboarding. Outside of the gallery, edges--curbs, railings, low windowsills, stairs--begin to glow with previously unnoticed potential. The viewer is ready to imagine what artist Aaron Carpenter calls "architecture built around some principal, basic human sensual pleasures; speed, fluidity and spatial negotiation."

Outside the show, the texture and slope of pavement is more noticeable; the opportunity to turn a corner with a flourish with the help of a railing more evident; the possibility of momentarily viewing the street from the perch of a ledge or low wall more tempting.

I would seem to be talking about Parkour, an activity in which the "aim of which is to move from point A to point B as efficiently and quickly as possible."

The (taking the philosophy at its word) unintended but nonetheless compelling effect is to attune the practitioner to an entirely new way of interacting with architecture. Literally.

This video (there are hundreds of others on YouTube) provides a pretty good illustration of what I mean:

After a quick look around, there also appear to be interesting politics emerging as Parkour and its various offshoots like Free Running gain popularity, and money starts to pay attention. In this case, lots of people are arguing that Parkour is not a competitive sport, and are insisting that "competitive parkour" use a different name.

At the very least, Parkour is very interesting for the fact that it is by nature of practical use (who hasn't had to run from the cops at some point...?) and rooted in local architectural circumstances. Attuned to local need and engaged in a specific, singular physical reality.

Of course, there's also a difference between playing soccer on a dirt lot in a barrio in Caracas and on a turf field in a suburb of Ottawa. These cases are also attuned to local needs and architectural realities.

But you could make the case that there is a switch in direction: Parkour (and skateboarding) used the same basic moves to try to engage with what's there, whereas soccer ostensibly makes an effort to clear it away to impose the empty rectangular form of the soccer field.

The basis for a shift--and maybe even a reversal--in aesthetics is there, as well. A friend who has started practicing parkour over the summer remarked to me that when people refer to a city like Montreal as having "nice architecture," that they are noticing the lack of elements that make for interesting parkour situations: medium-height concrete barriers, exposed pipe, railings and walls.

She said that the some of the best places in Montreal are outside of the downtown and "central" neighbourhoods, in Saint Henri, an historically working-class neighbourhood, and the Stade Olympique, which is widely regarded as mishap of overextended 1970s architecture.

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