arch-peace editorials

29 August 2010

Play Time

This editorial takes a cue from the recent editorial on design play, and Superstudio – a 24 hour design competition involving the participation of most Australasian architecture schools.(i) Working as one of Architects for Peace's tutors at the Melbourne University venue last week, I was intrigued by what the students came up with. The theme for the competition was:

In individual groups, students are to enliven and activate their ‘found’ Place X (an invisible space/ series of spaces) through the idea and functions of play to appeal to a chosen demographic/s.

Play was defined in the brief as, “a voluntary activity, never a physical necessity or a moral duty. It is not only a matter of leisure and free time, it is freedom" (Leisure theory and Practice).

As clues as to what this might mean, students were given a sound recording and an excerpt from George Orwell's “1984” emphasising the difference between ownlife, (a man talking time out to wander randomly on his own) and organised play (sport and games). The site was to be an 'invisible space' – which I took to mean a space that is visible but unnoticed – an interstitial space. This space was to be located in another transitional space – the blurred line between city and suburb – a space of transit.

The subtext was that we need ownlife play and we're not getting enough of it in the city. It was surprising to see how the students were defining play in their quickly developing schemes. Traits and features included varied widely:

game spaces, motion sensors, cute spaces, systems for encouraging communication between strangers, lookout platforms, spaces for drivers to make cups of teas, dance events, art installations, spaces for yoga, pedestrian bridges.

Superstudio Presentation [1]

The work often tried to address the numb detachedness of the commuting experience, to bring relief to train travellers from their awkward glances and stances, and to relieve cyclists and pedestrians from expanses of dark grey asphalt. Motorists were forgotten – presumably they have their own cocooned space. Not too many of the groups convinced me that they had pinned down the sense of play that they wanted Place X to address. Or if they had, they were finding it difficult to convert play into place. Play is an umbrella word that contains within it many sub-types that don't necessarily agree.

Different types of play can be located on many spectrums:
solitary --- social
organised –-- unstructured
goal-oriented --- aimless
engaged --- detached
participatory --- spectatorial
free --- paid
health-oriented --- self-abusive
inside --- outside
thinking --- unthinking
mono-sensory --- multi-sensory
safe --- dangerous

The list goes on. No wonder the students were having a tough time. I thought I would have a closer look at play, of the ownlife variety.

Traditionally, city dwellers play in parks separated from the built city. People can meander, do nothing in particular, play chess, kick balls, look at flowers, and play with possums. But parks stand relatively idle on week days. For the time-poor and high-stressed, a trip to the park is a bit of a luxury. On a typical week day, play options have to fit into a lunch hour and may narrow down to a trot around the block looking into shops while talking on the phone, or a session on Facebook. If environs permit, people will vary how they spend this precious hour, taking different streets and looking into different shops. The retail industry in the CBD relies on these wanderings by people on the look out for something different, something challenging, something quick. The retail offerings are all that changes.

Many years ago when I used to have a lunch time, pre self-employment, I resisted the shops and played a game. I would exit the CBD office and turn left or right on a whim. From then on my walk was guided by whichever crossing signal happened to let me walk - I called it Following the Green Man. I was using traffic infrastructure for purposes for which it had not exactly been designed. The city grid had temporarily become a random generator for explorations and discoveries, rather than transit corridors and retail strips.

Each time he took a walk. He felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to the seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutory emptiness within.
Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)(ii)

Discreet solo meanderings are one play, pranks and actions are another. Popularised in recent times by Flashmob and Improv Everywhere, these brief takeovers of public spaces make for contextually surreal events.(iii) They are random interruptions to the normal flow of the city staged for the fun of it, and perhaps to prompt shocked or smiling passers-by to reconsider not just the space, but how they are conditioned to act in it in such a non-playful way. The effect is diminishing now as the mobs grow, the public becomes more knowing about them, and mobile phone companies get on board.

Flash Mob T-Mobile Liverpool Station 'Elderly Woman Enjoying the Change in Atmosphere' [3]

High in the towers of Melbourne's barren Docklands, corporate fitout architects are providing spaces for play.(iv) Taking a cue from the wacky child-like play spaces of Google and Facebook, and perhaps the “ambient” rooms in the old ANZ headquarters, workers now have options ranging from playing tiddly winks at a special table within what appears to be an Aspen millionaire's ski chalet (complete with fireplace and board games), to venturing into tackily themed spaces for relaxing or informal chats.

Hecker Phelan Guthrie 'The Gauge' [4]

These amusement park and toy town pods relieve stressed workers and may attract new ones – those who aren't patronised by the gimmicks. But they are also aiming to stimulate lateral and imaginative thinking in employees – there is the economic value in play's state of mind. Carl Jung on his return to play: “at any time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall I painted a picture or hewed stone. Each such experience proved to be a rite d'entrée for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it.” Last year John Cleese gave a lecture in Belgium defining a state of mind vital to creative work – and then he called it 'play'.(v) For Cleese, play must be bound by space and time, and it cannot happen on a laptop or in a distracting open-plan office.

Google Office's Bathtub [5]

Breakout Room, ANZ HQ, Melbourne Docklands [6]

If quiet spaces for individual creative play are valued by corporations, is there something from this that we are missing out on in the public realm?(vi) Not spaces to make us work more imaginatively, but spaces to help us live imaginatively? Not play for the boss, but for the self?

Forms of play are already catered for in the physical environment. Parks, sportsgrounds, gyms, squares, footpaths and in the private spaces of churches, pubs, theatres, bowling alleys, casinos, brothels, and shops. But most of this is active and social play occurs on private land - public spaces for Orwell's ownlife are thin on the ground.

As populations grow, public spaces are gradually encroached upon to the point that most public space in my neck of the woods is left over “inbetween” space. Not space for going to, but space for going through. On a half hour evening stroll through my local residential streets (there is nowhere else to stroll), I saw few others out for walk who weren't going to or from their car. I noticed one unlit pocket park consisting of a few trees and a seat facing playground equipment. I saw some boys playing basketball which I thought was great till I realised they'd had to scale a hurricane wire fence to gain access to the court. I saw some students sitting drinking in the middle of a roundabout. Surely it wouldn't be too hard to offer something more engaging?(vii)

The Situationists were keen to play in the '60s, and briefly created imaginary cities that might be flexible, changeable, and ever surprising to the nomadic citizen, who would respond creatively. These were not cities formed and shaped by capitalistic economic imperatives.(viii) One of the few graphic outcomes from the Situationists (they were deliberately not big on detail) was Constant Nieuwhuys' New Babylon.

Constant's 'New Babylon' [7]

In New Babylon, each person can at any moment, in any place, alter the ambiance by adjusting the sound volume, the brightness of the light, the olfactive ambiance or the temperature... One can also change the form of a space with new entrances, or by blocking the old ones; by adding or removing stairs, bridges, ladders, ramps, etc... Moreover, one has at hand a varied range of partitions of different materials, textures and colors; different too in their thermo-acoustic qualities. The stairs, bridges and pipes are themselves of varied construction and form. Through the combination of irregular, barely practicable surfaces, of smooth ramps, narrow passages, acute angles, etc., certain spaces become selective. This would be the case with those one gets to by a rope ladder or pole, and which will be the favorite places of children and young people. The marginal sectors, which perch on the side of a mountain or along the coastline and which are, given their situation, less frequented, will be the preferred choice of retired or sick people.(ix)

Film: Inception [8]

A blockbuster film is currently playing that includes an architect charged with designing dream cities. In Inception, an architecture student is tempted by the possibility of a commission allowing complete design control, she accepts and is able to shift city blocks as she walks through them. But for the rest of us dwelling within the laws of physics in 19th and 20th Century cities of transport and commerce, things have been fixed in concrete by past generations. We cannot bend streets on a whim. But new cities are being built, and existing ones roll outwards. New edge towns are shaped by developers, town planners, traffic planners, and retail planners. They are the new inventors. Sadly their collective dreams often lack in imagination and seem to be exempt from a critical approval process. Developers respond that they are building to the customers' demands, perpetuating a feedback loop that cuts out anything novel.

Toolern [9]

Melbourne's next new mega-suburb, Toolern, generated for as-yet-unknown people by experts in a few select fields, is a retail hub with a grid of arterial roads chopping it up. Footy and cricket are well catered for. People will have to walk their dogs around the ovals. A few pedestrian “greenways” drape the plan in inconvenient directions, and a skinny park follows the creek at the edge of town. Only land use plans exist at the moment – nothing suggests that there has been thought given to what this town might actually be, there is only an inventory of what it will contain.

What if... this new peripheral town of 60,000 had been designed from a different starting point? Rather than a top-down slice and dice with six lane fast roads and subdivision-ready land packages, start with a place centred on play for all ages. I can hear the snickering at the back of the room... but... to design for play could be to make a place that is fulfilling and varied, rather than generic and monotonous. It would privilege and encourage mentally and physically healthy activities.(x) It may be to consider pedestrian networks and spaces first rather than last; to steer clear of locating a shopping centre at the top of the only hill as they have done; to make sure green spaces are never further than 300m away;(xi) to introduce unexpected facilities along with the usual ones; to ensure that there will be spaces tall, thin, wide, short, light, and dark; to work with the topography and the sun; to consider all the senses; to rethink and surprise us all. To delight the future generations lucky enough to live and play there.

Given the rapid planet-wide urbanisation of the species, the design professions need to start offering some radical, provocative and newsworthy proposals for what constitutes a city and a suburb, not to mention the shopping centre and the project home.

Peter Johns
Architects for Peace, August 2010

Further Reading and Inspiration
Moving footpaths at the 1900 Paris Expo!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, Harper & Row 2002

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, Polity 2005

(i) Superstudio brief:
(ii) Paul Auster, City of Glass, Penguin 1987
(iii) Improv Everywhere freezing time at Grand Central Station:
(iv) Office coolness:
(v) John Cleese,, 2010 [video]
(vi) Some insight into how play can improve thinking: Peter Gray, Psychology Today 2008,
(vii) Rory Hyde writing on social engagement through design, 2009; Carsten Holler on the joy of slides;col1
(viii) Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle:
Situationist International:
(ix) Constant Nieuwenhuis' New Babylon
(x) Outer suburbs, lacking in green space and civic space, and with heavy car usage, contribute to poor health: Institute of Public Health in Ireland, 2006:
(xi) Beyond Blue, “Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being”: “It is recommended that people living in towns and cities should have an accessible natural green space of at least two hectares in size, located no more than 300 metres (or five minutes walking distance) from home.”

Picture References
[1] Peter Johns
[2] Flickr. Originally uploaded by Craig Jewell
[3] Screen capture of Youtube T-Mobile advertisement. Link:
[4] Credit: Bovis Lend Lease Head Office, Melbourne. Photo by Marcus Clinton. Link:
[6] HASSELL architects. Photographer: Earl Hunter. Link:
[7] Originally from Wigley, M. 'Constant's New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire', Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 1998. Link:
[8] Screen capture of Youtube trailer
[9] Plan extract, Toolern Precinct Structure Plan, Growth Areas Authority. LInk:


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