Parkour & Paper Architecture

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” — consider 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.

Parkour & Communication

I’ve been recently preoccupied by thoughts surrounding the idea of parkour, or more specifically “free-running” (a clunky term if there ever were one). My experience with parkour is somewhat limited–until recently it was merely a discipline that I occasionally took classes in at the local gym because they were fun. They were also a marked departure from my normal approach to physical training: I had no specific long-term goals, I just enjoyed running around and jumping over & onto things for an hour or two. It felt like an easy way to get into my body without much thought; it was a way to access the flow state but it felt different than, for example, the flow state of a prolonged engagement with yoga. It felt less integrated, less inherently inside, more social and physical. I don’t bring up this contrast to impose a value judgement on either, but rather to insist upon the difference.

As the pandemic lingered on and my online content consumption shifted through various distractions, I eventually became aware, thanks to the ever-prescient Instagram algorithm, of an account called flipeveryday. The account features an individual who, as the title suggests, flips every day, on camera. What I found was that Egg, who runs the account, wasn’t just doing flips, they were doing a lot of flips in ways I had never considered — and beyond that, there was apparent a desire to not just do flips, but to use “flips” as a way to communicate through movement. Eventually I discovered that Egg was part of a parkour group called The Beans. The first long-form Beans video, “Garbonzo,” had just come out, and as I watched it I realized that this was a group of movers doing something extremely fucking interesting.

What I saw was not parkour in the way I had formerly thought of parkour. The movement that was done by The Beans was sometimes shockingly difficult, sometimes blissfully simple, but always exploratory, joyous and expressive. It’s not just The Beans that are moving in this way, as there seems to be an entire subcurrent of free-runners that approach movement in this more expressive/creative way rather than the way the “sport” has traditionally functioned. (Another specific highlight for me is Sai Ryunoshin, who beyond developing a highly idiosyncratic and exciting movement style is also clearly very inspired by video art and experimental film in how he puts together his videos, and has recently even branched out to more experimental work not always related to movement.) Due to the open & community oriented nature of the folks who practice parkour in this fashion, I’ve been able to have many helpful interactions with group members, and what I’ve learned from watching The Beans has had a decisive influence on my own movement.

As a brief aside — in my mind the ideal way to encounter The Beans is to watch their feature length video, The Bean Movie. It’s free to view on Vimeo, and is a great way to get a really solid chunk of each of the ten Beans’ individual movement style.

One of the most rewarding outcomes of my engagement with The Beans and related free-runners has less to do with specific movement patterns and more to do with a paradigm shift — before finding The Beans I always thought of parkour in a more traditional sense, i.e. the act of quickly & freely moving through your environment. For the crop of free-runners I am speaking to here, parkour is more about moving freely & expressively within your environment — the environment is not filled with obstacles, rather the environment itself becomes something like a partner. Walls are not merely for vaulting over or as steps to higher spaces — the wall becomes the Other you are dancing with. Within this paradigm of inhabiting a space with movement, one can spend an hour interacting with a park bench. This sort of experience, for me, is the height of embodied movement; something a step beyond even the much lauded “flow state.” A few months ago I spoke of the fact that I can now spend an hour with nothing other than my body and an empty patch of grass and experience a range of emotions as expansive as that available through reading a novel. To be able to express yourself and experience such a range of emotions through movement, with or without an object present, is the capacity to learn a new language: to find a new form of communication between your own body and the space around you.

A great example of this kind of communication is The Beans’ video “The Warp Zone,” which finds Egg & Spencer interacting with construction detritus with such intense jouissance you can’t help but smile.

When I go out for solo training sessions lately I try to take this attitude with me, this idea that I don’t need to be perfecting a new move or building a studied sequence — all I need to do is open up a dialogue between my body and outside of my body in a way that refuses expectations or assumptions. This corporeal echo of human interaction has served me well, and I’m discovering a whole new way to experience my body.

Yesterday, as a warm-up for an acrobatics session, I tasked myself with spending at least 10 minutes interacting with a strange sloping mound on a children’s playground next to a large, fake Whale. The video below shows a couple minutes of this interaction. It’s not flashy, there’s no performative intent, but the experience itself was just what I needed.