Homo Ludens: The Architecture of Play
To toy with something is to manipulate it,
to try it out within sets of contexts none of which is determinate.
~ Susan Stewart, On Longing
Before Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1869, his mother, Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, claimed she instinctively knew she would give birth to a great architect. She had decorated the nursery with images of famous buildings, a photograph of Chartres cathedral was located above the crib. Mrs. Wright encouraged baby Frank to play with newly invented kindergarten blocks. Friedrich Froebel had designed the hardwood blocks using the golden section; each related one to the other in a precise geometric harmony. Wright claimed these proportions worked their way into his hands alongside notions of cantilever and statics all before he went to school, writing in his autobiography, "The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: so form became feeling. These primary forms were the secrets of all effects . . . which ever got into the architecture of the world." Here a toy was used quite consciously as means to educate an architect from infancy.
The building block had been a staple of play long before Froebel's invention, but these rarely adhered to any geometrical program. Older block sets were more overtly architectural, containing elements that closely approximated architectural details: cornice, pediment, staircase, and so on. Froebel found these to be too limiting. The Froebel block was introduced to the first kindergartens in the early 19th century as one of so-called "Gifts." Similar blocks were also a component of Montessori education, which was, among others, championed by Pestalozzi, Piaget, and the Abbatts in Britain. Le Corbusier, too, was a fan of the Froebel block and attended one of the first kindergartens established in Switzerland. The most commercially successful 20th-century building block, the LEGO (Danish for "play well" and, in a roundabout way, Latin for "I study," or "I put together"), also came out of a wood block tradition. The Christiansen family of Billund began toy manufacturing in 1932. After their wooden toy factory burned to the ground, they took up plastic injection molding and created the Automatic Binding Brick. Like Froebel blocks, LEGOs are abstracted shapes calibrated in proportion (though not golden) and from early on LEGOs were intended for constructing scale buildings. Importantly, then, LEGOs continued the tradition begun by Froebel to resist the temptation to predetermine the completed (or correct) construction; instead, both systems offered a basic grammar of shapes and forms and encouraged the player to build, to dismantle, and to build again. Prescription was the presumed antagonist to instruction; the limits set out by the blocks themselves were sufficient to propel inventive construction.
This exhibition examines links between childhood play with building blocks and morphologies embraced by architectural pedagogy and professional practice. It explores the relationship between architecture, education, and play, as part of what Johan Huizinga called homo ludens, or "playing man." Play is simultaneously a serious undertaking with serious effects. Norman Brosterman convincingly argued in Inventing Kindergarten that early childhood education in the form of kindergarten — especially its use of toys such as building blocks — gave rise to some of the most conspicuous and influential architecture of modernity. When Brosterman asserts that "every four-year-old is an architect, some move on and others, architects, linger," the insinuation is not that architects are immature, but that they remain attuned to the habits, practices, values, and virtues of play.
So much of design curriculum is based on a studio culture, which presumes and reinforces education through play and experimentation. With its genesis in childhood, the shapes and materials of building blocks and their kin become a language of forms, a lexicon of ordering systems. In turn, these inform practices of duplication, repetition, re-interpretation. One ambition in this exhibit is to note the ways in which the origins of play are still discernible in mature professional projects. Another is aimed at stimulating (both playfully and seriously) such acts of noticing.
This exhibition is curated by David LaRocca, Cornell Visiting Scholar in the Department of English, and Associate Professor of Practice Mark Morris, director of exhibitions, and made possible with the support of the Cornell Council for the Arts.