Parkour photography reinvents Brutalist architecture

By | Art & Design
Picture from "Brutalism part two" by Andy Day,

Andy Day is a British photographer whose work is mainly developed around the practice of parkour, a social phenomenon between performing art and physical training especially popular in urban areas.

Day’s cultural interests go far beyond photography; he is also a writer and occasionally works with film and TV productions. He is also teaching a course on Movement and Dance Photography at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design. His interest in parkour practice and photographing traceurs (this is how parkour practitioners are called) started in 2003 and continued over the last ten years.

The parkour practice, which has its origin in military obstacle training, has become increasingly popular since the 90s. It has recently attracted lots of interest, not just as an expression of popular culture but as a much more debated phenomenon, and has entered academia in several fields of study such as: performing art, social studies, post-colonial studies, and more.

picture from "Brutalism Part Two" by Andy Day,

picture from “Brutalism Part Two” by Andy Day,

While some have highlighted more intellectual aspects of parkour, others have read its political and revolutionary role in the context of the city. In addition, the playful game of jumping and climbing in the urban environment can also be seen as a return to the childhood activity of discovering reality, aimed at freeing the individual from the physical and emotional boundaries of the urban socially constructed space.  Whatever the interpretation behind this form of art or social practice, we need to recognize it is indistinguishably bound to architecture and public space, as Andy Day’s work of the last ten years has so well captured.

In Day’s pictures, it seems that performing art, photography and architecture reinforce each other’s qualities and bridge each other’s boundaries. That said, it is not surprising to see two of the most successful series of pictures of the British photographer portraying parkour activities alongside Brutalist architecture in London.  Brutalist architecture of the post-war period seems to be one of the most appropriate set for the parkour practice due to its both social and aesthetic qualities.

The powerful character of the “image” of this architecture – as defined by the architectural historian Rayner Banham in the 50s in his manifesto of New Brutalism – makes these buildings the perfect models alongside the parkour practitioners who reclaimed these often forgotten spaces. Therefore in Andy’s pictures we are never sure if the protagonists are people or buildings; or, as the photographer puts it: “the interesting aspect of Parkour is not the movement itself but rather its physicality combined with the architecture.”

picture from "Brutalism Part Two" by Andy Day,

picture from “Brutalism Part Two” by Andy Day,

Brutalist architecture, which especially at early stages had a strong social purpose, was meant to be activated by its inhabitants like Alison and Peter Smithson’s collages used to show. In this sense another reference for the author might be Nigel Henderson’s pictures of the same years; the extremely popular shots of kids playing in the streets of London in the 50s, jumping and using the street as playground, seem to be a perfect historical reference for Day’s work.

Nevertheless what differentiates Day’s work from that of Henderson’s is certainly the fact that the individual rather than the collective constructs public space. Apparently Day’s work brings a further emphasis on the role of the people who do not simply inhabit the place but are rather opening new readings of it.

The photographer’s awareness of the photogenic character of Brutalist architecture is evident in his use of the camera through few technical rules such as: the contrast between the colorful shirts of the traceurs and the gray rendering of the buildings, the use of sotto-in-su viewpoints and the de-centered position of the individuals in space. Such rules clearly reveal the compositional intent behind the pictures. Day claims, “I compose in advance, visualizing where the body will be, all within a frame that is decided by the shapes and surfaces in front of me.” In other words body, surfaces and space are equally involved in the composition of the pictures.

Whatever is the impact and communication power of such images on architectural discourse, contemporary photography and parkour practice, Day’s work has definitely overcome the borderline between disciplines and opened new possibilities and discourses around urban environment, social engagement and the media’s role.

What is the potential role of parkour photography in the context of the city and its social milieu?

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