A gaggle of excited children have descended onto a simple structure made of metal pipes, a new addition to their neighbourhood in Olaias, north Lisbon. Boxing gloves have been distributed and a handful of parents stand near by, as older children teach the younger ones techniques on the hanging bags. Plastic chairs and tables have been assembled, music plays and pots of stew are bubbling.

People are out to welcome a new permanent boxing gym, designed by Mexican studio Diseño Espacial and commissioned by the Lisbon Triennale as one of the eight ‘Associated Projects’ happening across the city. The boxing gym addresses the many of the central themes of the Triennale, particularly the theme of main curator Eric Lapierre’s exhibition ‘Economy of means’.

Barrio Portugal Novo
Colourful buildings in Lisbon’s Barrio Portugal Novo

Yet the project didn’t start in Lisbon, it started in Diseño Espacial’s home town of Mexico City, where architect Daniel de León Languré started noticing the resourcefulness of local boxers who were setting up boxing gyms using minimal resources – and becoming world champions. Inspired by the use of salvaged materials such as tyres, metal poles and blankets of the gyms, he started researching the sport further. He became aware of the positive benefits of these gyms on young people’s physical and mental health and the knock-on effect on the communities.

With Aldo van Eyck’s Seventeen Playgrounds and Isamu Noguchi’s playscapes in mind, Diseño Espacial started thinking about how they could combine ideas into a project for Mexico City that could be an ‘instrument for civic activation in precarious urban areas’. De León Languré calls it ‘urban acupuncture’ – a small intervention designed to contribute to the social health of the city.

Two years and three boxing gyms in Mexico City later, and the Caixa’s de Boxe (Boxing Boxes) project has opened in Lisbon, marking the first international version of the project. After plenty of mediations and conversations, the Mexico City team paired up with local studio Ensaios e Diálogos Associação (EDA), who introduced them to the Associação de Moradores de Portugal Novo, a neighbours’ association for the Barrio Portugal Novo, a post-revolutionary housing estate built in 1974. The estate was built by a self-managed co-operative and considered ‘almost illegal’ and therefore ignored by the state for many years, lacking any investment into the communal spaces. Boxing Boxes was the first public intervention in the neighbourhood for three decades.

Caixa’s de Boxe Lisbon
Children playing on the Boxing Boxes urban boxing gym

While the work entailed hours of research to identify possible sites (using a tool that Starbuck’s uses to find coffee shop locations) and meetings with people at all layers of the process from the Triennale, the city, and community leaders, the most useful tool was ‘willingness’ says de León Languré – being open-minded, and not thinking in a ‘top-down’ way at any level. It was a process of constant mediation, he says. 

The pre-fabricated structure designed by Diseño Espacial and made of reclaimed metal pipes was assembled on site with the community. ‘Children now have a place to be children, before it was very limited. Everyone does everything outside an now there is more of a natural meeting place.’ §