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Let’s get physical

Charles Holland and Elly Ward give the gym a workout

‘In ancient Greece, Gymnasia were typically large structures containing spaces for each type of exercise as well as a stadium, palaistra, baths, outer porticos for practice in bad weather, and covered porticos where philosophers and other ‘men of letters’ gave public lectures and held disputations,’ according to Wikipedia.

Not many public lectures take place in your average Virgin Active, although arguably an element of self-improvement beyond the merely corporeal persists. The January trip to the gym has become an integral part of the new year ritual, the necessary antidote to the gluttony that precedes it, offering the possibility of redemption for both body and mind.

Gyms are spaces of penance and punishment, sweat and supplication where the sins of our sedentary lives can hopefully be absolved through hard exercise. But they are also places of display, narcissistic temples to the self where liberal use of glazed walls and mirrors allows us to preen and pose as much as work out.  Because of this they are a fascinating hybrid typology, combining elements of religious, theatrical and penitentiary architecture.

Gym membership in the UK has been steadily growing since the early 1980s personal fitness boom. During this era, Jane Fonda’s videos popularised working out while Olivia Newton John’s hit Let’s Get Physical milked the craze for sexual double entendres. The 1985 John Travolta/Jamie Lee Curtis romance Perfect captured another important aspect of gym going, which was their role as social spaces. Gyms in the US often served as quasi-singles clubs, particularly within the gay community. In this respect they related directly to their ancient Greek forebears. Indeed, the word gym is derived from the Greek word gymnós, meaning naked, which is how they generally preferred to exercise.

For this reason, gyms have also periodically provoked moral censure. In his book The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, Eric Chaline relates how in ancient Greece, young men were warned not to sit on the sand that covered gymnasium floors in case their bare buttocks left an imprint that would over excite their instructors. And in the 1950s, LA’s infamous Muscle Beach was briefly closed for being ‘freakish, homoerotic and unbalanced’.

Today they are more likely to face criticism for their part in the dubious claims of the health and wellbeing industry. Gyms compete in a hectic market place, making overtures to our vanity, playing on our health concerns and promising us dreams of eternal youth, or, at least, a beach-ready body. The upmarket ones try to match our corporate aspirations, lining their glitzy lobbies with polished stone and chrome balustrades. Like hotels, luxury here is measured in the price of entry and the fluffiness of the towels.


In ancient Greece, young men were warned not to sit on the sand that covered gymnasium floors in case their bare buttocks left an imprint that would over excite their instructors

The contemporary gym takes many forms, occupying purpose-built spaces as well as shop units and converted offices. The equipment though remains a constant: ranks of landlocked rowing boats and stationary walking machines, lined up like a high-tech slave ship. There is a sense of both the absurd and the pointless about the spectacle of these machines in use, rooms full of people running and rowing but going nowhere.

The equipment itself falls into the same category of design as TV news desks and executive saloon cars: anonymously contemporary in a vacuum-formed, slightly macho way. Although some of this equipment comes with dials and screens to tell you how fast and how far you haven’t gone, most people’s eyes are on the TVs that provide entertainment to alleviate the tedium of working out.

Gyms are spaces of ritual and routine. Not only are they organised spatially into zones relating to specific exercise routines, but they involve a series of endlessly repeated actions. Part of this includes seeing the same people each time and inevitably measuring your progress against theirs. But it is also about our personal routines: the same locker, the same sequence of machines and the same songs on your iPod as you jog away.

There are signs that gym membership is on the decline. The current enthusiasm in the UK for both cycling and running suggests people are looking for less expensive and more direct ways to keep fit. Perhaps a reintroduction of public lectures and disputations might help. Personal trainers could be replaced by philosophers and mental workouts incorporated into routines.

An improvement in the buildings themselves might help too. One could imagine – pace early modernism – gyms that embody and promote exercise in a direct, visceral way, with exercise ramps and running tracks forming explicit parts of the circulation system. The Villa Savoye for instance would make a much better gym than my local LA Fitness. And just as taking the bus to the gym seems absurd, the lack of dynamism of the spaces themselves reflects our contradictory attitudes to exercise. Typologically speaking, gyms could do with a serious bout of self-improvement.

Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture