The play­grounds we live in

Catalina Pol­lak Wil­liamson is im­pressed by a look at how ur­ban set­tings have ne­go­ti­ated play, but finds that it leaves to­day’s land­scape un­ex­plored

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS -

City of Play: An Ar­chi­tec­tural and Ur­ban His­tory of Recre­ation and Leisure

By Ro­drigo Pérez de Arce Blooms­bury Aca­demic 296pp, £75.00 and £24.99 ISBN 9781350032170 and 2163 Pub­lished 31 May 2018

We have a com­mon in­stinct for what con­sti­tutes “play”, but how do we un­der­stand, an­a­lyse and clas­sify dif­fer­ent forms of play?

It is widely agreed that play de­fines a space apart and at the same time im­preg­nates ev­ery pri­mor­dial hu­man ac­tiv­ity, as the Dutch his­to­rian Jo­han Huizinga demon­strated in his cel­e­brated book, Homo Lu­dens: The Play El­e­ment in Cul­ture. Yet the draw­ing of a tax­on­omy of play and play spa­ces has proved dif­fi­cult, be­cause of play’s in­her­ently am­bigu­ous na­ture. This is the chal­lenge that Ro­drigo City Pérez de Arce takes up in of Play.

If play is con­sid­ered a “prime cul­tural en­gine”, he asks, why has so lit­tle at­ten­tion been paid to its “tan­gi­ble signs”? More par­tic­u­larly, “what kind of arte­facts does it en­gen­der? And how are the ur­ban con­tours of the play­ground de­fined?” Recog­nis­ing the strong in­ter­ac­tion be­tween play as ac­tion and ar­chi­tec­ture as its “sup­port”, City of Play con­sid­ers the im­pact of play on the 20th-cen­tury city. As Pérez de Arce shows, with the on­set of moder­nity – which brought with it an ex­panded leisure so­ci­ety and “spare time as a statu­tory right” – play made a more tan­gi­ble im­pres­sion on ur­ban set­tings than ever be­fore.

The au­thor is an aca­demic and a prac­tis­ing ar­chi­tect, and his book is writ­ten from an ar­chi­tec­tural per­spec­tive while us­ing a his­tor­i­cal frame­work. In read­ing play as an ar­chi­tec­tural pro­gramme, he draws on the dis­tinc­tion set out by the French so­ci­ol­o­gist Roger Cail­lois be­tween the con­cepts of paidia (which, in City of Play, is in­ex­pli­ca­bly ren­dered “paideia”) for spon­ta­neous play, and ludus for struc­tured games. This bi­nary logic be­comes the con­stant an­a­lyt­i­cal probe to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween forms of play.

The book is di­vided into two parts. “Fields” dis­cusses the phys­i­cal in­ter­faces and spa­tial ty­polo­gies that have ne­go­ti­ated the devel­op­ment of play in the city, while “Play­ers” analy­ses dif­fer­ent modes of play through the pre­sen­ta­tion of three par­tic­u­lar mod­ern play­ers: the ath­lete, the child and the cit­i­zen (the char­ac­ters that best de­scribe the 20th-cen­tury leisure so­ci­ety). Ludus dom­i­nates Pérez de Arce’s kalei­do­scopic land­scape, which ranges from mazes to hunt­ing grounds, race tracks to golf cour­ses and parks; from the pub­lic square as empty arena to the birth of the sta­dium and other sport fields; from post-war chil­dren’s play­grounds to the utopian prom­ise of free­dom of the Si­t­u­a­tion­ist City.

He also re­flects on the rel­e­vance of his project to “rein­vig­o­rat[ing] no­tions about the pub­lic sphere, while adding les­sons about its rich as­cen­dancy of forms, grounds, and oc­ca­sions”. In­deed, City of Play of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing view of how ur­ban set­tings have ne­go­ti­ated play, giv­ing birth to an ex­ten­sive reper­toire of spa­tial ty­polo­gies in re­sponse to par­tic­u­lar lu­dic agen­das.

How­ever, the ques­tion of play in to­day’s city is left en­tirely unan­swered. Given new dig­i­tal agen­das and strate­gies of place­mak­ing, one misses a per­spec­tive that would shed light on these con­tem­po­rary tac­tics of play. Per­haps we would find that paidia is as present as ludus in the 21st-cen­tury city.

Catalina Pol­lak Wil­liamson is an ar­chi­tect and ur­ban ac­tivist us­ing play to de­velop new forms of par­tic­i­pa­tory cit­i­zen­ship. She is a PhD can­di­date at The Bartlett Devel­op­ment Plan­ning Unit, UCL and teaches at the Univer­sity of East Lon­don.

Ur­ban games with the on­set of moder­nity, play made a more tan­gi­ble im­pres­sion on cities than ever be­fore

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