We talk about how architecture provides tactile as well as visual experiences, but how often do we actually physically engage our buildings? Two recent projects offer lessons in how architecture can help develop our bodies as well as our minds.
Last December, Austria-based Numen/ or Use tested their "String Prototype," a new inflatable structure. The large cube-shaped installation is made of translucent white fabric with a series of connected thin ropes oriented in X,Y, and Z axes. Once the structure is fully inflated, the ropes become taut enough to support the weight of a person. The exterior is unmemorable, but the interior is awe-inspiring; occupants can freely ascend the omnidirectional sculpture, which resembles a climbable version of Superstudio's Continuous Monument, while suspended in the midst of a diffuse, pervasive light.
Spanish studio Play Office's "Blue Gym" is an interior playground that has been fully integrated into the design of a house. The gym includes a three-story climbing wall (with safety ropes), ceiling-anchored monkey bars, rope ladders, and suspended nets. The designers aimed to provide a space in which kids can be physically active, while avoiding the predictable models of the isolated outdoor playground or indoor fitness room.
Both of these projects do more than merely provide a space for fitness; they exemplify an architecture of physical activity. This is a critical distinction that can mean the difference between use and disuse, because the deep integration of physical concepts demonstrates how architecture can inspire anatomical engagement, rather than offer up yet another unimaginative fitness center. As more people become dangerously overweight—and spend an increased amount of time sitting and looking at screens—architects, interior designers, and landscape architects should all seek to incorporate physical activity broadly within the designed environment. Integrating fitness opportunities in imaginative ways will serve as a constant prompt of our need to move, and remind us that space can be fun as well as profound.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.