Unusual Activity

Whistler—the Canadian ski-resort town where the unofficial “20-centimeter rule” means that folks don’t always go into the office on days when it snows—was a no-brainer choice to host events at last month’s Winter Olympics. The local zeal for extreme physical activity also made the town the perfect testing ground for an unusual series of street furniture conceived by the New York-based Urban Movement Design. Just in time for the opening ceremonies, Sarah Gluck and Robyne Kassen installed one bench, nine bike racks, and three bus shelters that cultivate “incidental exercise opportunities.”

A cold call to the municipality landed the Whistler job for the partners, who met at Pratt Institute’s school of architecture before founding their firm in 2008. Gluck, who has studied psychology, yoga, and Pilates, designs from the nervous system out, while Kassen works from the environment inward. “We realized you could create surfaces that truly respond to the body,” Kassen says.

The firm works by mapping the most salubrious angles and points of contact between the body and external surfaces during sequences of movement. The five postures selected for the Whistler furniture were chosen by identifying physical issues that are common to the thousands of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as to locals, who will ultimately get the athletes’ village as affordable housing. In researching injuries, the designers discovered an unexpected overlap: moms pushing strollers experience many of the same symptoms suffered by skateboarders and snowboarders. It stands to reason that moms could use a good stretch, but why would elite athletes benefit from incidental exercise? Because they experience wear and tear that needs fundamental correction, according to Gluck. “When you use very simple surfaces in tandem with gravity—basic architecture—it totally changes the way that the structure of your body is aligned,” she says.

The forms of UMD’s street furnishings invite people to achieve proper body alignment just by sitting and lounging, or by improvising in more active ways. One bus-shelter seat resembles a tilted La-Z-Boy, but its angles actually help recalibrate posture. Designed to promote movement among those with physical limitations, the bike racks are configured at heights and angles that exceed the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act—a notable achievement in a village rife with serious sports injuries but that nonetheless has just a handful of wheelchair-accessible cabs.

But does the public know how to use this furniture? After its installation late last year, the designers noticed that people (kids first) began to play on it, engaging anew with their bodies, their public space, and one another. Those results bode well for UMD’s next job: the Core Connector, a path dotted with modular concrete designs linking Whistler to nearby Blackcomb. Construction is set to begin once the Olympics wrap up. “It’s a ribbon of choreography throughout the landscape that’s not just about the body,” Gluck says. “We want to create social opportunities for people as well.”

Read more about this story on the March Reference page.

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