Canadian Architect


Street Play

The invention of Parisians David Belle and Sebastien Foucan some 15 years ago, le parkour has blossomed into a full-blown North American trend using the architecture of the city as an obstacle course enabling acrobatic movement.

February 1, 2005
by Joanne Lam

They fly in the air and they run on walls. They drop from the sky and they jump over rooftops. They are like mercury gliding over the city. Smooth and ephemeral. As if gravity has stopped working on them.

They have at least three different ways to vault over the 42-inch guardrail. And another two ways to run up an eight-foot wall. They can come and go as they please. Fence or no fence. Stairs or no stairs. They render the building code useless.

They may seem like ninjas without weapons, or skateboarders without wheels. But they are neither. They are traceurs. And they are practicing the newest extreme sport: parkour. To those working in French architecture offices, traceur is a plotter, and comes from the word tracer, which means to trace. However, tracer as slang means to go fast. Traceur then takes on the meaning of a person who gets around quickly. Parkour is developed from parcours du combatants, the obstacle courses of the French military. Parcours is from the verb parcourir, which means to run through. Take away the commands, keep the moves, insert a bit of child’s play, transplant it to the city et voil, obstacle course, urban style.

Parkour essentially turns the city into a giant jungle gym, where traceurs overcome elements in their way with a variety of acrobatic moves. The importance lies in the process of getting from point A to point B. Smoothly. Like water flowing over rocks. Destination irrelevant. They enjoy the “found” state of the city, and the fact that it constantly evolves. Being on the move has trained them to be acutely aware of the ongoing dialogue between their bodies and the urban environment. Their tracks cover the most unassuming corners of the city, a part that is usually neither seen nor registered by most people. They take alleyways and backroads. Loading docks, exit stairs and parking bollards. Or art sculptures, signposts and benches. Anything can become a part of their obstacle course. Maybe even you, if you stand still.

Modernist architecture may not have been designed with a sense of play, but these traceurs certainly have injected play into it. In Toronto, the museum area and financial district are their favourite spots. To them, the cleaner the lines, the better the ride. They couldn’t care less about the intentions of the architects. Architects, however, would be ignoring them at their peril. In the “Spaces and Events” essay in Architecture and Disjunction, Bernard Tschumi raises the possibilities of juxtaposing expected form and unexpected use. These traceurs have brought Tschumi’s experiment to a city near you. Not only does their form of play give a temporary coherence to the city, their movements demand a re-examination of architecture at the human scale. Through parkour, we begin to see unconventional ways to inhabit and interact with the built world.

Perhaps we need to play more.

Joanne Lam is a Graduate Architect living in Montreal. Photography is by Alex ‘Wolfbeta’ Tsiboulski.

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