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THE ROLE OF PLAY IN THE ARCHITECTURAL IMAGINATION

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
Daniel Frost
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
The dissertation, as I see it, seeks to locate a theoretical understanding of play and its ontological implications in a dialogue that uses this notion to identify the architectural games of both Modernism and Post-Modernism.
The initial discussion considers the delight of language. Where Hans-Georg Gadamer, in 'Truth and Method', uses this as an analytical tool, taking linguistic science and practical usage as tha basis for investigation, Johann Huizinga, in 'Homo Ludens', submerges himself in the formation and accumulation of relevant words in different languages. Huizinga's interest is rooted in the social and cultural contexts, which are dictated by the various attitudes to play.
I attempt to reveal similarities between philosophical discourse and design theory, in particular, the 'method's and critical self-reflection of Alvar Aalto. In his essay entitled 'Experimental House, Muuratsalo' (from 'Sketches. Alvar Aalto' edited by Goran Schildt) Aalto suggests an approach that 'in the midst of our hard-working, calculating, utilitarian era, we must regard play as of decisive importance when we build communities for people - large children.' Here, Aalto acknowledges his friendship with the philosopher Yrjo Hirn, whose own theory of play coincides with Aalto's.
'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture', the post-modern catechism by Robert Venturi (an admirer of Aalto) fails to recognise the seriousness of play. His semiotic understanding of architecture as a system of signs, together with characteristics of contradiction in his buildings expose his instrumental and ultimately Mannerist conception of design play as merely a manipulation of classical orders. The arid nature of his sardonic irony treats architecture as a parlour game situated definitley indoors, disconnected fron childlike wonder at the world. His misunderstanding of play and specifically Aalto's use of play as a means to situate oneself in response to nature and culture reduces architecture to academic necrophilia.
Play allows utility to be celebrated. Within this, play includes empathy and decorum, by looking to the society it is serving. It is this awareness of people that appears to be lacking in the system of signs in which Venturi places so much importance. Indeed, there is no capacity for seeing the reciprocity, immanence and mutual interdependence of the ideal and mundane situations that make up our life, particularly the urban experience of which architecture can be seen as a record of the history of what Hannah Arendt calls 'The Human Condition'.

Daniel Frost


The dissertation by Dan Frost investigates the relationship of play to imagination. It begins with a discussion of the central place given to the play experience in twentieth century thought and attempts to situate ludic action as a means of being in the world. Specifically, as a mode of learning. Language games, imitation and rhythm are considered as examples of the temporality of play and it is shown that the ease and relaxation involved in play is a deeply serious and logical manner of engagement with reality. In essence, he claims, play time is an early form of artistic reverie. The dissertation then applies these theoretical considerations to the case of Aalto, whose own attitude towards creativity and his design method are compared and discussed in relation to his buildings. Interpretation is continued as a critical reflection upon the ontological importance of play. Play, it is claimed, is misunderstood as rules, in the seminal post-modern text, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Venturi's avowed love of Aalto's work is shown to reside beside an incomplete, if not wholly erroneous, conception of design play as Mannerist conceit. The case is made for a playful Modernism.

1999
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