Design Ethos | On Playfulness
Updated: Feb 24
Since our beginnings as a studio, we have made sure to imbue our design ethos and identity with "playfulness." Playfulness has become a subject and a territory we have grown increasingly interested in. While this was initially a fairly intuitive stance based on past experiences in academia and practice, it has become clear that instilling our design process and projects with playfulness offers us incredibly fertile ground to sow and cultivate. We wanted to share some of the thoughts we've had so far along the way and demonstrate that any project can benefit from incorporating some of these ideas.
What is playfulness?
To many the term conjures up memories from childhood recess and the sound of carefree laughs at the playground, but how can we define it? Most dictionnaries define it as "the quality of being light-hearted or full of fun" (Oxford dict. 2023), and it certainly does contain that quality, but all in all we find it to be too brief and dismissive.
We think that Maria Lugones, in her paper "Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception", provides a definition that is more insightful and comprehensive : "Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight. So, positively, the playful attitude involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction of the ‘worlds’ we inhabit playfully. "
It is with this more comprehensive definition that we launch into why playfulness is relevant to design and architecture today.
Why is playfulness relevant to design research and architecture today?
In the larger historical and cultural context, the end of the 20th century paved the way for the 21st century's seismic changes- we have witnessed over the last decades an unprecedented rapid urbanization at a global scale and are cultural and social changes relating to how we live and in interact with each other both in the physical and digital reality. Zimmerman explains that "the 20th Century was the Century of Information", static and slow to move- almost predictable, while "the 21st century [is the] Ludic Century" or the "Age of Play" is one that is in constant flux- like games, there needs to be the
In our more immediate context, Miami and South Florida, where we live and practice- the city's identity has been encoded with playfulness since its inception. So to be playful is to be contextual and partake in this architectural quest and exploration of playfulness. A.J. Marcus describes in his recent book "The Architecture of Whimsy" how playfulness is all around us in South Florida. Many local studios have captured this spirit over the last century.
What are different kinds of playfulness we have identified in architecture?
Architecture can be used to express and immerse one self in playfulness, both in the design process and in its builtform. The following are a series of categories we've identified:
1_Non-Deterministic, Iterative Design Process:
The public imagination appears to be captivated by Hollywood's glamorized depiction of the succesful architect, an individual so brillian that with just an initial "napkin sketch" is able to resolve a project without asking questions as if graced by a higher being. Architects, however, are ordinary people and do not have a direct line of contact with a creative muse, instead they engage in a process that combines the diligence of scientific inquiry and the liveliness of a storyteller. Design isn't a linear process and succesful projects, and succesful architects for that matter, result not from an architect's imposition of what they envision or what is currently in vogue, but from gathering and ranking the needs and wants, distilling their essence, and chiseling away what is unfeasible and impractical, and harnessing the power that is making of space and place with the resources at hand.
2_Interactive Design Process: Architects and designers need to provide tools and ways of engaging with the client and stakeholders. Providing finalized drawings and hyperrealistic renderings leaves no room for engagement and the project. We believe the process and the outcome are richer if there are moments along the way fo. These moments are and for this intruments.
Clients often remark that the physical models, illustrations and 3D visualization we produce are "fun", that they are like "toys or games", and there is a lot of truth to their statements. In fact, we take it as a compliment when an adult requests enthusiastically if they can keep that chunk of plastic or that colorful concept drawing once the meeting is over. It means that we did our job in engaging them and creating an interactive process.
3_Visually Engaging: Pop Culture prioritizes the visual. The deluge of imagery is constant and it appears that every square inch of space is competing for our attention. Buildings, particularly in urban centers, aspire to be "iconic" and while playfulness does delve into the identity and representation of spaces and places, it doesn't merely aspire to be "eye candy" but to engage and foster connections. The use and play of color, texture, scale, symbols, typography, light, siting and landscape are part of the repertoire at the design team's disposal when imbuing playfulness throughout the project. A lot can be done to create a visually stimulating, not just through facademaking - but an architecture that considers the whole, comprehensively, from the inside-out and the outside-in. There is a careful balance when seeking playfulness between being contextual and popping out just enough to attract attention and instill curiosity from within and from without.
4_ Multisensory Discovery: Architecture, or rather how we experience it, is by definition multisensory-the the visual norm, however, currently takes precedence over all other senses. And yet the architecture that continues to stand the test of time is the one that stimulates us through the use of all senses; some of these places are not mere ruings and yet they still allow us to playfully meander and engage with its fragments and memories. Neuroscience and cognitive behavioral research is only beginning to understand what we already intuit- Charles Spence writes that we need to take into account as many of our sensory needs for our own wellbeing and "to enhance our quality of life." Sound, smell, touch, temperature, time, are all equally important senses that we need to better attuned to. These senses add more parameters and qualities to our repertoire for a more playful and healthful architecture.
So, again, what is playfulness?
It is the process of making, gat and realizing spaces that engage people. While this short essay is a work in progress which we hope to revisit and reedit, we would to hear your thoughts.