The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and of ourselves.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Public is Claiming Space - Play

Lately I was intrigued by Quentin Stevens article on "Why Berlin´s Holocaust Memorial is such a popular playground?". In the article he highlights the people´s need for proactive role in exploring landscapes and appropriating spaces to suit their varied desires. He argues that individuals´ needs and interests for remembrance (or self presentation?) are more varied and less understood and therefore harder to support or control through design.

Four basic forms that play takes - competition, simulation, chance and vertigo - emphasise different ways in which play provides escape from the seriousness, conventions and limits of everyday behaviour. The public realm presents spontaneous and dynamic configurations of place, events and people. Through various kinds of play, people develop themselves as individuals, and they test the limits of what public space can offer rather than merely receiving spaces as designers intend.

Peter Eisenman´s Memorial to the Murdered Jews, opened 2005 in Berlin, is 2 hectare field of 2711 concrete pillars. There has been a lot talk about the politics of its creation, but less talk about how visitors have appropriated the setting for many unanticipated activities. The Memorial lacks clear symbolism and obvious function and therefore invites free interpretation.

The MMJE´s scale and omni-directionality reduces formality: unlike many memorials, there is no focal axis or "front". Its pillars provide a multiplicity of audience seating and stages where people can meet their needs to see and be seen. Security staff only patrol the perimeter and act only to prevent dangerous uses, not uses which are merely undesirable. Eisenman intended this memorial to induce clautrophobia, disorientation, isolation, confinemet and unsteadiness. Without moral guidance such direct sensory arousal often instead stimulates play.

It is interesting to find out that not having been designed to suit particular functions or bodily gestures, this memorial´s abstract simplicity maximises usefulness. The expansive, complex field of pillars enables wide range of secondary, unplanned, yet-to-be-discovered uses. The MMJE illustrates ways public spaces can promote freedom and variety of public action beyond any definitions of function or meaning.

Design cannot necessarily enable or prevent play. Encouragement to free, playful behaviour can never be coersive. It is probably partly because playfulness was not among Eisenman´s intentions that people´s behaviour around this memorial is so creative and diverse. Designer´s role is to establish possibilities for meaning and use.

source:Quentin Stevens article on MMJE, 2009

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