Q&A: Helen Rix Runting

Photo: Anthony Richardson

Secretary is a Stockholm-based office for architecture. Founded in 2017 by theorist Helen Runting and architects Karin Matz and Rutger, the practice is built on a shared interest in the capacity of architecture to facilitate a dignified life at the scale of the population.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Helen while she is here in Melbourne for ‘Suspended Activation’ at MPavilion from 19—27 January 2022. 

MPavilion: Hi, Helen. Firstly, welcome back to Melbourne! Can you tell us about the evolution of this project and what inspired the concept behind ‘Suspended Activation’?

Helen: We are a small architecture practice of only three people (my background is in planning and theory and Rutger Sjögrim and Karin Matz are architects), and ‘Suspended Activation’ came out of a long-running conversation in the office about fitness, rehabilitation and recreation. The question of what the body can be and do beyond or outside of its ability to perform ‘work’ has interested us for a number of years.

From our own brushes with physiotherapy to the observation that gyms seem to be the ‘go-to’ program for dark ground floor spaces in new development areas, this interest has grown from something purely personal, that we chat about at lunch, to something we have started to actively theorize, teach, and design around: What are the political potentials of bodily strength, from a feminist perspective? How might architects imagine spaces beyond ‘home’ and ‘work’? How could architecture contribute to the construction of collective bodies, beyond commercial and individualizing notions of ‘wellness’? These are some of the questions that we explore in this installation, which is a structure for rest, respite, and simply doing nothing. There’s a deep need for that in today’s pressurized society, we feel, across all age groups and generations.

MPavilion: What role did each member of the Secretary team play in this project, and how did the collaboration with Ellen Sayers for the fabrication come about?

Helen: All of our projects are undertaken collectively, especially our art and research work, and we tend to debate ideas over and over again until we feel that they land. Rutger Sjögrim was the lead designer on this installation. He did all the modelling and is responsible for the final form of the piece, including the weaving pattern; Karin was behind the choice of rubber physiotherapy/training bands; the installation follows a line of research that all three of us have been exploring. I’m also the only Australian in the group (the other two are born and bred Stockholmers!) and thus the connection to Melbourne. 

We knew it was going to be logistically difficult to design this piece in Sweden and fabricate it locally; for this reason, working with Ellen Sayers was crucial. A good friend, Robert Wagner, who deals with complex welding details all the time in his work with bespoke lighting at Christopher Boots, got us in touch. Ellen’s background in fine arts and experience in welding complex structures, along with our many conversations with MPavilion creative director Jen Zielinska, really helped us in finalising the design, even though we only ever saw the two of them on our screen either outrageously early in the morning or very very late at night, due to the +10-hour time difference.

MPavilion: You mention weaving, welding and rubber training bands—can you tell us more about the installation’s materials and the construction process involved?

Helen: Like a lot of gym equipment, the form is based on simple geometry: a square, a circle, a triangle, and a rectangle; it is around the size of a double bed, or an oversized sun lounge, or a small sailing dingy – other objects designed to contain or hold a human body. 

Formally, we wanted to make something that was familiar yet did not suggest a particular use. Given that children were an important user of the piece, we wanted its use to emerge through experimentation; ‘Suspended Activation’ is for lolling around on and draping yourself over, kids can crawl around it, under it, across it. Its use depends a lot on the size of the user. 

The rubber weave uses the resistance bands used in physiotherapy. We ordered them from a factory in the north of England; even though there are 600 meters of rubber in this thing, they told us this was a tiny order – apparently, there are a lot of broken bodies out there. The colours of the rubber reflect the strength of the bands: black and blue were the strongest bands in their production series. Most gym equipment has a very masculine colour palette. With the pink, we were interested in testing out whether a more cosmetic tone could work as a symbol of fitness.

MPavilion: Every new year we see an influx of ‘programmed activation’—the typical target being fitness-based resolutions and deals on new gym memberships. How do you hope to see people engaging with your installation?

Helen: Haha, exactly! January is the month of (expensive) resolutions. When sold as a product, fitness is a promise that we make to ourselves, that we will ensure that our bodies are functionally, intentionally, aesthetically ‘in shape’—that they will be or become desirable, even. But as urban theorist Maroš Krivý once explained to me, ‘fitness’ is also a term borrowed from evolutionary biology, which invokes Darwinian ideas about the relation between an organism and their environment. Fitness is about being well-matched to your environment: you adjust, not your surroundings. Under late capitalism, this means making sure that you can continue working long hours and resist the wear and tear of work – that you don’t break down, that you keep going. In the face of that scenario, we might ask what other forms of ‘fitness’ could be possible, whether we can be ‘fit’ for other purposes. As the Swedish artist, Fathia Mohidin reminds us, the emancipatory qualities of the strong body have a utility for feminism too. ‘Suspended Activation’ encourages a strength in repose, in rest, in leisure; it’s a playground and a jungle gym that asks you to do very little. To take a break.

MPavilion: What’s your relationship to leisure or fitness?

Helen: Like many people working in architecture, I struggle with the balance between work and personal time. Designers are physically and mentally trained—by our educations and by professional cultures—to work long hours, even if we understand that this opens up for multifarious forms of exploitation. For me, the gym is a space away from work; fitness is deeply related to resisting ‘work’. I also teach a subject, with Maroš (who I mentioned earlier) and the Helsinki-based architect Leonard Ma, at the Estonian Academy of Arts called ‘fitness and the city’. Rutger, the lead designer on this project, teaches a design studio called ‘infinite leisure’ in the architecture program at KTH in Stockholm. So, this is something we talk about a lot; something we see as quite politically charged, as potentially utopian.

MPavilion: Playgrounds are designed for children and gyms for adults—is the installation aimed at any one particular age group? If so, what and why?

Helen: Children live highly structured lives – their days are heavily scheduled, perhaps to the same degree as adults these days. To compound this, the spaces of the city that are not ‘home’ or ‘work’ tend to be intensively programmed: every inch of our squares, streets and parks tend to be designated for a particular use, occupied by obedient bodies doing the correct activity: here, we shop, here we sit, here we play. I guess we wanted to try to design something that wasn’t a chair, a gym, or a playground, but which has elements of all of these things; which doesn’t anticipate what a child or adult might do with it in advance, which invites a degree of loitering, testing and non-productivity. The resistance in the rubber weave promises a soft surface, with a degree of spring, that supports the body in repose, no matter which body.

Join us for the Suspended Activation installation, onsite from Wednesday 19 January to Thursday 27 January. 

MPavilion 2021 is open in the Queen Victoria Gardens until 24 April 2022. MPavilion is an initiative of the Naomi Milgrom Foundation in partnership with the City of Melbourne and Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. 

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