Think Pieces. Critical reflection on the future of the built environment. Building Futures.

Think Pieces. Critical reflection on the future of the built environment. Building Futures..


To tie in with the theme of the 2012 London Festival of Architecture – A Playful City – and also build on our recent debate on the same theme, this series of think pieces considers play in the city.

Play is first evident, I think, in the mannerist works of such architects as Guilio Romano. Take his Palazzo del Te in Padova (1524) – a kind of fun palace for the Marquis which willfully subverts the classical canon of architecture while using its devices. With its super-scaled keystones, hyper rustication and naughty messing about with the orders, solids and voids, Romano was clearly having fun, and was hoping that others might too. Perhaps he felt his mentor, Raphael, was just too serious about the play of string instruments and harmonics. Romano also sought to draw together two and three-dimensional worlds the way anamorphic street artists do now. The “fall of the giants” mural at the Palazzo was an early attempt to dissolve architecture into another space, nearly twenty years before Michelangelo completed his Sistene Chapel.

Such playfulness recurred in the use of tromp l’oiel at a time when theatre was beginning to take shape, reaching its apotheosis in 1585, with Palladio’s Teatro Olympico. Suddenly urban spaces were all about perspective and usually about Urbano. False perspectives, anamorphic murals, and visual tricks were to pepper architectural projects of the renaissance and beyond.

Fast-forwarding to the modern movement, we find that play is still alive, even if obsessed by pure planes and Cartesian geometry. At heart though, defying gravity or removing the corners of buildings became a way of playing with form while defying structural rules. Sedition is in the detail.

It is the Situationist International (SI) that we have to thank for introducing the idea that the city itself could be seen as a playground, an idea that finds a contemporary echo with the ‘Urban Explorers’ network, who post instructions on their website ( about environments that make up the hidden underbelly of the city, to be explored rather as potholers explore caves. Guy Debord did more to suggest that urban conditions could be discovered and enjoyed than any architect or urban designer. This enjoyment was not without rules in that it was expected that the ‘psycho-geographers’ would, at least, be stoned and probably drunk too. Though there appear to be certain drawbacks with this methodology, the thought that ‘pleasant places’ and powerful experiences could be plotted may well have played a part in leading us to recent obsessions with ‘place making’. Debord drew on the work of Johan Huizinga, a professor of cultural theory at Leiden University whose 1938 book, ‘Homo Ludens’ suggested that play is primary to and a necessary condition of the generation of culture. He identified five characteristics that play must have:

Play is free, is in fact freedom
Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life
Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration
Play creates order, is order and demands order absolute and supreme
Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it

The Dutch architect Constant (Nieuwenhuys), a one time member of the SI, and an architect who was inspired by Huizinga’s work, progressed, through his 1960-75 ‘New Babylon’ project, an idea of a three dimensional field of play defined by interactions and situations along lines of connection in the city. For Constant, architecture was a co-production of strategy and inhabitation reflecting the fact that for him, and the SI in general, human endeavour was passing from work to play as the primary means of self and societal generation.

Aldo van Eyck continued this Dutch seam of play in the city through installing numerous non-deterministic playgrounds in various Dutch cities from 1947 on. Years later Quentin Stevens, a senior lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning produced a book which drew on the works of Huizinga, Debord and van Eyck in analyzing spectacle and play in different types of urban space – His Ludic City (2007) shows how interactions and interpretations of place introduce elements of play laid out along and responding to paths, intersections, thresholds, boundaries and props, echoing Constant’s work.

A very different type of Fun Palace was created by Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, the radical theatre director, in the early ‘60’s. Here architecture as an enabling entity was sketched and explored though never realised on its docklands site on the Isle of Dogs. But a wider, more dexterous form of fun, fun as insurrection, fun as a destabilising gesture, as detournement as the Situationist International had it, was to emerge in his ‘Potteries Think belt’ where superannuated rail stock was to be recycled as mobile kit for skilling and training – an echo and retake of the Open University system Price so admired.

The work of the Situationist International returned through the teachings of Tschumi, Nigel Coates and others and reacquainted the world of architecture with radical ideas that questioned architecture’s casual and sometimes diffident relationship with commerce. How could architects be free thinkers if they were merely a means of helping developers to make profits? ‘Constructed situations’, the ‘derive’ and the ‘detournement’ (turning something around), ‘programming’ and ‘cross-programming’ emerged as devices architects could use to invent new meanings for old structures and landscapes. Tschumi’s La Frenois film school in Tourconing, France, where an ensemble of old and new buildings is arranged below an over sailing roof, creating pockets of strange, roof-top space in which suspended walkways and galleries are arranged, presented architecture as a playful amalgam that disregards the supremacy of logical and rational decisions and opts instead for a layered way of thinking reflecting Sergei Eisenstein’s approach to film making where the ‘whole’ is seen as an amalgam of discrete and disjunctive methods, rather than a clear, blemish-free synthesis.

A certain disobedience emerged in design tendencies of the 1980’s which tapped into the vitality of the Punk movement, charted by Greil Marcus in his wonderful book, Lipstick Traces (1989). This may also have been buoyed along by the appearance of urban performance art in the 1960’s and 70’s which drew on the work of Guy Debord, Artaud, Dada and the 1950’s ‘happenings’ of Alan Kaprow. The design group Memphis are often mentioned as a product of this milieu but more radical actors were around such as Gunther Domenig and Coop Himmelblau in Vienna, Morphosis in LA and Daniel Libeskind in London and Berlin. For them architecture exceeded any sense of duty or commodity and looked instead to exploit the narrative structures so beloved of Tschumi and Nigel Coates.

In its most recent incarnation play is seen by some to be serious stuff. Pat Kane in his book, The Play Ethic (2005), suggests that the condition of play is creative and reflexive, and essential to the success of our ever-growing creative industries. Richard Florida talks of the office spaces of new SME’s in the USA as being less like offices and more like student pads. So well established is this trend now that the interiors of Advertising Agencies have almost become a parody; self consciously importing football machines, ping pong tables and curious statements into their work environments. But if relaxation of the usual codes is being pursued in the interior spaces of western cities, what of their public spaces? Where is the up-to-date equivalent of van Eyck’s work?

It might just be Kings Cross Central where it was discovered that of all elements of the emerging masterplan, locals felt most passionately that the triplet of gasholders removed to make way for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, should, as an icon for the neighbourhood, be reinstated close to its original location. This challenge was made the subject of an invited architectural competition which ultimately selected a housing proposal, arranged within the frames of the re-erected gasholders. But that was not the end of the story. A further competition ensued on the basis that some felt elements of the gasholder legacy should be public. Bell Phillips + Kimble winning entry suggests a playful landscape that is a cross between a pool, a garden and an amphitheatre for informal performances. It will sit on the margins of London’s newest public space, ‘Granary Square’, where on Bastille day this year, 14 July, Eurostar will present: “Traction – a one-day summer festival curated by the internationally renowned DJ Gilles Peterson in a unique festival bringing together music, dance and arts performers from across Europe.”

So long live play in the city – after all ….. all work and no play makes us rather dull!


Steve McAdam is a founder and director of Fluid and has led major urban regeneration projects in both the public and private sectors in London and across the UK. In 2003 he was appointed to the London Olympic masterplanning team by the London Development Agency to direct all aspects of stakeholder consultation, public sector engagement and responsive masterplanning. Prior to this he project-led the public consultation programme for Argent’s Kings Cross Central project, for which Fluid received a CABE award for innovation. Steve is a consultant to the Council of Europe, and a visiting lecturer at London Metropolitan University.



  • PLAY



~ by russellmoreton on July 16, 2012.

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