An Exhibition Explores Architecture’s Playful Side

Architects at Play, on view at Brussels’ CIVA gallery catalogues playgrounds, huts, arks, games, and stage sets designed by some of the field’s greats.

Courtesy © Pierre Antoine

“Beneath the pavement, the beach!” The infamous phrase scrawled onto a Parisian wall during the 1968 uprising comes to mind as one enters Architects at Play at Brussels’ CIVA architecture gallery. The show, which finishes this week, surveys the role of imaginative world-building, games, and spaces of play through architectural history. It highlights projects which take a childlike or surrealist view of the world, like the psychogeographic drawings and maps of Constant Nieuwenhuys or Guy Debord which inspired that uprising. But it also begins in a sandpit. “At the opening there was sand everywhere,” explains Cédric Libert, one of the curators of the show and a director at CIVA.

Not just a way to keep visiting kids entertained, the sandpit also serves as an architectural model of Brazilian architects gru.a’s 2018 installation A praia e o tempo (The Beach and the Weather), which created a performance space simply by demarcating a section of Copacabana beach through the use of a simple steel frame. Yet more than this, the sandpit at CIVA prompts reflections on the malleable spatial quality of this basic play space, where many of us build our first architectural works; temporary and imaginary castles washed away by incoming tides. This blend of the kid-friendly, the historical architectural, and the sentimentally nostalgic continues throughout the show as it goes on to explore other archetypes and figures of imaginative spatial engagement.

A dividing play structure splits the central gallery into four sections—the labyrinth, the theater, construction and strategy games—and can be climbed, crawled through, or circumvented, depending on how fun you are. The meta-narrative of these sections follows four stages of a child’s early development: the labyrinth mirrors a child’s first disoriented experiences of motion itself; the theater reflects the toddler’s world filled with characters— some animate, others not—who exist solely to entertain her; construction games depend on a young child’s ability to make some spatial sense of the world; while strategy games require forward planning and the exertion of control.

Courtesy Filip Dujardin

It’s a neat metaphor, and one supported by an excellent array of projects from different periods. In the labyrinth section, OFFICE’s model for the forthcoming Swiss Radio and Television center in Lausanne sits alongside a lattice-like sculpture by Constant Nieuwenhuys and a drawing of a contorted staircase from OMA’s 1988 Eurodisney proposal. Each creates a suspended landscape through which the imagination can get lost. Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo is a highlight of the theater section, here represented by his 1980 childlike drawings and a body-height model that feels as though it might explode into a puppet-show at any moment. In the construction section, vintage LEGOs are displayed alongside their real-world counterpart: a prescient pre-fab building system for a Belgian construction company introduced in 1921. Similarly, strategy-oriented board games feature in the final section and are overlooked by Modernist plans for Belgian cities, an interesting juxtaposition that reinforces the notion of the planner as puppet-master, one who plays with urban spaces as though they were objects on a chess board.

Beyond this central space, smaller rooms dotted around the CIVA building explore specific typologies in more detail, one devoted to huts and arks, while another two focus on the playgrounds of Aldo van Eyck, Isamu Noguchi, Group Ludic, and more specific Belgian examples. An accompanying photomontage of playgrounds in Brazil—with designs by Roberto Burle Marx and Affonso Eduardo Reiddy—is, according to Libert, a popular spot with child critics, who tend to congregate before the images analyzing the play potential of the curved concrete structures. It’s notable that the CIVA staff has long been used to curating for children. Half of the center’s first floor is given over to children’s workshop and education spaces, a refreshing example of the role architecture institutions might play in civic life.

Also on this floor is a small terrace with a 1:1 scale model of an Aldo van Eyck 1960 design for the Amsterdam Orphanage, one of his greatest works. A simple circle on the ground, the design reveals something fundamental about the role of the architect: To delineate spaces where new worlds—both real and imagined—might envelop the characters—both old and young—that occupy them.

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