The commercial cult of the body is invading our cities, argues Edwin Heathcote
Words by Edwin Heathcote
Of all the places I’ve stopped visiting since the beginning of the pandemic, the one I miss the least is the gym. That sour, sweaty, plasticky smell; the grey plastic and bleak flicker of fluorescent lighting; the inescapable industrial background hum of the music; the garish colours of screens and the grim, self-isolating determination of the treadmill bubble, each captive finding a way to their own atomised rhythm and personalised beat. I always hated the squeak of trainers on vinyl, the background motivational phrases and the clunky, metallic clang of dropped weights.
If any interior embodies the peculiar blend of high-tech, low-cost, metal-shed, lowest-common-denominator masochism of the modern age, then the gym is it. There was a time, not long ago, when the gym used to be a kind of anti-architecture, a few machines and weights stuck in a basement, out of sight, underground, out of mind – a place for fanatics and bodybuilders, boxers and super-self-improvers. Like the jazz club or the drug den, it was deliberately unseen. But then it moved upscale.
As the body became first a cult and then a universal site of self-improvement and fitness fashion, the gym became a branch of retail. Old banks and offices began to be converted into gyms and bodies bouncing on treadmills became retail display. Look out of a Midtown New York hotel or office window now and you may well have a view of a gym; what was once shut away is now at the forefront – determination and body image as expression of contemporary urban consumption.
Goods have gone to the internet; the things we might have desired in a shop window – the clothes and toys, the foodstuffs and homewares – have emigrated out of town to online, leaving the human body, pumping and pounding away on the grey strip of treadmill, expending energy, standing still.
But the aesthetic has not changed. The shop window was once a place to entice, to seduce with luxury; the gym offers only suffering, ennui, running to stay in place and the promise of temporary fulfilment if you run enough and pay enough to keep coming back. It has its parallel, of course, in what has happened to food retail. The window of a Tesco Metro, a 7/11 or a Sainsbury’s Local has no display and offers no glimpse inside. It is merely a back for fridges and display units covered with corporate decals.
The urban gym offers up a view, but one which sets up an unsettling relationship between a person on the treadmill who is attempting to become lost in the world of exercise and ear-pod-piped beats, absorbed in a bubble, and a passerby who feels they oughtn’t really look, as if they are invading some kind of privacy even though the body is on direct and deliberate public display. It is the essence of urban alienation.
It is no better inside. The weird array of machines in black and grey with their cocktail of medical and geriatric aesthetics, tubes and panels, huge chunks of plastic and rubber with the occasional ergonomic grip, like tautologically comfortable machines of torture. In operation, each machine resembles some kind of medieval limbo, offering constant repetition of action without practical result. The treadmill is, after all, most associated with the Victorian workhouse – a machine designed not to produce anything but rather to keep idle bodies busy, to punish them for being poor.
Our culture has transferred its desire to make and inhabit interesting and seductive cities to the constant improvement of the self and the body, from collective culture to sculpted abs, from civitas to sculpted ass.
This article was published in ICON #202. You can read the magazine for free here