Our deepest insights must––and should––appear as follies and, under certain circumstances, crimes…”
–Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Shape is a social construct. It isn’t fixed. Our perceptions of objects are informed by function, and boundaries aren’t boundaries at all except where we draw them with out minds. One can stand on a corner, looking down a city block, and see mailboxes, sidewalks, skyscrapers, and bus stops. Although they are interconnected, we think of these ordinary structures as being whole, independent, and discrete. They all have definite outlines, colors, and textures. They are all composed of parts. And they all have obvious boundaries: visible edges determined by their purpose. Despite being bolted to the pavement, the mailbox isn’t part of it. The skyscrapers abut the sidewalk, but each is distinct. One is designed to be walked on, the other is a building with another purpose altogether.
But social convention is the only rule saying a bus stop and a building aren’t one object. Until recently, no one used them as one object, and so their use-informed meanings remained distinct. But the city is being reshaped, revised, hijacked, and relabeled at the exact rate our spatial imaginations are evolving. Technology has sparked an imaginative evolution. The expression of our relationship with digital systems is now being inscribed upon the urban landscape by our novel, technologically inspired uses of ordinary city structures. As our gadgets become increasingly multi-functional (i.e. smartphones combine MP3 players, cameras, phones, web browsers, etc.) so too do the physical objects around us. But this is not provoked by any external impetus. Rather, it is driven by an internal mechanism: an imaginative shift. The city is being reshaped first in our minds, and then by our actions.Skateboarding, parkour, and buildering are novel, incipient human activities of an unprecedented nature (artifice?). They deconstruct city spaces and rebuild them according to new rules, infusing infrastructures with new meanings. Unlike graffiti, which enacts a bold visual revision, these activities don’t seek to physically impact the spaces they occupy. Yet in many ways their impact is more profound, more lasting. The modification they enact cannot be erased because it doesn’t linger or exist in physical space. It is bodily. It is imaginative. It is distinctly human––based in systems of meaning-making and innovative pattern recognition, which proliferate and endure with the force of an ineradicable idea. You’ve no doubt heard the tagline a hundred times: skateboarding is not a crime. But, until it becomes fenced in, it is. Skateparks and security guards and those little plastic L-brackets they bolt onto curbs and concrete walkways are society’s response to an illegal, invasive recreation. Just as clothing stores pin ink packets on their merchandise, cities mar their own spaces to keep them from being stolen. Designated skateboarding areas are mechanisms of a social immune system (just as “anti-virus” software is for computers): they defend and eradicate by quarantining. Skateboarding is a wild, unplanned organic outgrowth––like a sapling sprouting from a crack in the street. It is fitting that skateparksshould have emerged as the instrument for taming and landscaping it.
But parkour is even more insidious and untamable. Only its physical difficulty and relative obscurity have so far saved it from being deemed criminal. Still, it is telling that the villain in a recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale, used parkour during the opening chase scene. Bond physically breaks through the spaces (including at one point a plasterboard wall), eventually setting off a large, destructive explosion. The bad guy evades him by altering the urban spaces in more subtle ways.
Even more explicitly than skateboarding, parkour is an innovative form of trespassing on public property. It uses surfaces designed to contain and control human movement as a jumping off point. A railing doesn’t redirect a freerunner, it catapults her into an off-limits domain, out beyond the pale. Parkour asserts the notion that authorial control is an illusion, that expression is less than half of communication. The designed urban landscape, in other words, is first-and-foremost an expression: the utterance of an architect. But without people moving through it, it is meaningless: a symbol without a referent. Only social interpretation (enacted through use) can turn concrete, metal, glass, and plasterboard into sidewalks, banisters, windows, and walls. Without a widely agreed upon human function, every structure in the city would resemble Stonehenge.
By sitting on benches, driving in the street, and generally avoiding sudden contact with walls, we agree. We communicate congenially with the authors of the city, on their terms. On the other hand, when someone does a backflip off an elevated walkway and runs across a wall, they translate the architects’ expression (uninvited and without consent) into a language no one else speaks––yet.
The same goes for the even lesser known practice of buildering, which is essentially rockclimbing without the rocks. But what makes it unique (and exciting) in the world of space hacking, is that, unlike the spontaneous, transient hermeneutic transformations enacted by traceurs and skaters, builderers actively record and disseminate the language they create. After climbing and pioneering new routes up the facades of university libraries, office buildings, and apartment complexes, builderers document their accomplishments and post them to the web. Later, others come to follow in their footsteps (and handholds). Through buildering, not only are city symbols being rewritten in a new language with new meaning, but that language is being written down, deciphered, and soon spoken in the movements and imaginations of others.
All throughout the world people are bending buildings with their bare hands. With a little imagination, you can too.