Child’s Play, The Australian

Thursday 27 October 94

Child’s Play

Not many of us think architecture is child’s play. John Andrews does.

Professor of Interior Design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Andrews has recently completed an exciting experimental workshop where children have built fantastic constructions out of their vivid dreams and wild imaginations.

Conducted in September with Judy McGinty at Melbourne’s new Philatelic Gallery in Exhibition Street, “Fantastic Architecture – Fabulous Constructions” offered a small group of eager five to ten year olds the chance to make buildings of their own designs during the school holidays. Working with flexible foam, bamboo skewers, glue, cocktail sticks, and bits of cardboard, the kids were asked to whip up whatever came to mind. The results were quite astonishing.

So astonishing in fact, that many of Andrews’s tertiary level students had trouble believing that a bunch of five year olds could come up with such imaginative designs in a matter of minutes. The works, displayed publicly from 10-21 October at RMIT, were a salient reminder of how space and form can be constructed from playful unconscious forces.

Of course, nothing can substitute for all the years of hard work, training and experience that provides the necessary skills for real world designers. But the experiment is a welcome reminder of how imaginative design can be when creative intuition is stimulated. The stylistic novelty and intriguing compositional forms that children create are mostly in stark contrast to the rigid geometries we often encounter in the built environment.

Similar workshops have been held in other countries. They too have tapped into the chaos of the imagination with impressive results. Vladislav Kirpichev’s Experimental Children’s Architecture Studio (which has been functioning in Moscow since 1977) is one of the most well-known. Kirpichev’s non-traditional program encourages children to make dynamic asymmetrical assemblages that look like matchstick houses gone crazy. Letting the children use both constructive and destructive impulses, Kirpichev’s ‘students’ often come up with intricate and highly complex models that don’t follow rational plans. Andrews’s workshops follow the same principles. The results clearly show that the language of form need not be restricted to sterile rationalism. Not all building blocks have to be straight.

After a quick slide-show introduction to a range of architectural forms” from cave dwellings to Mediterranean vernacular architecture and “outsider” architecture” the children run amok with their glue and wooden sticks. According to Andrews, the fantastic works the kids create show us “ways of constructing buildings where the inside and outside became one.” It seems children have no problem focussing on the interiors of buildings as much as the exteriors. The same is not always true in the built environment.

To my mind, many of these constructions look like architecture turned inside out. The external skin and interior structures are all jumbled around. Andrews reckons that “the beautiful mess that comes from play could easily be tapped by mainstream architecture.” He has a point.

Although the final products on display might seem impossible to build, they are strangely reminiscent of today’s avant garde architecture. Contemporary Australian architects as disparate as Lawrence Nield, Nonda Katsalidas, Ivan Rijavec, and Denton Corker Marshall (to name but a few) have all at times experimented with playful unpredictable forms and asymmetrical structures that are also to be found in these kids’ fantasies.

Andrews’s own work also demonstrates similar stylistic links. His use of unusual materials and multi-faceted structures held by gravity result in coherent though profoundly non-rational designs. It’s fitting that he recently won an honourable mention with his scheme for an international architectural competition to design a temple of laughter.

Further afield, the French partnership of Francoise-Helene Jourda and Gilles Perraudin, Co-op Himmelblau from Vienna, London-based Zaha Hadid, or Americans such as Michael Sorkin and even Frank Gehry are infamous for creating jagged and sinewy structures for the postmodern present. At their most visionary, these architects give us structures that rest uncomfortably amongst the chaos of the city. At worst, they throw the blandness of unbroken geometric solids (standard fare for commercial developers) into clear and sharp relief.

At the end of the day perhaps the real-world designer has to decide between the freedom of child’s play and the tedium of adult work. But given the choice, I know what I’d prefer.