Designing Playful Cities

“People tend to forget that play is serious.” This quote is one of several printed in large block letters for the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) exhibition Designing Playful Cities. The quotation comes from an essay written by David Hockney in 1993 and addresses the death of his father. That part of the essay, titled “The Pleasures of Art,” is widely quoted as a summation of Hockney’s artistic philosophy: play is not a flourish but is somehow essential, a critical component in creative production and, perhaps, in living. Not so widely quoted is the first part of the piece, “Death’s Adventure,” in which Hockney remembers the day his father died; the AIDS-related passing of the artist’s friend Joe MacDonald; and many other deaths, of loved ones young and old. Hockney’s ruminations on “play” thus come from a place of grief and of appreciation for the ways in which humor can bring both light and depth to life’s darkest places. For Hockney, incorporating play into a daily practice is “serious” because, without it, adversity consumes and movement forward becomes impossible.

Two pairs of hands stick out of a bunch of pink and orange pool noodles

Les Astronautes, Delirious Frites, installation view [photo: Robin Dupuis; courtesy of Museum of Design Atlanta]

Decontextualized as it is in Designing Playful Cities, however, Hockney’s observation is stripped of its practical intensity. Instead it begins a process of semantic saturation, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a word is repeated so many times that it temporarily loses meaning. At MODA—and perhaps, in any review of its exhibition—such saturation is achieved within the first few paragraphs of the introductory wall text. There, the word “play” is used 14 times, in clichéd maxims such as “play is the best teacher,” in didactic statements such as “play is a key part of the creative process,” and in combinations of the two: “children who are all work and no play aren’t just dull. They’re also underdeveloped”—a statement that is never revisited. “Play” is not strictly defined in the exhibition materials, in fact. Perhaps viewers are supposed to instead feel its meaning, as they shuffle through design collective Les Astronautes’ Delirious Frites, a bright orange and magenta foam noodle hallway that leads to the rest of the exhibition. Supplementary materials showing the work in action in other public spaces encourage visitors to interact with the noodles, stand among them, and/or whack them before moving on.

After Delirious Frites viewers may continue to frolic among Thomas Heatherwick Studio’s plastic spinning top-chairs and The Urban Conga’s Kit of Imagination, a set of fluted polypropylene pieces intended to be used to build, in the manner of LEGOs or Lincoln Logs. Apart from these three interactive installations, Designing Playful Cities takes place mainly on MODA’s walls, where still images and videos of entertaining urban design initiatives from various cities appear alongside explicative texts, all colorfully presented. Projects covered include BASE Landscape Architecture’s Belleville Playground in Paris, where children play on an amped-up playground of medieval fortresses and pirate ships. Also presented are NEXT Architects’ Lucky Knot Bridge—which is in fact three bridges woven into one bright red twist inspired by traditional knot art in Changsha, China—and some alternatives to “taking the stairs.” One is an installation of slides in the Netherlands, another a stairwell in a Swedish subway station paved with giant piano keys that enable commuters to make music with their feet. (According to the wall text, “66% more people than usual used the stairs!” thanks to the musical installation.)

A darker side emerges amid the cheerfulness of Designing Playful Cities in the form of Fletcher Studio’s REPLAY Atlanta, an “adventure playground” designed to teach children about reusability and sustainability. The project never materialized, as caption—“Proposed in 2010. Never realized”—confirms. Architecture- savvy viewers will be familiar with the exhibition of unrealized proposals, but the fact that this particular project was designed for, but never executed in, MODA’s hometown seems to target the dissatisfied Atlanta urbanist, whether she is to rue the plan or be inspired by its possibilities. This aspect of the exhibition is one of several that call to mind the cinematic cliché of the empty playground or “trauma swing,” symbolic of past abuses, young lives cut short, or nostalgia for dashed dreams. (We are, in other words, reminded about what Atlanta dreams of: a pedestrian life less harrowing, more green, and certainly more fun than our current reality.)

Short video clips demonstrating the functionality of interactive designs make for the most effective presentations, whereas still images at times fall short of impact. One project presented this way is ActiWait, a game console by German design firm Urban Invention that attaches to pedestrian traffic lights. As people wait to cross the street, they can play virtual Ping Pong with fellow travelers on the other side of the street— transforming a solitary, everyday act into a connective social experience. Shadowing is the name of another street enhancement on view, created by UK design group Chomko & Rosier. The product enables streetlamps to record the shadows of passing pedestrians, then play those shadows back for whoever may pass by moments later. The result gives the appearance of a ghost walking by—an unseen being perceived only by virtue of its shadow. In the context of England’s notoriously widespread use of CCTV in public streets, this surveillance technology makes for another creepy pause in Designing Playful Cities, but the accompanying video posits Shadowing as entertainment for a more pleasing walk home. (One wonders, for example, if such materials might be used to indict jaywalkers.) The potential negative or problematic implications of such designs seem outside the scope of the exhibition. Again, an Atlantan might feel directly targeted here, the object of a desire on the part of the organizers to use the promise of fun to motivate audiences to advocate for the integration of design into their communities. It’s a fine agenda, yet if play—like the urban plan—is serious, shouldn’t the projects in Designing Playful Cities be addressed seriously, too?

On a surface level, it’s fun to imagine these design achievements in your own city, and there’s something to be said for enjoying small moments of surprise and joy that come with clever, interactive design. However, in its focus on entertainment and the finished product, the exhibition fails to show how and why play is crucial for the creative process, child development, economic and social progress, or the overall health and happiness of a city’s inhabitants—or how the impact of playful design has and can be measured. If we’re going to suggest that the wounds of infrastructure or inequity might be soothed by the replacement of park benches with hammocks, for example, then it is important that this notion be argued rigorously and supported by data. Atlanta is facing massive displacement thanks to increased population, income disparity, lack of affordable housing, and (in many views) neglect on the part of urban development programs. Our highways are more congested every day, and public transportation is not sufficiently developed to pick up the slack. If Designing Playful Cities successfully provides options for bringing a sense of joy into everyday life, it does so without addressing such major issues, which in turn haunt the playgrounds on view at MODA, unprocessed. Of course, the tremendous challenge presented by such an exhibition is how to approach play seriously, but without raining on everyone’s parade—or how to unleash a viewer’s inner child without treating her like one. MODA’s consistent engagement in local public discourse, through hosting panel discussions and similar forums, offers promising opportunities to bridge the gap.