Architecture and Play
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
The day we got a new fridge was one of the most exciting for me, not for the use of the cold air it held inside, but for the box. My brothers and I took turns cutting holes from it, coloring on it, and folding it to fit our current creations. One day it was a boat, cruising the seas of the Indian Ocean, the next it was a tiny house holding only a bed and a small kitchen, and onto a lemonade stand. That box offered numerous experiences and let our imaginations run rampant.
In similar ways, architecture embodies play, especially through the ordering of materials creating an experience of expression which then can be transformed many times over.
Kindergartens across the United States have the belief that children must, “touch and observe for themselves in order to learn,” and employed the use of blocks, cards, and other sensory objects to spark curiosity and creativity. In this way, the focus was not placed on the designer or builder of these such toys but, “assigned to the viewer the role of key player.” Students engaged with the world through play, manipulating such objects to gain a new understanding of how things work. In the same way, Alexander Grahm Bell, the inventor of the telephone, made use of the tetrahedron in a, “flexible anonymous design,” resembling the kite and allowing for men and heavy objects to be lifted into the sky. He came up with this design after experimenting in an outdoor environment with shapes to determine which would be the strongest and most adaptable. His kites were so large to the point at which it looked as if they should not lift off the ground. However, due to the design, it was much lighter than it appeared and could lift heavy objects at great heights into the sky.
The tetrahedron remains as a playful figure, as the possibilities of this shape are still vast and unknown. However, this gave way to the space frame, of which Kenzo Tange made use in his many projects throughout the 1960s. His vast structures which boasted of heavy roofs were made possible by the framing as it took slender beams and positioned them in the same pattern to that of a tetrahedron. Since it was exposed it allowed for the public to experience and question the structure, similarly to a child discovering a new toy.
Adaptability and structure were the main concerns for the housing market after the Second World War and Buckminster Fuller toyed with several ideas of the weight of a structure. Eventually coming to a somewhat conclusion in the Dymaxion House, which boasted of a lightweight exterior membrane and an open interior that allowed for easy transport and personal modifications. Much as children create their own creations and try to come up with the best solution, Fuller took the problem of the housing crisis and external naturalistic factors and designed and redesigned a house that could meet the needs of post-war families and protect them from natural elements. Although it never came to realization, since Fuller continued to make modification during production, the project questioned the traditional house and gave reason for architects to play and modify what they know into something better.
The Eames wanted to play with light, color, and material to allow for a whimsical wonderland that would provide changing environments in which would inspire playful curiosity. In the last scene of the Mary Poppins movie, ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ plays out and viewers watch as children and their families embrace a windy day to fly their hand-made kites at the park. Synonymous with fun, kites, “convey the beauty and color, as well as the great sense of order, found in everyday acts of play,” which were the very elements Charles and Ray Eames wanted to embody for their home. They did so through colored windows which when the sun shone through the space made colorful images out on the floor. It also embodied the lightweight structure of a kite; the floor plan was mostly open, and the exterior of the house was built with lightweight materials or windows.
Similarly, to the Eames, Ant Farm made use of the ever-changing environment to create a housing structure that would reflect and allow for manipulation of billowing plastic to accommodate those changing needs. These inflatables questioned the standard of what a building was and gave a new perspective on form, all the while questioning the purpose of architecture by creating something that could not be represented through plan or section.
In the architectural world, play must be taken seriously as it facilitates new ways of thinking and curates problem solving. Through this, new design methods and strategies are revealed. This is seen in the way the kite gave way to the Eames house and the flying structures made by Bell, or how the tetrahedron shape led the movement for the space frame structures. Architecture will continue to move forward so long as architects are willing to be playful and allow for new insights to be exposed.
 Alexandra Lange, “Blocks” in The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018): 12
 Tamar Zinguer, “Introduction,” “4: The Toy, 1951, and House of Cards, 1952,” and “Conclusion,” in Architecture in Play: Intimations of Modernism in Architectural Toys (University of Virginia Press, 2015): 187
 Tamar Zinguer, “Introduction,” “4: The Toy, 1951, and House of Cards, 1952,” and “Conclusion,” in Architecture in Play: Intimations of Modernism in Architectural Toys: 161
 Tamar Zinguer, “Introduction,” “4: The Toy, 1951, and House of Cards, 1952,” and “Conclusion,” in Architecture in Play: Intimations of Modernism in Architectural Toys: 146