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September 1, 2016

Kindergarten to Architecture School: Homo Ludens at the Bibliowicz Family Gallery

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I guess I’m still feeling the grip of summer on my mind — I find myself taking spontaneous visits to exhibits, laying on the grass to bask in the sun and procrastinating until stupidly late times. And with the new school year reliably starting off in a daze, I (unsurprisingly) forgot to re-read the description of Homo Ludens: The Architecture of Play online before heading over. When I made my way to the Bibliowicz Family Gallery where the exhibit is located, I was surprised to find the brightly-lit space full of the classic children’s playthings: wooden building blocks, miniature buildings and Legos.

Of course, it makes perfect sense — the title Homo Ludens, Latin for “playing man,” is indicative. Jenga, Legos, a wooden block set for a Prairie House and alphabet blocks are arranged in a colorful menagerie that invokes déjà vu of one of those classic childhoods filled with dollhouses and toy trains. But the underlying motivation for Homo Ludens is more serious, an intellectual undertaking to better understand the links between childhood play and education and the broad field of modern architecture. Curated by David LaRocca, Cornell Visiting Scholar in the English Department, and Associate Professor of Practice Mark Morris, director of exhibitions, Homo Ludens explores the idea that “play is a serious undertaking with serious effects.” Inspirations for modern architecture can be found in the simplicity of a smooth building block.

The quotes and posters on the exhibit walls give the space a sense of movement and shed light on the purpose of the exhibit. Meaningfully placed, they contain evidence of the relationships explored through selected texts of writers, philosophers and artists. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who wrote the book Homo Ludens (1938) after which the exhibit is named, is the basis for this exploration. He discusses the cultural significance of play in human society, quoting Plato: “Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing…” Huizinga noted that play is essentially non-serious but can also be a serious endeavor in the way it is an integral part of human life, and the way it generates creativity and engages the mind. In his 1971 book Playing and Reality, Donald Winnicott, American pediatrician and psychoanalyst, discussed the way people (specifically infant) developed a “capacity to experience a relationship to external reality” through play, and that play — whether it be playing with blocks as a child or engaging in hobbies as an adult — allowed individuals to engage in their true selves. These thinkers argued that play was not a trivial part of childhood, but rather was formative and influential later on in life.

Beyond the philosophy, the exhibit gives fantastic examples of the relationship between play and work. The focus here is architecture. Naturally, Frank Lloyd Wright comes into the picture. Dubbed “the greatest American architect of all time,” Wright remains famous for his distinctive “organic architecture,” a modern architectural philosophy that integrates smoothly buildings into their surroundings. His work often displayed simple geometric shapes and repetitive patterns — something, Wright wrote, that is derived from his time in kindergarten and his mother’s training as a kindergarten teacher. Design and architecture magazine Icon notes that the kindergarten blocks — a new invention in Wright’s time — that Wright’s mother encouraged her son to play with “directly informed [Wright of] the organic abstractions and clean geometric lines” often seen in his work. This kind of influence can be seen in other modern architects’ work, such as Zaha Hadid’s and Le Corbusier’s, and in the way companies like Lego, which even has an “Architecture” product line, encourage building and design. As the exhibit notes, quoting Mark Morris: “Architecture school is the true successor to kindergarten.”

More than anything, Homo Ludens is stimulating. It brings out intriguing connections that we usually don’t think of in everyday life when we indulge in “play” (be it hobbies, relaxation or toys), grounded in trains of thought about human nature and development that have been discussed and refined over the centuries. The exhibit itself is a modernist piece, too — white walls and floors, cleanly arranged lines and shapes and the bright colors that we might see in a Kadinsky painting. A Lego station is placed in the right side of the gallery. Blocks of various design are stacked into towers and buildings. A clever representation of the text pinned to the walls, the exhibit piques the interest with its clean look and becomes a form of play in itself.

Catherine Hwang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]