Mikkel Rugaard is an old school parkour practicioner, architect and designer from Denmark. If you are a parkour enthusiast like me chances are high you have already trained on one of his structures or at least have stumbled across videos of people training there. His designs have shaped the world of parkour and stand for authenticity of movement and freedom of spaces.
Check out Julie Angel´s documentary on Mikkel:
Your designs have shaped the parkour park landscape worldwide. Besides designated parkour parks, what kind of spaces do you design with your team?
I try to stay free of categories because I believe a space always holds many functions and must understand the needs of all the potential users. I’ve designed many hybrid spaces that, when people look at them make them think of calisthenics, kids’ play, learning- and teaching-spaces, sculpture and landscape etc.
I don’t have a team per se but collaborate with others on various projects. I like to think of my work as focused on shaping space for physical activity in general, with all the elements this includes – social, cultural and contextual interaction between people and objects.
Most clients usually think of parkour as a ‘function’ and obviously expect me to deliver something supporting this function. Solving one function is relatively uncomplicated, and consequently, not very interesting or adequate, and will often result in uninspiring mono- (or even non-) functional spaces.
I’ve always thought of ‘parkour facilities’ as but one of many manifestations of my practice. I perceive the base elements and values of parkour as so much broader and fundamental to all movement. How parkour practitioners choose to combine and express these elements (in sports science the ‘techniques’) is what from the outside defines it as a movement discipline and culture in its own right. However, a different combination of the base elements may as well manifest into techniques used for ball-sports, martial arts, play, dance etc. Knowing the origins of parkour, this is very logical, really, as it is how it all started. I guess you can say that I’m trying to unwrap how parkour has been packaged over the years and looking at the elements – physical and abstract or mental – and exploring what other interesting combinations I might find. Parkour is, in essence, an ever evolving hybrid itself and if I don’t respect this and keep challenging the norms of what a movement space should be, I believe I’ll be doing the culture and discipline a huge disservice – and I’ll stop evolving myself.
How many parkour parks and other installations have you designed? How many exist right now approximately and where (countries?)
I honestly can’t say for sure. At one point I wanted to create a map but never got around to it… It depends on how you categorize them, I guess. Some are simply minor adaptations of the portable equipment I’ve designed over the years, modified for permanent installation to meet legal requirements etc. Others I’vedesigned from scratch and been contracted to deliver installation, while some are simply concepts or quality control executed by others. My best guess is, from those that I’ve had a decisive hand in the making of, there’s about 10-15 large facilities around and probably 25-30 smaller. Most of my designs are scattered around Denmark, with a number of portable equipment solutions delivered to various locations around the world.
I’ve been involved in projects in the US, Japan, China, France, Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Poland, Faroe Islands, Dubai, Lebanon, Netherlands, Mexico, Brazil and many other places. However, most projects are mainly consultancy and many never get beyond the initial idea phase –people are initially very optimistic but get overwhelmed by the staggering task of realizing a project with all the requirements and processes involved, including funding and permits etc. I think there’s only a handful of projects that have so far been completed abroad, most recently Timberline (Colorado, US) and Oslo (Norway).
It makes the impression that Danish authorities are rather open minded about parkour and thus about funding parkour designated spaces – parkour parks. How do you perceive the whole administrative process before one of your designs gets commissioned?
Openness is part of it, but I also think it’s a combination of the point in time, the professionalism and seriousness we approached it with from day one going back to my time with Street Movement. Martin Kallesøe and the other original Street Movement founders had already established a presence and authority with parkour in Denmark when I joined them. I brought yet another layer with my academic background in design and architecture. Me ‘speaking both languages’ and embodying a lived experience as a mover and designer both, definitely helped facilitate the dialogue and process, and helped open a lot of doors. Nobody took that approach or had that combination of skills at that time, so there weren’t really a lot of options in a ‘market’ that was exploding with attention.But we still worked hard to prove ourselves and gain acceptance, and little by little we were invited to more projects and had opportunities to work with more complex designs.
On one hand process is slightly different today as we now have the European norm that we need to meet – this means a little less ‘gung ho’ and everything-is-possible-because-nobody-knows-how-to-deal-with-it approach. On the other hand, now everything is more or less the same process as any other building project, meaning the whole thing in theory should be more simple because everyone involved in the process plays by the same rules within the same known system. In practice, though, to provide the best service for the client, besides understanding what you are dealing with (ie. Parkour) and having adequate knowledge of general good design principles, you need to understand all parts of that process and master a number of skills, including working with norms and code, user engagement, project management, manufacturing and on-site installation, material properties etc.
This may seem overwhelming but is in fact nothing unique to parkour but the way most professionals work in any industry. It is knowledge and experience that evolve and expand over time, thus opening more and more doors.
The most difficult part, as the designer and consultant, is often the parts which are out of your hands. You can educate and enlighten people to (hopefully) make informed decisions, but at the end the decision is there’s to make – and the money there’s to find and spend.
European Standards (EN) is an expression of requirements for products, processes or services to meet the requirement of fitness for a particular purpose.
In the context of the interview the EN is the european safety / building standard and guideline that regulates the specifics when designing parkour parks and facilities. In Austria we have the “DIN EN 16899 | 2018-07“, the so called “parkour” norm. Even though this parkour specific norm has been established a few years back, Vienna´s city administration rather uses the playground standards or the standards for outdoor fitness spaces to regulate any parkour specific projects in the planning.
In Austria, (especially in Vienna) the city administration(s) are rather conservative and not very open to designs as freely and “wild” as your spaces are. The main argument is that since these are public places they need to be designed in order to minimize potential risk of injury. This leads (for example) to walls not higher than a certain height, or to a limitation in the density of the obstacles when planning. Did you have any of these issues when you started?
In Europe we now have the EN 16899 norm. It became active as of October 2016 and in the years before I have been part in developing and authoring it. Before then people didn’t really know to deal with it, often resulting in having to work within EN 1176 (playgrounds) or something that would simply be close to crazy. Both were quite a big problem. With no standards to meet there is nothing to safeguard either users or manufacturers – who would be responsible for making something safe and how? And how would you prevent the market from getting flooded with garbage…?
There’s still a fair amount of garbage on the market, if you ask me, but at least it’s mostly safe to use for everyone. The issue is, of course, finding the right balance without limiting creativity. Also, it’s important to understand that in public space you have to assume that your designs will be used by people without training or skills. We often tend to forget who we are designing for and gravitate toward what we enjoy ourselves or the latest, craziest move or trend. This is a fundamental mistake and public parkour facilities must be viewed in this light when criticizing them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious and challenge the norms as a designer – and my belief and experience with working with the norm is that this is absolutely still possible with the existing norm. It’s not perfect, but I honestly believe it’s very good and quite reasonable.For example, the maximum height of any object is 3m. I can think of no movement technique that requires more height, thus going beyond is unnecessary. The mental challenges that benefit from something at more height can be found in other places by those that want it and don’t need to be designed for in a public parkour spot. Also, there are no requirement for IAS (impact absorbing surfacing) under 1,6m which is 1m taller than on kids’ playgrounds. The rationale is that swinging motions usually occur somewhere above this height. Swings are maybe the most difficult coordination skill and technique to master – your body will keep rotating if you lose control and the head especially will be very vulnerable. Thus, the argument is that the head must be somewhat protected on impact with the ground. Another important thing to know and understand is that this norm distinguishes between an unsupervised and supervised scenario (ie. public space and organized gym). In a supervised setting you can go beyond some of the requirements at it is understood that there’ll will be a competent person (ie. coach or instructor) present to manage the possibly added risk.
It quickly gets technical, and we may need a full session just to discuss the justification of the norm. Suffice to say that you will have to trust me for now that it is I fact quite reasonable and sensible – but it is one of those things that make it difficult to communicate and sell a project if knowledge is lacking.
How did you overcome these barriers?
As mentioned above, through hard work and some degree of trial and error. Having an open an honest dialogue from the beginning of the process is always beneficial – even if there are unresolved issues or elements that you don’t know or understand how to deal with. Education goes both ways and keeping an open mind will teach you a lot in these processes!
What kind of limitations did you face with your first designs? What kind of limitations or barriers do you still face when it comes to designing and realizing your concepts?
In the beginning I think the main limitation was my own lack of knowledge and experience. We were basically carving a new niche and had no-one to look to as nobody had been working with design for parkour at more than a DIY level. Also, I was fresh out of the Academy and had no idea how the processes in the real world happen, as discussed above. It was trial and error. Looking back, I’m grateful we didn’t make any serious mistakes – that could have been detrimental to the continued development of parkour design and parkour in general.
Today I think the main limitation is that we are still regarding as a ‘bunch of kids off the streets’, and there’s still not enough respect for our professionalism and the potential of the discipline that clients want to invest serious money in designs. At least not when comparing to similar design- and architectural niche disciplines. People often tend to go with the cheapest off-the-shelf solution and do not think about the relationship to other user groups and the surroundings, and don’t care to invest in architectural value. This isn’t just an issue with generic and functionally lacking products coming out of the playground industry, but I believe we, as a community, are partly to blame for this as well. Designers from within the community still deliver DIY products made from standard hardware store components, like Kee Clamp rail setups and pallet constructions. This works, but it’s not design, in my opinion, when there is no detailing or processing involved, and any private person can go to the store, buy the components, and build it themselves. I know I may be sticking my neck out on this one, but we can’t keep claiming this to be a young discipline, and I really believe we need to aim higher and have more ambition. If we don’t raise the bar ourselves, the point of reference will stay at the bottom. If we want to be respected by ‘the others, we also need to respect ‘the others’. We need to push the norms and show people what’s possible – not just what is adequate. This requires professionalism, curiosity, respect and interdisciplinary work and collaboration.
Have you realized parkour related projects elsewhere in the world besides Denmark, Sweden and Norway? – (if yes) How different was the experience in these countries?
As mentioned earlier, I’ve been involved in a lot of processes, but I think only a few projects have been built so far. The main difficulty with working across borders is understanding the culture and context, the differences in legal requirements and code, and the sourcing of materials and manufacturing processes. I prefer to be on-site to understand the space and context and get a better sense of the people I’m designing for. For this part of the process, I rely on conversations only, in many cases. Also, it’s close to impossible for me to know about local codes and requirements, and get access to builders and materials etc. I can (possibly) search out this information, but it’s very time consuming and a waste of my resources. That is why I always insist on working closely with a local professional who can facilitate and handle these parts of the process.
In upcycling, “waste” products or unused materials are converted into new products. In contrast to downcycling, this form of recycling results in material upgrading. In the context of the interview I refer to Bekkelagsbadet, Oslo, a project Mikkel mentions later where he used old railroad tracks in a parkour park design. You will find pictures of the space here.
What role does upcycling play in your designs?
It’s something that I want to do more, but I have to admit that it is often difficult. In many cases it’s too expensive and too difficult to fit old materials and components into a new design. I always try to re-use whatever elements a site already offers, and sometimes I have the opportunity to go hunting for components. This was the case with Oslo project where Oslo Harbour (the company) was in charge. We got to go through their material depot and found railroad tracks, bollards and wooden beams that would work well with the design.
What role does solid wood play in your designs?
I’m not ‘married’ to specific materials. As long as the work as intended and fit with the overall context and concept, it can be anything. I love wood for the properties it has, the warm look and feel – but I also love steel for the precision and rigidity it offers. Concrete is easy and cheap, but can be worked into something quite delicate and refined, etc… Environmental considerations and sustainability requirements are also becoming an increasing factor, with the sourcing, manufacturing and transportation of different materials having different impact on the environment. This is a positive development, but it also adds to the complexity. It’s something I really want (and need) to explore much more, and I think the opportunities will present themselves as the discipline matures and more clients start to see the potential of doing things differently.
There are many options when choosing fall protection as Mikkel also mentions but budgetary limitations may apply. EPDM rubber flooring is the gold standard of fall protection but is probably the most expensive. In a project we were planning in Vienna the floor protection (if chosen to be EPDM) would have cost twice as much as the whole parkour park structure itself. That is why we took bark mulch into consideration when before ever being involved in parkour parks I despised mulch. Which I still do by the way.
One observation when viewing your parks and areas is that sometimes you implement fall protection floor while sometimes you don´t. Why? When do you plan protection and when not?
This is something very much guided by the standards, and not something the designer can choose or not. IAS (impact absorbing surface) comes in many forms – sand, gravel, loose fill mulch or cast rubber or even grass. As long as the surface meets the requirement, which is usually testing by dropping a probe and getting a reading. You may find project from before October 2016 when the EN standard was published, that don’t have today’s requires surfacing, but you wouldn’t get a building permit today if the standards aren’t met. Also, please remember that the standard makes a distinction between supervised and unsupervised facilities.
Do the places you design sometimes work as spaces to be used for parkour but might be planned as something completely different? I am asking because my solution to the rigidness of the Austrian governance would be to create open spaces where movement is tolerated but that are not designated solely for parkour. Instead spaces where people can climb on things and are allowed to touch. Where the design itself is not limiting movement to parkour.
I’m not sure I understand this correctly, but I know it’s a pretty common practice to lable something as ‘art’ to avoid the limitations of a standard. I understand the notion and the frustration of limitations, butin general I think that is a wrong approach. To be frank, I believe I’d be neglecting my professional responsibility if I labelled something different from the way I know it will be used and what it is designed for. There are always overlaps and it can be difficult and annoying to have to categorize your designs, but that’s just the way it is. The rules are the same for everyone, but I do believe they are made in a way that, if you understand them, you can play the game really well!
Nicolas Vanhole is a high level parkour practicioner from Belgium. He is the founder of the HAL5 indoor and outdoor parkour facility with a striking design, wild barwork and industrial feel. The facility seems well designed and Nicolas videos show amazing use of all the structures in HAL5.
Be sure to check out:
There would be so much more to ask but let´s finish like this: what is your favourite parkour park, area or design that youhave created?
I have to mention two:
Sorø, because we created something that’s never been done before, with materials I’d never used before, and we had to come up with a ton of custom solutions – and it has a floor that opens, ha ha! It’s really good looking, even today, 5 years on. Also, it was prepped back then for expansion and connecting to the adjacent outdoor space, a project that should begin soon, if everything goes well.
Bekkelagsbadet, Oslo, because of the interdisciplinary process, the unique location and context. With this one you can truly talk about activities and functions overlapping, and it’s such a great summertime destination, with and amazing view of the fjord. I feel really privileged to have been part of that project and honored by the level of trust and respect I was given. [See pictures below]
If you had to choose a design not by you where you think it was done very well, is there something that comes to your mind?
For parkour specifically, Nicolas Vanhole and Hal 5 in Belgium. I’ve never been to the place personally, but everything I’ve seen from there looks great – but that may just be Nico making everything look great! He’s probably my favorite athlete to watch – and an amazing person as well…
Photo credits in this article
Featured image: Mikkel Rugaard, by Jacob Lund – https://jacoblund.com
Carlsberg City: Mikkel Rugaard – mikkelrugaard.com
BGI Academy + Soro: Andy Day – https://www.andyday.com/
Bekkelagsbadet Oslo: Tove Lauluten – https://www.tovelauluten.no