Do architects “play”? Can the aesthetic experience of architecture include “play”? At first reading, these questions may seem obscure and best left to philosophy but exploring potential answers uncovers critical issues about how contemporary architecture is conceived and experienced.
“Play” has many definitions. In a broad sense, it is to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Seattle University philosopher Dr. Paul Kidder cites the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer in his argument that the creative act of conceptualizing a building involves play, illustrated by “the issue of the nature of artistic meaning itself…which possesses an open and exploratory quality that can pull hardened and unimaginative conceptual thinking out of the ruts into which it habitually falls. This is the function of ‘play’ or ‘game.’” In other words, play is inherent in the creative process that leads to the “art” of architecture. Architecture can also engender a sense of play from the observer as “play is not the privileged possession of any style or period; it is present wherever there is success in artistic endeavor… (it does) what great art always does: challenge and inspire the imagination of an audience at a particular point in history.” For Kidder, both the architect and the observer get to “play.”
Linking the aesthetic experience of architecture to play is also central to Emily Hodges’s article, “Architecture and Embodied Free Play.” A graduate student in Brown University’s Department of Philosophy at the time it was written, she argues that “architecture makes possible a unique form of aesthetic experience, one involving what I will call…embodied free play.” Furthermore, “…when the embodied activities and design of a place harmonize, a fullness of free play is made possible and daily living can involve aesthetic experience.” She explains, “Architecture is what I call a crystallization of activities: a stable structure shaped by the currents of activity carried out within it, which in turn encourages relevant activities…In this way, architecture begins to create place.” Hodges characterizes these activities as “free play” that in turn generate an aesthetic experience; hence, “embodied free play.” The aesthetic experience of the inhabitant and observer varies only in the types of activities that occur. “It is the overall state of mind [italics are by Hodges] composed of the way that activities of the faculties subjectively interact…” Thus, the “aesthetic experience is not limited to contemplation, but is a state of mind that can be present in a multiplicity of activities.”
Yet, if architecture is rooted in practicality—a building exists in response to the need for a specific function or functions of inhabitation, in a particular place—can play still be part of making or experiencing architecture? Play is a special form of activity, defined “as a ‘significant form,’ as a social function,” Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural historian argues in his book, Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. It cannot be applied to the “plastic arts,” including architecture; the plastic arts are “bound to matter and the limitations of form inherent in it, is enough to forbid them absolutely free play…” The act of making a building is a “serious and responsible task”; therefore, “the processes of plastic art run completely outside the sphere of play…” “The architect, the sculptor, the painter, draughtsman, ceramist and decorative artist in general all fix a certain aesthetic impulse in matter by means of diligent and painstaking labour.” The work of architects, along with those creators of the other plastic arts, “has duration and is visible at any moment…The emotional effect or operation of their art is not…dependent on a special kind of performance by others or by the artists themselves. Once finished, their work, dumb and immobile, will produce its effect so long as there are eyes to behold it.” For Huizinga, a completed work of architecture is static; the experience of one observer is likely to be similar to that of another. Huizinga denies a role for play both as a creative process and as an aesthetic experience.
Two different viewpoints, then, about whether play and architecture co-exist. Kidder and Hodges argue that the act of making and experiencing architecture cannot be separated from play. Huizinga argues that these actions exclude any notion of play by their very nature.
The tension between these different notions is exacerbated when digital architecture is considered. Not discounting the validity of Huizinga’s ideas, much about architectural practice has of course changed since his book was first published in 1938, particularly with the incorporation of computers into the design process. In my 1992 Progressive Architecture article, Tools of the Stars, I wrote about how critical the use of CAD and 3D computer modeling software was to the recent projects of Wolf Prix, Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi.No longer just a drafting engine, computer-based technology allowed these prominent architects to push the boundaries of design in ways not otherwise possible. The sophistication of the software became a challenge. As Wolf Prix was quoted in the article, “We play at calculating the impossible joint…” For his firm’s seminal work at Parc de La Villette in Paris, Bernard Tschumi had begun exploring how a cube could be decomposed and deconstructed from an almost infinite number of sequences modeled after a computer process even before the advent of CAD. “When we were doing a series of drawings, we felt very early on that the logic that was within the system was such that it made complete sense to have it done through computers.” Almost as an end in itself, this use of computer software became a source of discovery—of “playing” with possibilities—subsequently utilized by early adapters such as Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote and the architect, Greg Lynn. “Digital Architecture” became the very broad term to describe a technological design process that starts with computer code.
Computer technology has enabled architects to play in ways never imagined before. Perhaps this is different only by degrees from “paper architecture”—the exploration of architectural constructs through more traditional means such as pencil, charcoal, pen or watercolors. This architect has direct, tactile control over their media. The architect who uses computer software as a tool works with a product “designed” by a third party distantly removed from conceptualizing architecture. Like sitting on a beach surrounded by an almost infinite number of grains of sand, an architect can get lost in the ones and the zeros. When this “playing” gets subsumed by the medium itself—bereft of the markers of site, program, function, form and history that Kidder, Hodges and Huizinga acknowledge in their own respective ways—where does this leave the aesthetic experience?
In memory of Herbert Muschamp, who suggested the topic of Architecture and Play in one of his Critical Writing classes, part of Parson’s School of Design MFA program in Architecture and Design Criticism that he founded and led.
 New Oxford Dictionary, s.v.”play,” Version 2.3.0 (284) Apple Inc.
 Ibid, p. 219.
 Ibid, p. 221.
 Ibid, p. 222.
 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing 2014. (New York: Roy Publishers, 1950), 166.
 Ibid, p. 166.
 Ibid, p. 166.
 Matthew Barhydt, “Tools of the Stars”, Progressive Architecture, November 1992, p, 110.