Agnieszka Kwiecien

The problem with today’s culture of the gyms is that, instead of being an accessible public space for people of different socioeconomical class and backgrounds, they became a privatised, exclusive and commodified infrastructure built upon a system of membership cards and marketing strategies. Also, modern culture of physical activity has shifted the experience around physical culture from a daily, ordinary and habitual exchange to the rhythm of sporadic, singular- and most of all- spectacular events on a monumental scale. Can a future gym become an integrated and inclusive layer of the city for a casual and habitual social exchange rather than a collection of disconnected and commodified rooms for an alienated blood-and-sweat ethos of an exercise? Can architecture of the gym become that of joy and social engagement rather than a punishment?

Places for a perfect body 

Institutions are, according to Samuel Huntington[1], stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour and as such they are rather intangible constructs. According to Levi Strauss[2], the body is a surface ready for the imprintation of culture. It incarnates and manifests institutions, as well as various systems of values. The image and function of the body have both always been influenced by ideals and morals standing in the roots of every possible epoque across history and changing along with these ideals. The cult of the perfect body is one of these informal and always present patterns of behaviour which changes its incarnations in relation to different social, economical and political backgrounds. Perfect body is a very special and mythical state of it, reflecting an incredible amount of data about the world it exists in. From the architectural point of view, the gym is one of the key places for perfection of this body, the place which has been continuously evolving across history and geographical coordinates, aiming to execute this myth.


Gymnasium linguistically originates from the Greek word naked. The ancient gymnasium was based on the idea of introducing the naked body into this civic institution. Ancient Greek society understood the strong relationship between sport, health and education. The gymnasium operated as both an institution for physical and intellectual training. It was a space not only for the appreciation of physical achievement and the beauty of the human body, but simultaneously for the training and engagement of the mind, through philosophical pursuits. The gymnasium was a venue for instruction on morals and ethics, institutional and systemic discipline as well as the space for philosophers and sophists to hold debate, lectures and talks. The presence of the body, the presentation of the competitor naked in the space, had a fundamental and symbolic meaning. Both the body and the mind were considered gifts from the Gods and therefore were equally celebrated through joy and social interaction. Most significantly, it was a space of civic engagement for many and a place of interaction.

Grand Gymnase

The gym as we know it in the twenty-first century, appeared in proto-form for the first time in mid nineteenth century. It was relatively late, but could only have happened in that specific context and moment in time as the sociopolitical function and image of the body have always operated in relation to the political, ethical and geographical context. The intense urban development brought about by the Industrial Revolution changed our relationship to our body. The Revolution, marking the transition from manual production methods to machine-based manufacturing processes, quickly generated social, economic, and cultural trends that altered the way people lived, worked, and as a result, moved. As life became more sedentary, a new movement towards deliberate physical exercise emerged. In 1833, Hippolite Triat founded the first covered and partially membership-operated space for training, firstly in Brussels followed by Paris, called Grand Gymnase. This was credited as being one of the first commercial gyms.


Around the same time, in the nineteenth century, due to the advancement in body-scanning techniques and other body-related technologies, neurosciences emerged. Moreover, psychoanalysis came to existence. Both neurosciences and psychoanalysis marked a milestone in human history, as they triggered an era of the body being carefully controlled and curated. The focus shifted inwards towards the singular body. The new possibility of controlling the body soon transcended the exclusive professional fields of medicine and psychology, capturing the imagination of the mass population and finding its way into their everyday lifestyles. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, professor Edmond Desbonnet managed to make physical exercise and strength training popular, through publications in fitness journals. He also 5 opened a chain of exercise clubs which built a strong foundation for physical culture in Europe, but also for fitness as an industry, colonizing many spheres of our everyday lifes. Intense development of megacities all around the globe, in conjunction with globalisation, exaggerated the battle with sedentary lifestyle to a new, previously unknown level. Our pursuit of the healthy and fit body became more solitary than ever before. The gym became the ultimate venue for this pursuit, another embodiment of non-places[3] just like the airports, hotels or shopping malls.


Today, body propaganda, a seductive image built upon a myth of a person empowered enough to reshape his body, has been mobilized through different media. This invasive myth colonized the sphere of the everyday language, nurturing ever-flourishing neologisms like urban fit, fit-spo, sportfit. Preluded by the hashtag, these words create a complex space and a network for a daily virtual life on forums, blogs and instagram accounts. The modern gym is a scene for a solitary battle for a perfect body and it’s original instructive character has shifted significantly into the virtual zone. Both men and women, boys and girls are exchanging knowledge about often shockingly unhealthy diets, routines, tricks and exercises. These neologisms have been regularly banned due to their dangerous nature, but very soon they were organically replaced by the new ones.


This gym-lifestyle has become highly exclusive and, ironically, able to absorb people who are already fit and ready for a blood-and-sweat ethos of exercise. The rest of us would rather silently browse the internet in search of a magical pill as a substitute for this fitness regime. Therefore, behind this overwhelming self-identity project and the idea of carefully altering one’s physicality, various and advanced methods of superimposing ideals onto one’s body and lifestyle continue. So what are the other incarnations of places for a perfect body besides the good old gym? Highstreet is a reflection of an everyday lifestyle and a place where this cult is emerging, if not rapidly growing. Pharmarcies has become places of beauty along with health. The growth of pharmaceutical research institutions, combining focus on experimental chemical design and manufacturing techniques, has influenced the way we interact with our bodies on an everyday basis. The body is now perfected at the level of the metabolism, by altering one’s blood structure with food supplements. The transition between actual medicines, body supplements and beauty cosmetics is very smooth. Perfecting our morphology through plastic surgery has become a common practice and a symbol of social and economic status. The number of surgery clinics is booming along inner city highstreets and becoming part of a kind of quotidien routine as buying bread, flowers or cutting hair.

Gym & the City?

Instead of being a collection of disconnected and commodified rooms secured by membership cards, what if the gym became an integrated, democratic layer of the city? What if architecture of the modern gym became an architecture of social enjoyment rather than the solitary punishment? Today, the body is scrutinised, analyzed and modified to the micro-unit. Perhaps there can be a paradigm shift for the attention distributed more evenly between the scientific modes of its perfection and an actual architecture facilitating it.


1.    Original collage, 2015.
2.    Gymnasticon, Wikipedia.
3.    Sport Centre in Yugoslavia, 1974.
4.    Physical culture cover, August 1937 issue.
5.    Interview cover, Febuary 2012 issue.
6.    Nike Advertisment, 2014.


1.    Huntington 1965; p. 394
2.     Levi-Strauss, C (1963); Structural Anthropology; New York: Basic Books
3.    Reference to Marc Auge’s theory about non-places