According to Robert Parks, cities are "man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire". This definition may also go some way to illuminating a city's continued draw. In 2006, 50% of the world’s population lived in a city, however 68% of the population are projected to live in cities by 2050. In no small way, we all succumb to their bright lights. We hope to remake them, and in return, we hope that they will remake us.
If we are to remake, and be remade, we must ask ourselves what makes a city creative? Is it opulent bars and clubs posing as "literary salons" of the 20s, while charging a small fortune for some liquor and ice; is it through classification – labelling areas of a city as ‘creative’ for no reason other than its central location and abundance of overpriced shops and restaurants; or, is it something deeper, something harder won and, most dishearteningly, easily lost.
In Henri Lefevbre’s Right to the City, the author argues for the role of play and creativity in the face of work; positioning the place of play as belonging squarely in a city’s streets and public spaces where disorder, spectacle, and interaction abide . I would propose that we should begin to harness our streets and public spaces for the latent power that they hold, and would suggest that the way to do this is through play. By reclaiming play as a right for everyone, adults and children alike, we may begin to reclaim our cities.
My inspiration for this article began in 2019 on a trip to Solingen in Germany. On this trip, I found myself walking through its Brückenpark. As well as appreciating this park for its natural beauty, I was drawn in by one particular and unique feature – a trail of ten riddles, designed and conceived for the park in 2006 by the artist Ulrike Böhme . These riddles lie inscribed onto steel plates which are dotted and hidden around the park's expanse. They can be solved by stepping onto the metal plate and awaiting answer – told to you by a mysterious and disembodied voice. The act of stepping not only elicits a knowing nod and satisfied smile from the visitor, but also newfound knowledge of the location itself. Each panel contains not just a riddle, but also a story of connection to the area. They stand as an ode to time gone by, inviting thought, presence and, more than a little, intellectual challenge to current inhabitants.
This park, and the time I spent there with my friends and the playful challenges that it offered, have stayed with me for the four years that followed. Why this longstanding memory? The answer, I would contend, is play. Play that brings togetherness, slows, re-connects, and makes. Play that connects people to themselves, each other, and what is around them.
We can recognise numerous examples of play and its potential in a city’s fabric. It may exist in humorous incongruity, like a public living room found by a blustery pier , or it could be its wilful subversion of the mundane, whereby even the blandest objects become a game. In Marseilles, rubbish bins invite passers-by to "slam dunk" their drinks cans as they walk past . Drawing attention to local examples of engagement with the creative benefits of play, it would be impossible not to mention the Irish not-for-profit organisation, A Playful City, whose focus lies in creating ore playful, healthy, and inclusive public spaces. Their work has included musical benches, or Beat Seats, in Hanover Quay in 2019, colourful zig-zag seating areas in Spencer dock, and ‘playful streets’ in Dublin’s inner city. The resounding feature of their methods is the level of community consultation. For play space, if inserted into an area and a community without consultation on the needs and desires of that community, is not play at all – it is a form of coercion, to be creative in a singular, expected way.
Dublin City Council’s Everywhere, any day, you can play! is a document full of hope. It outlines Dublin’s intention to develop a citywide play infrastructure in order to ensure that streets, places, and things are interwoven into children and young people’s everyday lives. My challenge for the strategy is this – why is this just for children? The strategy defines play as "any behaviour, activity or process, initiated, controlled or structured by children themselves, that takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise". If the intention is to develop a citywide infrastructure of play, I believe it should have the intention of ensuring that play, and its numerous creative and sociological benefits, is accessible to everyone.
Technology has been harnessed to this end by London-based experience designers Pan Studios, who effectively co-opted its mediated engagement properties for more spontaneous ends. Their interactive 2013 initiative, Hello Lamp Post, invited a city’s walkers to engage in "conversation" with a city’s everyday objects and furniture, including lamp posts, post boxes, and parking metres. By texting a number with the objects’ unique codes, a user was "awoken" prompting questions and observations for the speaker to reply to – with future activations built into each reply. Hello Lamp Post debuted in Bristol and has since been seen in Austin, Texas, and Tokyo .
The answer, however, does not lie solely in technology. It lies in a willingness to think outside the box and to embrace the city as a space of potential for all. In the words of Jen Harvie, "everything means more than one thing – a nondescript doorway, invisible for some, is for others the gate to a magical garden, a place of work, worship or otherwise". For stronger communities, more creative cities, and happier citizens – let us play.
1. R. Parks, On Social Control and Collective Behavior, Chicago, 1967, cited in D. Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review, no. 53, 2008.
2. United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs [website], 2018 https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html (accessed 3rd March 2023).
3. H. Lefevbre, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, cited in J. Harvie, Theatre & the city, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 52.
4. U. Boehme ‘Müngsten riddle’ [website], 2006 http://ulrike-boehme.de/installationen/muengstener-raetsel/ (accessed 3rd March 2023).
5. E. Crabbe, ‘Pop-up living room coming to Brighton Palace Pier and Whitehawk’, The Argus, [online article], 2023, https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/23334069.pop-up-living-room-coming-brighton-palace-pier-whitehawk/ (accessed 4th March 2023)
6. Playground [website], 2011, https://www.the-wabsite.com/works/playground (accessed 3rd March 2023)
7. ‘Hello Lamp Post’, Playable City [website], 2013, https://www.playablecity.com/projects/hello-lamp-post/ (accessed 3rd March 2023).
8. A Playful City [website], https://www.aplayfulcity.com/ (accessed 3rd March 2023).
9. Dublin City Council, ‘Everywhere, Any Day, You Can Play!’ Dublin City Play Strategy 2022-2027, 2022, https://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/2022-10/Play%20Strategy%202022.pdf (accessed 2nd March 2023).
10. J. Harvie, Theatre & the city, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. xii.
Prior to entering the West Bank, one cannot ignore the large red warning signs indicating that entrance by Israelis is dangerous and forbidden. Passing through the checkpoints, barrels of machine guns are pointed directly at passing buses, ready to fire at any unexpected occurrence. Multiple soldiers in their 20s hover around the gated barriers and concrete pods, scrutinising the documentation of the people passing through.
Growing up singing Christmas carols, I became familiar with Bethlehem, only to realise that it is not just a mystical place existing solely in religious stories but a real city. The people living here are subject to a dystopian reality, living under brutal occupation. They are observed by snipers, hindered by military checkpoints restricting their movement, and surrounded by the constant sounds of gunshots, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear. Facial recognition cameras subject them to discrimination, while AI-controlled machine guns ensure pinpoint accuracy if fired upon .
In August 2023, I arrived in Bethlehem, West Bank, to participate in an international camp at the Lagee Centre in Aida Refugee Camp. Aida is surrounded by a nine-metre-tall wall made of precast panels that encircle and spatially confine the community. Under the vigilant gaze of the Israeli military, watchtowers punctuate at irregular intervals along the wall of occupation and control, overseeing the 6,000 refugees, displaced since the Al Nabka (the catastrophe) of 1948. Ask any child in Aida about their origin, and they will instantly name their grandparents' townlands, showing keys that no longer unlock any door. Following the initial tents of the 1950s, their grandparents were given a 7m² plot of land on which they built their home. As families expanded, each generation added a new floor. Reinforced steel bars pierce the rooftops, inviting the next generation to build upon them, resulting in a densely populated 0.5km².
Even in the Palestinians' places of refuge, the Israeli military dictates harsh living conditions. Aida is often used for military training exercises, and under the cover of darkness, they forcibly enter Palestinian homes, arresting and abducting blindfolded youths for interrogation . From a distance, tear gas canisters are fired into the camp, and remnants litter the streets, playgrounds, and soccer pitches of Aida. The lingering toxic fumes persist for days, ruining clothes and exacerbating respiratory illnesses. Artists repurpose discarded metal into jewellery for tourists, who can narrate stories of visiting the most tear-gassed place in the world. Here, Palestinians are subject to the overpowering presence of the Israeli military occupation which oversees every aspect of their daily life.
What remains of the West Bank is further gobbled up and reshaped by illegal Israeli settlements, continuously expanding and threatening existing Palestinian communities in contravention of the Oslo Accords. These settlements are connected by segregationist roads inaccessible to Palestinians, further isolating them and marking them as ‘other’ in the mindset of occupation. Thousand-year-old olive trees are uprooted and placed near Israeli settlements to create an appearance of historical continuity. Contrary to the spacious Israeli settlements, with hundreds of flags fluttering, Palestinian housing is densely packed, with water towers on roofs – another signifier of a population controlled by others. Water infrastructure is regulated by Israeli forces, unpredictable, and necessitating storage for a consistent supply.
Hundreds of checkpoints permeate the West Bank, and sudden roadblocks imposed by the Israeli military paralyze movement at will. This military occupation distorts distances, compelling people to wait at road gates, borders, and checkpoints for permissions to be granted. Soldiers interrogate Palestinians about their origins while they themselves stand on confiscated, occupied land. Complex routes circumnavigate Jewish settlements and Jerusalem’s suburbs, elongating journeys unnecessarily and confusing the region's geography. Palestinians cannot guarantee arrival times, as these are subject to the soldiers' mood at checkpoints, and disturbances in northern cities such as Jenin can affect movement in the south. Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third most-holy site, is a mere 7km from Aida Refugee Camp, yet accessing it without an unattainable permit brands one a criminal. Along routes between various West Bank cities, Israeli settlers operate diggers and bulldozers, disfiguring the landscape Palestinians once carefully tended to.
Restrictive planning laws deny Palestinians the right to construct on their own land, gradually forcing them out of their communities. This became evident in Beit Eskaria, a village between Bethlehem and Hebron, where settlements strategically perch on hilltops, ominously overseeing Beit Eskaria below. In Israel, Arabic is no longer the official language  and navigating the legal system without Hebrew exacerbates the complexities of the exclusionary planning laws. In Beit Eskaria, Israel demolished thirty-five new homes and a mosque with no warning, making it difficult for the community to sustain itself for future generations. All that remains are the remnants of the former building projects, serving as a gentle reminder that unlawful construction is a futile endeavour.
Cities like Jenin and Nablus defy military rule, and this results in every wall being adorned with countless images of male martyrs. In Jenin, roads have been purposefully destroyed by the Israeli Military, disrupting infrastructure, extending the time taken to undertake everyday activities whilst strategically impeding ambulances from reaching injured victims. A new cemetery, established on a recently flattened vast wasteland, has soil that is speckled with coloured rubbish and glass. Family members and friends sit beside fresh mounds, grieving for the young lives lost. Parents spoke of receiving the exam results of their murdered teenagers on the day of their funeral.
Returning to Israel (referred to by Palestinians as ’48), from Bethlehem, necessitates passing through ‘Checkpoint 300’. Depending on the time of day, the line may be dense with Palestinians holding permits to work in Israel. Once again, the Israeli military subjects them to waiting in spaces resembling farmyard milking stalls, tightly packed, scrutinizing their identity cards at a sluggish pace, and degrading them at every possible opportunity. Before the turnstiles, signs in Arabic are mounted on the walls, emphasising that the checkpoint was built for them, and it was their responsibility to maintain its cleanliness. Emerging on the other side, an advertisement announces that the metropolitan city of Tel Aviv is just a short one-hour distance away. Passing through, I mounted the bus to Jerusalem only to be hit with a wave of emotion. I felt as though what I stepped out of is a life under brutal occupation and it so far removed from the free reality we live in. For the people of Aida, it is the only reality that perhaps they will only ever know. I had the choice to leave.
At the airports departure gates, the questioning fluctuated between the serious and the absurd, asking had you visited Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, and Hebron in the West Bank, knowing that a slip of the tongue would deny a chance of ever returning. The Israelis are the masters of the house and for now they determine everything.
Navigating through the West Bank, the omnipresence of military checkpoints and the daily challenges faced by Palestinians under occupation are laid bare. This article offers an intimate exploration of the physical and psychological landscapes shaped by decades of conflict, inviting readers to witness a world where freedom of movement is a luxury and the echoes of history resonate in every street.Read
I would like to explore the potential synergy between architecture and theatre by drawing on two examples of experimental practice which highlight their effective combination. The Parliament of the Species (POS), a performative event in Norway, and the second, Home Sweet Home, an immersive installation which has toured four continents over a period of sixteen years.
The Parliament of the Species
The Parliament of the Species (POS), a multi-species place making event, used the theatrical technique of role play and applied it directly to the realm of urban planning. Fjord City, one of the largest and most ambitious waterfront developments in Norway’s history is described by Oslo’s government as aiming to "create attractive common areas and good vibrant urban spaces that are inclusive and accessible to the urban public"  yet at the same time, through concrete dominated landscapes and landfill operations, the natural habitat of marine organisms is threatened with destruction by the construction of the scheme . The creators of the project, two artist scholars – Cecilie Sachs Olsen and Elin T. Sørensen – wished to challenge the development’s stated commitment to sustainability by experimenting with a more authentic engagement with the "non-human" stakeholders of the site. The result was a multi-species "parliament event" which included a group of fifteen to twenty participants representative of different ages and backgrounds, thus deliberately broadening the vary narrow definition of "expert" often used in urban planning contexts .
To facilitate expression of the non-human voices, the participants were split into three groups and asked to find multi-species "stakeholders" of the site. These inhabitants included: the swan family, the common periwinkle, the acorn barnacle, the grey alder, and the bedrock. Once each group’s stakeholder was identified they were asked to "get to know it better" including identifying its concerns and requirements for the site in question . A democratic council session ensued in which the human participants gathered and acted as spokespeople for the multi-species stakeholders.
The theatrical tool of role-play worked to highlight the plurality of stories that exist in any one place and urban planning context. It effectively recast the dominant story of Kongshavn from a wasted or "empty industrial site", to a site beloved and inhabited by a multitude of species who use it as a "refuge" and a "shelter" protected from humans .
POS was positioned by Sachs Olsen and Sørensen as an "experiment" into the potential for this kind of work, using theatre as a forum to listen and account for the multitude of narratives present in planning contexts . In this case, a very specific form of role-play helped to initiate and form connections and insights hitherto impossible to reach by a practice working in isolation.
Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home by artists Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe is described as a durational, live-art experience that is spectator-led. In its essence, it is a "miniature flat-packed cardboard town"  which has life breathed into it as residents, in this case participants of the project, step into and engage with the installation. At the beginning of each installation, a large white canvas is set up featuring the bare necessities of the town or area it is being held in. These will include the pre-marked boundaries of the town, key geographical features and infrastructure like unmarked roads, streets and, importantly, the plots for future residents. This decision allows audiences space to "reimagine their city, to really have fun with what they think it needs or could be" .
As the cardboard town expands with more and more dwellings, neighbourly interaction begins to take place and citizens are encouraged to communicate and to take advantage of the services available which include a postal service, a local radio station (Residents FM), the community noticeboard, and the local council. It is through these conceits, facilitating interaction, that the life of the piece "really begins, the stories really begin to grow" .
Home Sweet Home’s relationship to the built environment is recognised by those in the profession: "architects see it as a model for an exchange of ideas between citizens and designers" . Its connection to architecture is found not just in its ability to act as a conduit of ideas but also its ability to include and facilitate place-making for people who are "often excluded or oppressed from the architectural project" .
The project’s flat-packed cardboard dwellings are also uncannily reminiscent of the scale models used in architectural planning. Urbanist and critic Jane Jacobs famously felt that these scale models worked to conceal the necessary messiness of urban life and the "complex social intricacies that make the city work" . Perhaps the brilliance of Home Sweet Home is its ability to replicate these ‘social intricacies’ through immersive theatre and interaction, while still maintaining the nostalgic vision offered by the scale model.
I would contend that through Home Sweet Home’s unique aesthetic and its invitation to imagine and to create, it has the capacity to interrupt the seemingly "fixed geographies of scale" of which we find ourselves a part .
Locating an urban future that works for us all, human and non-human will require interdisciplinary work. Ideas and practices are not rival entities, but tools to be harnessed and reinforced with one another. I believe that this collective energy and imagination can be translated into better urban planning in the future through the performative and transformative elements of theatre. At the heart of this is a call to action: to play, design, disrupt and imagine, combining the world of the stage with our city stage. For social and spatial justice let us apply theatre to the city.
The connection between theatre and architecture may, at first glance, appear tenuous. Theatre operates in the fantastical, the fictitious, and the playful whereas architects tend to concern themselves with the tangible, the spatial, and the concrete. This article suggests that their connection is more important than initially meets the eye, but what can the world and narrative building practices of theatre offer to built environment practices and, crucially, could this enable possibilities for participation and imagination?Read
Too many builders gaze into the future and want to put a heliport on the roof, or perhaps build the guest room out of some edible material … but that sort of thing is too science-fictiony. We have to be practical .
If the novum  is the necessary condition of science-fiction, the validation of the novelty by scientifically methodical cognition into which the reader is inexorably led is the sufficient condition for SF. Though such cognition obviously cannot, in a work of verbal fiction, be empirically tested either in vitro or in vivo - in the laboratory or by observation in nature — it can be methodically developed both against the background of a body of already existing cognitions and as a "mental experiment” .
Envisioning future landscapes based on scientific or technological advances, and major social or environmental changes has an anchored place in the practice of both the architect and the science-fictioneer. Given the parallels in the privacy of their devotions – each occupied with a degree of prediction, invention, and resolution – mirroring neural network profiles have surely evolved amongst these design, (r)evolution and systems-orientated fields of thought.
A certain romance between the two disciplines has unfolded for over a century at their common meeting place: the cinema. Once science-fiction met the medium of motion picture, the (de)construction and translocation of the traditional set began, enabling a mass engagement with, and critique of, spatial and societal what-ifs. When the briefs of the architect and the director are overlaid, constellations of corresponding points emerge as often as polarities. For example, the director/audience and architect/client relationships (both critical driving forces of any project) have moments of convergence and divergence when compared with one another. Where the director may pitch pro-actively to entertain/meet the desires of an imagined, transient audience with a strategy to distribute the work to a population, the architect may operate reactively to the needs of a specific client, with a strategy, in many cases, to attract a population to the work. Both practices excel at, and are excitable by, agitation of the brief – the offerings of adroit out-of-the-box thinking, often prevalent with designers who maintain research and experimentation with existing techniques and emerging technologies.
The works of magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès were famously disruptive in this regard, leading him to create the transcendent set of Le Voyage Dans la Lune (or The Trip to the Moon) in 1902. His 400th short, this sci-fi pioneer followed a decade in theatre and roughly six years of experimentation with illusion, scale, perspective, material, technological resourcefulness, etc. Pioneering/popularising the use of the Schufftan Process, Metropolis – considered the first sci-fi feature and a staple architectural reference – made its bold arrival in January 1927. Interestingly, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in October of this year, indicating that, following Metropolis, all major sci-fi features adapting a silent or minimalist approach to dialogue did so by design. This was notably intentional in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey (1968), which features no dialogue in the first twenty-five and last twenty-three minutes of the film. 1958’s Vertigo piloted the use of CGI, as well as the composition of live-action film with CGI, and by the late twentieth century, screen adaptations of sci-fi scripts and texts were no longer restricted to theatrical sets and illusionary devices.
While Ridley Scott refrained from the application of digital effects in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – by some ratio of ambition and trepidation – a chain reaction of feature films followed which demonstrated the possibilities of storyboarding in the digital space. This method was well-tempered by the millennium and films such as The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), and Inception (2010) used CGI to depict cerebral landscapes and scenes, a possibility which neuro-imaging may already be on the cusp of today. The calibration of scales of known existence was famously captured in Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977. This nine-minute journey from the cosmic to the subatomic scale remains uncategorisable, transcending its scientific, environmental, and educational functions to become a work of timeless universality. The central, yet subtle story of the sleeping picnicker is laced into an otherwise data-driven presentation, igniting the profound perspective the film is so well-associated with. Six minutes into the film, within its unique parallactic structure, the narration creates a chokehold of architectural appreciation: “a million lightyears out, as we approach the limit of our vision, we pause to start back home. This lonely scene, the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal: the richness of our own neighbourhood is the exception”.
The influential imaginings of architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, which would inevitably inspire cinematographic landscapes, were referenced in Peter Greenaway's film The Belly of an Architect (1987) and more recently modelled (using 3ds Max) for the short film, Lux in Tenebris (2019), by experimental Berlin-based practice BBB3. Brian Eno’s 1989 Imaginary Landscapes draws on New York’s urban density ‘world-building’ with sound as material. Closer to home, Cork-based poetry filmmaker Colm Scully frames fractal landscapes found in his kitchen to achieve an ambiguity of aerial scales in Philips’ Modern Atlas of the World (2017).
There is no doubt that the accessibility and wide reach of film equips the medium with an influential power – one vastly accelerated by the effective combination of information and poetics. Many modern architectural practices, obeying the profession’s role to be responsive and adaptive, often utilise film as a medium to engage. On multidisciplinary practices, architect, author and educator, James Tait argues that it "is not actually a decentring of the profession but instead the decoupling of it from its output. A separation of architecture from its reason for being – the building" . Despite being a well-established school of thought, this deviation from traditional practice still carries stigma within the profession, as noted by Holly Lewis, co-founder of London-based architecture and urban design studio We Made That: “The dexterous, multi-faceted skills that architectural training bestows can be a great asset in so many fields, and there is so much work to be done. Rather than stand in judgement of our fellow professionals, let’s celebrate the diversity that our eclectic and wide-ranging educations have successfully prepared us for” .
The architect’s potential to communicate through film remains in its youth when compared to the influence film has had on the perception of architecture, and what an architect does. The architect’s self-representation in this field is further dwarfed when television programmes are included, as well as the eclipsing consumption of content through streaming platforms, video apps, etc. Until now, these collective contents may fall under three broad production styles: the epics, the ‘glossy’, and the documentary. Though the latter injects research and reality between the dichotomy of ‘the epics’ and ‘the glossy’, it is questionable whether the architectural documentary remains a niche interest, and whether it brings enough balance to the representation of architecture on screen.
It can be argued that this representation is within the capacity of architects themselves, given both their existing skillset to communicate visually, to coordinate teams and timelines, to direct and design, etc. This is not to strictly suggest a hybrid office. BBB3 and Scullys’ shorts demonstrate that creatively high-yielding, micro-productions have never been as attainable as they are today. The use of film and video in practice may be an under-utilised medium well within reach of the architect, and its possible applications have the potential to accelerate progress in the field. In education, for example, the sporadic site visit could be contextualised by a library of local ‘construction shorts’. Audio/visual portfolios may become a tool for the process of hiring and determining optimum professional compatibilities. The ‘project pitch’ video, seductive and utopic by nature, could more often speak openly to communities and the public stakeholders, allowing for ruminations on inventive concepts and responses in urban development. After all, critical solutions may well lie with the radical architect, drawing in a territory akin to that of the sci-fi novum.
In this article, Michelle Delea discusses the representational possibilities of digital visual media within architectural practice through a deep exploration of film and the intersection of radical ways of making new forms of architecture.Read
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