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Let’s give buildings a traceur test

Eleanor Young

Balletic parkour practitioners bring buildings to lively life. Don’t lose the details that make their footholds to efficiencies

The leaps of suburban parkour.
The leaps of suburban parkour. Credit: Istock aluxum

Have you ever watched parkour? I would pay to, if it wasn’t so terrifying. It is balletic and athletic. Seen in real life, with kids leaping across vertiginous gaps above London’s Embankment, I waver between fear and fascination with a warning on the tip of my tongue – ready to cry out before every jump. I had to walk away to stop myself. Seen on YouTube favourite locations are megastructures, ideally brutalist with cliff edges of concrete. One group, Storror, carry cameras in their mouths so you get stomach lurching shots, jumping with them. But I was caught by Storror action in more mundane territory. In back gardens of thin-skinned, boxy 70s  estates dauntless fingers latch onto the narrowest of ledges. And with a swing and controlled scramble they are up and over the wall.

On the least promising of facades they have found a handhold. Since the 1960s and 70s, most building facades have got flatter if not thinner, with increasing systemisation. The migration of our language is a reflection of that as walls became facades. Think of the smooth panels of Trespa, Pilkington Planar, Vitrabond; find the system and clip it on. There is no space for fingers here. Yes, we still have window reveals but they seem more like architectural play. In the highly researched, yet curiously primitive, Cork House, the little imperfections of the bonded cork give it a complex texture up close. You would need crampons to climb here, apart from the fact that the architects treated it to the language of structural stone, laid in courses with recessed joints. At speed a traceur (the proper name for a parkour practitioner dontcha know), could make it up to the roof.

Not many people want someone running up their walls. But joints and junctions have always been part of how buildings are made: Lashings and fixings, a whole language of wood joints (butt, bridle, dovetail, lap, tongue and groove, splice), deeply recessed mortar between bricks. And they have often been visible – even when they were hidden beneath a boss on a cathedral roof. While hi-tech architects took advantage of systematisation they still played up the joint with heroic steel nodes and tie fixings. We have lost a lot to a blind acceptance of the efficiencies of product systemisation – a sense of scale and the human-made being high on the list along with an understanding of the materials – as shown by Grenfell and the cladding scandal. And a sense of the real – can you really be proud when your buildings look like a visualisation?

As conversations around architecture in the time of climate emergency continue to push practices towards different materials and techniques, it seems there is a chance that old ideas will come back reworked for today, perhaps as a lo-tech movement, perhaps less visibly. And when they do I vote for a celebration of joints and depth. And for a traceur to run up a wall and bring it all back into focus – at speed.