Regaining Individual Agency

Kolby Forbes and Jahaan Scipio

Serf RebellionsKowloon Walled CityUrban Parkour

Inhabitants use their bodies to physically manifest control when architecture restrains individual agency.  Architecture has an ability to dictate several aspects of an occupant’s life, however when the limitations enacted do not mediate with an independent’s capability to act on their own behalf they seek to regain control.  This control is realized in the tendency of residents to reciprocate with external expressions of discomfort and resistance to the restrictions that have been brought forth.  As a result, numerous environmental behaviors are developed in the actions of the user that can be directly related to the constraints of the architecture.  It becomes the responsibility of the occupant to therefore correct the imbalance that has presented itself.  This inclination is currently visible in the growing free running phenomenon known as parkour, a practice that reinterprets urban landscape as an obstacle course to be navigated without regard to intended design restrictions. Participants of parkour respond to the restrictive nature of the architecture in place by rebelling against the strict circulation of the urban fabric through the use of their bodies alone.  They are able to reinterpret the intended paths put in place by urban planners to find a means of passage that is more befitting to their needs.  Another way in which the populace sought to establish dominion over the man-made environment is through the demolition of the structure and the subsequent eradication of the limitations it imposed.  This form of resistance is exemplified in the Kowloon Walled City, an overpopulated haven for crime and poverty.  As the residents of this city became aware of the cancerous conditions of growth, they strove for its destruction. But perhaps the most literal instance of bodies used to regain control, is epitomized by the incessant rebellions of serfs in the feudal system.  A structural system designed to limit the agencies of a class reliant on that of a larger manor.  This arrangement resulted in a division of property that needed to be mediated to better accommodate the larger majority.

Serf Rebellions in the Feudal System
Manorialism, Europe, 17th Century

Medieval Manor Plan

One of the earliest examples directly relating architecture to social and psychological condition is the establishment of manorialism, a vital component of feudal society.  This system subjected the largest majority of the population to a subservient life which was most significantly influenced by the urban landscape instituted by the ruling power. Manorialism was largely a social, economic, and political system. This system broke the land of the manor into three distinct categories of usage, demesne, dependent, and free peasant land, as recognized in the plan of the medieval manor presented.  Demesne is defined as the land holdings which are directly attached to the manor and therefore under the lord’s retention for personal usage, while dependent land is an area in which the peasant or serf is supplied with a plot under the ownership of the manor and thereby their jurisdiction.  On these plots, serfs were required to comply with contractual agreements set forth by the manor, which often left them working areas of land for little to no pay and small crop yields for personal use.  The last categorical land type is free peasant land.  Although these areas are described as being free with no obligation, peasants and serfs were still required to pay rent and various other taxes on the land.  This system of manorial land distribution was imbalanced from conception.  A reallocation of control was necessary to correct the confines placed upon an individual in this system, which would later be manifested through open rebellion against the constraints.

However less discussed, was the psychological component that was present. Feudal society subjected ninety percent of the medieval to serfdom. This class was subjected to a life of servitude and extremely subpar living conditions compared to that of the lord of the manor. Quality of life is influenced by income, status, location, but is most directly affected by living conditions. A major demonstration of the subordination of a serf was the blatant inferiority of their living quarters, which consisted of substandard parcels of land with inadequate forms of architecture in comparison to the manors in which they were expected to serve under. An environment has the power and influence to agitate an inhabitant’s psychological state, which in turn impacts their behaviors and reactions to that said environment.  The structures of manorialism began to both physically and psychologically agitate the state of the residents subjected to a life of servitude.  This agitation was manifested externally in a series of outbursts of anger or rebellions against the urban structure of the feudal system.  It was essential for the lower class to rise up against conditions in which the architectural system of manorialism no longer promoted the needs of the masses; a reappropriation of control was present through the diminishing of a flawed system’s influence.


Kowloon Walled City
Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, China, 1810 


The history of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City is one that demonstrates the decline of quality of life due to an entity that became characterized by its high population density, rampant poverty, and general lack of an authoritative presence.  The growth reached a point in which it could no longer be considered as beneficial to its residents, resulting in friction between the architectural structure and its occupants.  The site was initially used as a post wherein the salt trade could be managed during the Song Dynasty from 960-1279, but little activity persisted for hundreds of years until it was established as a coastal fort around 1810.  It was not until 1898 that the populace began to significantly grow to 700 as Hong Kong began to lease the New Territories to Britain.  The origins of the city are in itself plagued with a general lack of order as competing countries pursued sovereignty over the site.  Officially, ownership of the city was claimed by Britain but along with China a hands-off approach was established, leaving the 2.7 hectare block to essentially become a sovereign state of its own governance.  This lack of government presence allowed the enclave’s population to grow exponentially with residents ranging from the criminal to the destitute.  The Walled City continued to evolve into a complex labyrinth of small businesses, residential apartments, and areas of black market trade with heights of up to 14 stories with 350 varying building types.  This becomes even more apparent as the city is studied through section.  Allocation of space is a primary concern in an environment in which overpopulation has combined with the high population density.

The increase in space development seemingly began to coincide with the evident regression recognized in the living conditions of residents.  In the 1980s, most residents inhabited apartments with multiple families at sizes of 250 square feet or less.  At its height, the site boasted a population of 3,250,000 occupants per square mile. Recognized in plan, the network of the city began to take on the characteristics of a maze or labyrinth rather than that of a residential neighborhood established for the populace living within its confines. The plan also reveals a lack of concern for the occupants in that in most instances there is a severe absence of natural light,b10c which is another factor that could negatively influence residents both mentally and physically.  As the structure continued to progress and grow, the Walled City no longer seemed viable to its residents or the local authorities, who began to see its growth as cancerous rather than advantageous.  The architecture of the housing system no longer benefitted its residents, and for this reason it became restrictive.  As the constraints of the site became more apparent a movement towards eviction and eventual demolition surfaced and was completed in the early 1990s.  Populations gained back the power that had otherwise been diminished by the pervasive nature of the Walled City, by eradicating the structure all together.

Parkour and the City as a Playground
Parkour, Origin: France, 1980


While the resultant density of urban development is both ideal and convenient, the architecture of the city seeks to regulate circulation, and for some this regulation is interpreted solely as a restriction. Agency is defined as a person’s capacity to act in any given situation, and the restriction of an individual’s agency is often eventually begotten by some form of rebellion. In the instance of parkour, people rebel against this restriction by reclaiming control through the expression of freedom; navigating the urban landscape in however they see fit, rather than pursuant to the confines of intended circulation. By re-imagining the urban landscape a practitioner of parkour, also known as a traceur, reappropriates every aspect of the architecture of the city. In every instance, the submergence of a new structure completely transforms the conditions present on site, one of these conditions being the way in which inhabitants engage the site. Architecture seeks to inform the populace of the ways to engage a structure but a traceur combats the restrictions set forth by rejecting the normative means of engaging site and structure. A wall is no longer exclusively structure or facade, but a means of travel, a pathway connecting the interstitial spaces of the urban condition. Ornament is no longer exclusively aesthetic, but performative, utilized in the navigation of these pathways. urban-wall-jumping-parkour-mainRoofs become ground plane and the lines between forward and upward movement are blurred. The urban landscape is unfolded into a field for free-running.  This adaptation of the urban condition is a prime example of the way populace affects environment; our ability to assign meaning provides an illusion of control over one’s environment and we perpetually repurpose and manipulate our surroundings to procure satisfaction.

Reciprocally, an individual’s environment has an exceptional impact on the individual. The opposite of agency is defined as structure, and while in this case agency acts as psychological condition and structure acts as a physical; the effects of environment (physical structures) on agency are undeniable. In this particular instance they even manifest as a physiological response. The general population has come to a uniform assumption on how the city operates; we understand it as a form of civilization. The architectural construction of the city provides order, coherence, and structure. However there are those that view the grid of built-up structure as an obstruction of a person’s ability to roam freely, an ability they intend to and succeed in taking back.


The populace relies on architecture to maintain a symbiotic relationship between the structure and its participant.  Environment influences behavior and behaviors influence environment. When this relationship is no longer satisfactory to or beneficial for the inhabitant, it becomes necessary for a redistribution of power to take place. Power is reallocated through the use of the body to redeem jurisdiction over the oppressive structure, promoting the influence of an inhabitant on its environment over the influence of the environment on an inhabitant. Whether sovereignty is to be regained through rebellion, demolition, or reappropriation, it is always externally expressed in direct response to the psychological affect the environment has inflicted. In this we can identify that the results of design and construction are not merely figural while alluding to architecture’s dominion over human behavior and the potential to negatively or positively impact population with construction.  Architecture is subject to reception and interpretation by the public and therefore stimulates some form of reaction from the masses. It is integral to the way our society operates and has profound impact on our mood, performance, actions, mannerisms, and ultimately; the progression of our lives.


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[2]Carney, John. “Kowloon Walled City: Life in the City of Darkness.” South China Morning Post. (accessed October 28, 2013).

[3]Garrett, Jake Tobin. “Deconstructed City: Parkour and the City as a Playground.” Deconstructed City. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[4]”How Parkour Works.” HowStuffWorks. (accessed October 28, 2013).

[5]”Incredible claustrophobic footage from inside the Kowloon Walled City.” io9 – We come from the future. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[6]Luther, Daisy. “Serfdom and the Feudal System: What’s Old is New Again |.” The Organic Prepper. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[7]”Manorialism.” Manorialism. (accessed October 28, 2013).

[8]Meacham, Wesley. “Examining How Sustainability and Architecture Influence Human Behavior in Environmental Psychology.” Wesley Meacham on HubPages. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[9]Rackard, Nicky. “Infographic: Life Inside The Kowloon Walled City | ArchDaily.” ArchDaily | Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[10]Saieh, Nico. “Venice Biennale 2012: Architecture and its Affects / Farshid Moussavi” 04 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 14 Oct 2013.

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