Playing in the Commons

It’s been 3 weeks now that we’ve been in London, long enough to feel fatigue, to take a break from the intensity of all we are trying to do and see in 4 weeks. To help my digestion I’ve been looking back at my notes in my sketchbook to jog my memory. Outlined at the bottom of a page with two lists—“what we in the US should take from London; what we should leave to them—is a quote from one of the many plays we’ve seen: “you…are always playing with the lives of strangers.” The full scribble—it was dark in theater—that I wrote was:

‘“you…are always playing with the lives of strangers.” The others? The next generation?’

That was from Wole Soyinka’s (http://www.enotes.com/authors/wole-soyinka) drama Death and King’s Horseman. The line was hurled at the British colonial administrator in Nigeria as he clumsily intervened in a tribal ritual bringing his own cultural values to bear on a situation he didn’t understand. It was an indictment of the individual, but by extension also of the west. There’s far more to the story and to the complexity of the situation, but nonetheless it is that line I wrote down in my sketchbook because I heard in it an indictment of capricious architecture and scorched-earth planning. Take a look at the electronic clipping service, ArchNewsNow and you’ll see a growing chorus of criticism of the flashy and the self-indulgent “signature” project. This upwelling may be recession induced to be sure, but it’s been a long time coming.

What is it exactly, to play with the lives of others? We in the design profession spend our lives in the lives of others, invited by the few—the client-- but affecting the many. There’s really no such thing as a “private” project. The tiniest house on the most remote site takes from the commons material, energy, capital, and human effort to design, construct, and inhabit. Maybe that’s the wrong way to think of it; maybe “takes” should be “borrows”, or “barters.” I hear you: owners have paid for those things, haven’t they? Wages, fees, material costs…a client who builds a house has surely paid for it. Well, the bank has paid for it, and we all know where that binge ends up. But those aren’t the costs I’m really thinking about.

As a forest is a carbon sink, locking up the stuff in a productive way, buildings and cities are human energy sinks, immense reservoirs of energy and resources to be sure, but also of imagination, devotion and desire drawn from and returned to the commons. The degree to which the architecture is offered to the commons as a gift or a slap determines the character of the city. London is full of absolutely delightful places and buildings offered to its citizens for their civic enjoyment. But it, like every city, also contains mean spaces that begrudge habitation. Playing in the commons makes a delightful city; playing with the commons, a selfish one.

Play, as Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori knew, is serious business and a way of learning and knowing the world. But there is a distinction between playing with things and playing with lives. Design as an activity is a kind of play, in the Piagetian sense, but neither architecture nor planning enacted is play, although the results can be playful. Architects and planners have the lives of strangers, living and not yet born, in our hands.

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