The Gym: A Site for Sore Eyes

June 12, 2015

HVAC systems that make us feel either too hot or too cold. Office chairs that induce back pain and Carpel Tunnel syndrome; poorly insulated walls that impair privacy by transmitting unwanted noise: usually, we become aware of our senses only through some flaw in the physical environment that makes us feel uncomfortable. Otherwise, architecture, considered a “visual art,” participates in what critics have referred to as the “scopic regime of modernity,” privileging vision, a “higher” sense affiliated with the intellect, and suppressing taste, smell, and touch, “lower” senses associated with the abject.1

But the gym, a space dedicated to the cultivation of the body is a rare building type that has the potential to counteract this prevailing tendency. In these mirrored-lined interiors sweating bodies, wired to headphones and video monitors, assume a variety of poses that bring them into direct contact with all the surfaces of architecture–walls, floor and even ceiling. Regretfully, most health clubs, driven by the forces of the marketplace, do not exploit the architectural potential of this largely unexamined building type. If these facilities, like the bodies they shelter, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors (geared to a diverse audience of young and old, amateur and professional, straight and gay), they nonetheless generally adhere to a generic design formula. While the following observations are drawn from my own regular workouts, they also apply to a wide range of gyms that I have visited, all of which crowd members into banal interiors whose configurations promote social interactions that perpetuate rather than challenge problematic cultural notions about health, beauty, gender, and sexuality.2 And yet, exceeding the narrow-minded vision of their owners, these ordinary spaces can and do operate in exceptional way, sometimes subverting rather than confirming social norms. Wedding the ideals of machine-age modernism to the promise of digital technologies, health clubs possess the rare capacity to engage all the senses as exercising bodies traffic between actual and virtual space.

Franco Albini’s“Apartment for a Single Man” equipped with barbells and Le Corbusier’s architectural renderings of domestic dwellings inhabited by burly boxers sparring with punching bags, exemplifies how gym culture incorporates two linked trademarks of modern architecture: an unabashed promotion of the Spartan values of health and hygiene and an obsession with machines and equipment. In fact, gym design evokes that iconic modernist space: the factory. Ostensibly functionally determined spaces for the production of hard bodies, gyms are typically open, unadorned spaces clad in durable materials (rubber, metals, mirrors) and filled with exercise equipment laid out in assembly-line fashion. Following the logic of the workout routine, this layout is configured to allow members to move efficiently from one exercise machine, tailored to isolate and to develop a particular muscle–biceps, quadriceps, deltoids, hamstrings–to the next.

Surely, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand would have admired Cybex equipment, which takes one step further the signature chrome metal frame they employed in chairs like the fauteuil a’ dossier basculant and the grand confort. Here a white-painted metal structure supports not only upholstered surfaces that come into contact with the body but moving weight stacks. Black cables and pulleys link muscles with weights, reflecting both modernism’s general fetishization of the mechanical and also its particular conflation of body, building, and machine. As humans occupy the machine’s metallic framework, the biological and the manufactured become one, joined in a synchronized dance of mechanical movement that recalls Oskar Schlemmer’s “Mechanical Ballet.”

But if form follows work-out, contrary to expectation, gym planning generally betrays the promised integration of body and equipment. Ideally, the layout of these secular temples to the body should mirror the human figure, a concept that strangely enough, evokes Renaissance architectural drawings–from Francesco Di Giorgio to Leonardo–that superimposed nude male figures over church floor plans. Machines that work adjacent muscles should, optimally, be next to one another, beginning with the neck at one end and working down to the feet at the other–a configuration that would facilitate a full-body work-out, a routine that conceives of the body as a holistic entity composed of inter-related, contiguous muscular movements. But instead, most gym are configured to facilitate the split routine adopted not by athletes but by bodybuilders who, like Jim Weider and Arnold Schwarznegger, favor dividing the body into isolated groups (chest, arms, legs, back, and abdominals), muscle groups that can be mixed and matched during independent training sessions. Spatially, the split routine groups equipment dedicated to related body parts in independent clusters. From the viewpoint of efficient space planning, this divide-and-conquer strategy lends itself to shoehorning equipment into tight, often irregularly shaped floor plans. At the same time it mirrors and perpetuates contemporary culture’s fetshization of body parts. From print ads to television, media bombards us with cropped images of women, and increasingly men, rendered in fragments.3

As gym design isolates body parts, it isolates the sexes as well. While specialty facilities like Lucille Roberts feature pink-painted equipment earmarked for a specifically female clientele, health clubs are for the most part coed. And yet, despite the unisex design of the gym, gender segregation plays a subtle but nevertheless significant role. Male and female members alike tend to gravitate to equipment that works those choice parts of the anatomy accentuated by popular culture: dividing the body at the waist, men develop chest, back, and arms, while women concentrate on thighs, legs, and buttocks. If many women steer clear of upper-body workouts for fear of looking “manly,” men avoid machines that place them in “womanly” postures. The hip abduction requires wide-spread thighs, while the “butt blaster” puts users on hands and knees, passive postures that call attention to the most vulnerable part of the male anatomy–the crotch and anus–immediately conjuring the phobic specter of femininity and homosexuality.

Areas reserved exclusively for free weights and fitness classrooms further reinforce this seperation of the sexes as effectively as the doors that differentiate the men’s from the women’s locker room. Many women, find weight training in general and free weights in particular, an alientating male precinct (some gyms even cordon off “girls only” weight sections), and instead gravitate to the glass-walled refuge of fitness classrooms. But if women, enjoying the supportive encouragement of groups, enroll in classes, men, considering instruction feminizing, tend towards solo activities like weight training.

But free weights also separate the men from the boys. While by most accounts, free weights are no more effective at building the upper body than machines, they nonetheless possess the mystique of the professional body builder. If slickly designed Cybex are akin to Armani suits than free weights conjure the image of worn dungarees and are considered more authentic, more difficult and hence more manly than their mechanical counterparts. Ironcially, the free weight area, a stage for the performance of primative virility, reverses traditional gender codes, presenting men as objects rather than subjects of the gaze. Contrary to Cybex’s concealing thicket of metallic moving part ,weight racks maintain an unobstructed horizon line which by never violating bench press eye height, insures maximum visibility from all corners of the gym. Further calling attention to themselves with grunts and groans, spotting partners willingly display themselves in intimate interlocking postures, reclining eyes upwardly directed at standing genitals.

In Duchampian fashion, both free weights and exercise machines obey a contradictory logic. These precisely calibrated instruments function to build useless muscles, developed primarily to be admired. But if the incentive behind weight training is cosmetic, some argue that aerobics, by boosting our cardiovascular systems, improves both health and self-image. Yet while few challenge the utility of aerobic machines, when evaluated from a functionalist design perspective, they too are illogical devices that compensate for our sedentary daily lives by providing indoor, condensed versions of outdoor sports like jogging (treadmill), boating (row machine), biking (Lifecycle), and cross-country skiing (NordicTrack)–all activities that most of us do not have the time, skill, or space to enjoy. Strangely enough, even a chore like climbing stairs is simulated at the gym, perhaps appealing to an apartment dweller’s inner yearning for domestic life in a multistory dwelling.

Enhancing the simulation effect of the gym, computerized keyboards attached to aerobic machines spatialize energy expenditure by mimicking actual topographies. For example, after the user grips poles attached to sliding skis, the Body Trek cross-trainer offers the following program options: “walk in the park, “Himalayan trek,” “Vail pass.” Equating calorie burning with transport, aerobic machines inspire us to work harder as they attempt to overcome the monotony of the exerciser’s actual location in interior space. Interestingly enough, aerobic equipment actually reverses the logic of the vehicles (bikes, boats, stairs) it emulates. Expending energy, once a means to fuel devices invented to quickly convey us through different kinds of geographical spaces, becomes, within the static confines of the gym, an end in itself.

Space rife with cultural contradictions, health clubs literally capitalize on contemporary culture’s ambivalent obsession with the sensuous body, a body forever subject to temptation and excess; its unruly appetites must be curbed, disciplined, and controlled. Paradoxically, having internalized society’s discomfort with the carnal and the abject, we dedicate precious leisure hours in a closely monitored interior space to “work out.” In the locker room, we remove our street clothes, ostensibly divesting ourselves of outward indicators of occupation and social status. Clad only in uniform T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, we enter the gym floor, a social space where hierarchies are defined not so much by class and wealth as by the status conferred by being in good shape. Here we harness energy, motivated by the often unachievable goal of making over our recalcitrant flesh into a facsimile of the ephemeral airbrushed images of perfect bodies disseminated by the media. We congratulate ourselves for visiting the gym on a regular basis, a physical ritual that represents the triumph of will over appetite, mind over matter.

But self-discipline ultimately gives way to sensation. “Achieving failure,” completing a set of repetitions to the point of muscle exhaustion, inevitably requires us to the point of muscle exhaustion, inevitably requires us to concentrate on our contracting limbs at work. The very process of triumphing over the body forces encounters, sometimes painful, with our physical selves, a dimension of our beings that we middle-and-upper-class folk typically ignore in our daily lives, which are consumed by pursuits that require intellectual, not physical labor.

And by putting us in touch with our bodies, the gym heightens our awareness of the built environment. Requiring the user to lie prone with eyes turned upward, certain exercises, including bench presses and sit-ups, activate a surface of buildings that as upright beings we too often ignore–the ceiling. Some positions, like those for the prone leg curl, butt blaster, and abs crunch, direct our attention to the floor. But an exercise like stretching puts us directly into tactile contact with all of the horizontal and vertical surfaces of architecture–which we often look at but rarely touch–inviting us to press our bodies against resilient mats and vinyl wall coverings. Even less acrobatic exercises, like bicep and tricep curls, require us to consider how familiar postures like standing and sitting implicate gravity and space.

In the process of soliciting haptic responses, gyms reorganize vision as well, inviting us to see both ourselves and others in new and often unforeseen ways. Health clubs differ from conventional inwardly directed interiors where pieces of furniture arranged facing each other promote social interaction. Instead, gyms solve the problem of organizing a variety of solitary activities by orienting equipment serially, in rows that all face a mirror-lined periphery, inviting us to scrutinize our virtual reflections as we exercise. While they function cosmetically to make dark and potentially claustrophophic interiors appear brighter and boundless, mirrors are ostensibly installed to facilitate self-monitoring, enabling us to visually insure correct form and posture. Counteracting the fragmenting logic of exercise machines which isolates body parts, mirrors integrate. By reinstating the visual perception of the entire body, mirrors initiate a dynamic interplay between seeing and feeling, visual integration and physical fragmentation. For example, seated at the chest press machine, my attention shifts between experiencing my pecs at work and regarding my entire body in the glass. This experience recalls early childhood, when, infants, during the awkward phase of learning to coordinate their motor movements first catch sight of their own reflections in the glass. But contrary to a Lacanian who might argue that this restaging of the Mirror Stage is alienating, in the context of the gym, it proves exhilarating, offering the rare opportunity to reconcile eye, mind and body.

Mirrors promote voyeurism as well as narcissism, affording the opportunity to check out other scantily clad physiques. As I stand facing the mirror and confront my own image, the mirror’s reflective depth allows me to surreptitiously survey individuals to my right, to my left, and behind me. With only a slight rotation of my head, I can, unnoticed, absorb the full panoramic spectacle or, alternatively, zoom in on a particularly captivating fellow gym member. Not really a form of camouflage, the mirror functions more like an open closet. Most gym-goers are well versed in the techniques of mirror surveillance, an unspoken but nevertheless widespread code of visual conduct. Bolder gym members employ this reflective surface as a tool of seduction and engage in scopic games of cat and mouse, shamelessly exchanging furtive glances with strangers.

Mirrors, by allowing the spectator to shuttle back and forth between narcissism and voyeurism, physical and actual space, sanction actions considered taboo in most social contexts. But this fluctuation between actual and virtual realms is reflected by another increasingly prominent component of health club design–digital technologies. The flicker of televisual images viewed from screens suspended from the ceiling and attached to the brightly lit instrumentation panels of aerobic machines now competes with the seductive pleasure of watching mirrored reflections of bodies and machines. Like mirrors, these transparent surfaces also behave like windows that frame virtual views to alternative worlds.

The awkward attachment of electronic keyboards to aerobic machines underscores how they, like the health clubs in which they are used, uncomfortably straddle two eras and ideologies–the Machine Age and the Digital Age. Initially, the introduction of these blinking control systems to the handlebars of Stair Masters and Life Cycles seemed to enhance the functional logic of devices designed to elevate heart rate by offering the user a range of data– floors climbed, distance traveled, steps per minute, power output, total calories expended–that taken together precisely chart the moving bodies activity over time. How strange that while we bemoan our fast paced culture ruled by the clock, we nevertheless consent to spend leisure hours in a space entirely governed by time keeping devices found not only on walls but even embedded in the slick surfaces of aerobic equipment.

These flashing instrumentation panels, more sci-fi than high tech, reveal how, increasingly, health clubs are modeling themselves after Hollywood rather than Cape Kennedy. In contrast to equipment invented to discipline the biological body in actual space, media (print and electronic) transports gym members into virtual space. Only a short time ago, gym-goers could exercise the option of sporting portable Walkmans or leaning sweat-stained newspapers and magazines precariously against stationary bikes, cerebral diversions from the spectacle of half-clothed bodies reflected in mirrors. But more recently, increasingly sophisticated built-in multimedia technologies, which integrate sight and sound, allow exercisers alternative virtual escape routes while they work out. Complementing the collective activity of watching closed-captioned television, members can also plug into multimedia systems like E-zone that, wired into each machine, allow users to select television and compact-disc programs to suit their mood. A new generation of Lifecycles now allows members to surf the Internet as they peddle.

As the hum of headphones mixes with the din of clanging metal plates, and the glow of television and video screens competes with stolen glimpses of reflected bodies, the increasing incorporation of media within gyms makes even more unstable the already tenuous boundaries between virtual and physical space and further heightens the thrilling experience of negotiating between the realms of mind and body. On the verge of sensory overload, gym culture now finds itself at a critical crossroads. Multimedia technologies threaten to tip this delicate balance in favor of spectacle. The adage “no pain, no gain” has been replaced by “exertainment.” Virtual space distracts, effectively diverting exercisers from the pain and drudgery of the workout routine by eradicating body self-consciousness. Blinded by the light of digital displays, we are in danger of losing touch with our own bodies as we strive to model ourselves after the ideal bodies projected from strategically placed monitors.

Rather than give in to this popular trend, if patrons and their architects were to treat health-club design with the same seriousness as they do more dignified institutional commissions like museums and libraries, gym facilities might meet their potential as unique social spaces with the capacity to engage all of the body’s senses. Why should we settle for the present crop of formulaic interiors clad in monotonous floor coverings and cheap acoustical tiles and filled with row upon row of isolated equipment? Combining the best aspects of mechanical and electronic technologies, gyms hold the promise of becoming truly hybrid spaces that can erase traditional distinctions between hardware and software, spatially integrating the human body with architecture, machines, and electronic technologies, gyms hold the promise of becoming truly hybrid spaces that can erase traditional distinctions between hardware and software, spatially integrating the human body with architecture, machines, and electronics. Imagine jogging on a “built-in” treadmill embedded in the actual floor surface that inclines and declines in response to an interactive digital program that simulates different terrain. Or stretching in a space with resilient undulating floors and walls that conform to the contours of your moving body as you watch programs projected directly from floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The future holds these and many other opportunities for designers: gyms might offer a whole range of experiences that could invite exercising bodies to explore the dematerialized edges of virtual space as they physically engage the sensuous surfaces of the built environment.

Adapted from Achieving Failure: Gym Culture, ed. Bill Arning (New York: thread Waxing Space, 2000).


  1. There is a large body of literature devoted to exploring how western culture valorizes vision and intellect at the expense of the biological body, including Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993); and Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).
  2. It goes almost without saying that gyms embody our culture’s obsession with youth, beauty, and sex. In these Foucauldian theaters of discipline and surveillance, men and women subject themselves to grueling workout routines in an attempt to shore up their vulnerable self-images. Problematic cultural notions of bodily perfection reproduce deep-seated cultural anxieties about masculinity and femininity.
  3. For a discussion of the psychoanalytic implications of the print media’s rendering of fragmented images of the female body, see Diana Fuss, “Fashion and the Homospectatorial Look,” Critical Inquiry 18:4 (Summer 1992): p713-737.