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What is the role of play in the architectural design process

And how can it address issues of social sustainability?

ED: 2009. Essay: Play. George Stavrias & Justin Bolton
Tutor: Beatriz Maturana. 03:06:2009

Introduction - The concept of play

Historically, architecture has primarily served those with money and power. Today little has changed, and this is demonstrated by the small percentage of buildings in Australia that have been architecturally designed. There is a divide between the architectural profession and people of social, cultural and economic disadvantage. In this essay we argue that play in the design process can be a tool with which these hierarchies can be bridged, ultimately resulting in better design outcomes for disadvantaged clients.

Our concept of play is drawn from the writings of the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott and the sociologist Johan Huizinger. Winnicott, as a psychiatrist, highlights the personal aspects of play. Focusing on the relationship between the psychiatrist and the patient, specifically a child, Winnicott writes that play is essentially a means of communication, a common language through which people who otherwise couldn’t communicate now can.[1] Play builds relationships, and therefore trust, and through trust it increases communication.[2] It does so by creating a game, a world of creative freedom, both real and fantasy.[3] For the duration of the game play forms a less rational state of mind; instincts and the unconscious play a greater role in forming a person’s speech and actions.[4] In the human mind where truth and desire may be hidden under many layers, the psychiatrist uses play to dig below the surface to reach this truth. Play can therefore play an important role in helping uncover the clients’ desires in the design process. An examination of the advertising campaign of Caroline Springs, a suburban development on the suburban fringe of Melbourne, underscores the importance of uncovering this truth to design. The slogan reads, “For those who want more” and the images promise a life of happiness.[5] Is this image what people really want, or is it selling people an ideology? Play can help dig beyond the ideology we’re being sold as the truth to a deeper reality.

Discussing the sociological role of play in contemporary culture, Huizinga writes that play provides escape; it is a respite from the complexities and confusions of everyday life.[6] By playing, a person enters a new world, a world of the game, a world with defined rules unlike the morally ambiguous real-world. Play, with its rules, restricts in order to be free. These rules provide the encouragement for creativity. Play is a free activity consciously outside ordinary life, an agreed upon suspension of reality.[7] As a risk free simulation, play is ‘non-serious’ yet absorbs the player intensely and utterly. Due to the equality of players and the smaller and therefore more manageable world of play, as well as the greater trust and communication play engenders, play eliminates doubt and indecision, bringing confidence to the player.[8] Building on Huizinga’s analysis of play, sociologist Jeffrey Segrave writes that play “allows one to feel and see ‘through and behind’ the political, racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic boundaries that separate us, not by eliminating them but by invoking a deeper sense of commonality, one that transcends the normative order.”[9]

i. Play and the design process

Adapting both the psychiatric and sociological discussions of play to address the design process, our definition of play in design can be summarised thus: Playing a game as part of the design process creates its own little world, where normative social orders are transcended, and everyone is treated equally according to the game’s rules. Therefore design play can address social and economic disadvantage by providing equal footing to all, and therefore has the ability to give a voice to those who may have previously been unheard. This play allows a deeper perception of Reality, and therefore games can be designed to let the players see environmental, social, climatic and economic realities and concerns. With play in general, there is no requirement for there to be an outcome. For design play, on the other hand, an outcome is desired, and can be built into the rules of the game. The outcome can be: simply to encourage greater understanding of the each stakeholder’s issues and build trust, or can be more detailed: facilitating the creation of a brief, or actual elements of the design. Therefore play in design should end in a mutually satisfying draw. The trust and communication built between the architects and the clients can then continue beyond the game, and enrich the ongoing process to create a better design outcome.

We have established a graphical representation of our model of play in the design process, presented below in diagram a.

diagram a: our model of play in the design process

We have chosen two examples of play taking a leading role in the design process, one small scale: an office refurbishment in the Netherlands – called DSM, and one large scale: the planning of the suburban development Roxburgh Park in Melbourne. We will briefly discuss each example to demonstrate the role and relevance of play in the design process to obtain a design outcome. In the example of the DSM office refurbishment, research was carried out by two academics who analysed the use of a board game between the architect and their client to establish a brief. The game was designed to promote communication, equality and interaction between otherwise isolated players. The board game is composed of workspaces depicted by coloured squares and the participants play the game by locating themselves within the squares and answering questions on cards.[10] The game allayed the participants' anxieties about the project, as well as providing deeper insights on the thoughts about the existing and future office.[11] The academics summarise the usefulness of play in design thus: “Game playing is seen as a potential bridge between people with different backgrounds by introducing in them an abstracted reality without the usual rules and hierarchies.”[12] This idea clearly demonstrates the potential of play in design to address issues of social sustainability in architecture.

Play has also been used successfully in the planning of a new suburban development. In 1989 the Urban Land Authority engaged planners Sarkissan Associates Planners for the planning for Roxburgh Park, a new suburban development in northern Melbourne. The planners undertook a teamwork and collaborative planning approach, to create “a community where everyone matters.”[13] Play was used to both foster teamwork among the consultants, as well as to improve the community consultation. The planners adopted various play design approaches such as a workshop weekend away for all the consultants, in which they played various teamwork focussed games, for example diving into groups and using food to model and communicate ideas for the development. In another workshop, the planners played a guided fantasy game in which design ideas were tabled from a child’s perspective.[14] These games encouraged “listening for understanding (not argument), encourage others to participate, [and] harmonise (without cutting short important differences of viewpoint).”[15] After the workshop process, the planners held an open forum for community consultation, which included playing games with various subgroups of the community, and included model construction, fantasy and role play, and painting with the children. This approach together with the games played at the weekend workshop were successful in that they built trust, and promoted open, honest communication. The inclusion of a referee facilitator at the weekend workshops encouraged critical self reflection which enabled participants to analyse their role, and to address and modify potential hierarchy issues. These two examples of play in design demonstrate that at a variety of scales, play in the design process can be relevant to addressing social complexities.

ii. Play and the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Cultural Centre

The case study which exemplifies the use of play in design to address issues of social sustainability is the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Cultural Centre in central Australia by Gregory Burgess Architects (see images 1 & 2). The Cultural Centre was conceived by the local Indigenous Anangu community to improve cultural understanding and interaction between their community and tourists visiting Uluru.[16] The Centre, owned managed and operated by the Anangu, was also intended to empower their community by materially addressing their social and economic disadvantage.

image 1: the Cultural Centre and Uluru, aerial view

Play was incorporated as a central element of the design process from the initial stage. It was conceived to bridge the cultural divide between the designers and the Anangu community, in order to create a truthful design relationship.[17] This design process was understood by both the designers and the Anangu to lead to a shared understanding of the Anangu community’s desires for the function and form of the centre, in order to result in a design outcome which best addressed their realities: a building to serve the Anangu community as “an in-between zone of meeting, a hybrid space”,[18] a space of interaction and play where the Anangu community could share their culture with the tourists, called Minga by the Anangu.[19]

image 2: the Cultural Centre roof form with Uluru in the background

Upon engagement Gregory Burgess established a drop in centre to create a community presence and to provide an all-inclusive communication pathway with the Anangu community. The design team then participated in cultural activities such as dancing, hunting and camping to build trust, improve communication and cultural understanding. Culturally appropriate communication methods were used such as sand drawings and dot paintings which empowered the participants to be confident and truthful, sharing their knowledge and desires for their Cultural Centre through the play of art (photos 3, 4 and 5).[20] Burgess writes that the process was “extremely helpful for us in coming closer to understanding the nature of the site and the intention of the Centre as seen through Anangu eyes.”[21] Burgess then took these ideas, created paper sketch models, which the elders then played with to refine the form (see image 6). This resulted in a design which connects the site to the larger landscape through their dreamtime creation story of a battle between two serpents, clearly represented in the building form (see images 1 & 2). The participatory design process between the designers and the Anangu community fits with our model of play in that its primary focus was on engagement with activities promoting trust, communication, truth, equality, freedom and confidence between the designers and the Anangu.
We have established a graphical representation of our the role of play in the design process for the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Cultural Centre, presented below in diagram b.

diagram b: model of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Cultural Centre design process

image 3: Anangu community elders drawings diagrams in the sand for the proposed centre

image 4: Barbara Tjikatu and Nipper Winmati painting of the two serpents, a dreamtime story associated with Uluru

image 5: Nellie Patterson painting of the community's vision of the Cultural Centre, represented as people gathered around an existing dead oak tree, which ended up becoming the location of the Cultural Centre

image 6: a model of the Cultural Centre being refined by play by both Burgess and the Anangu elders

Play was not limited to the design process; it continued into the design outcome, specifically in the Minga experience of the Cultural Centre. In the design process described above play bridged the cultural gap between the Anangu community and the design team, allowing for a truthful sharing by the Anangu of their knowledge and desires. Consequently the design embraces play as a communication method, continuing the sharing of knowledge, encouraging the Mingas to interact in a participatory experience of the building. As Burgess states, the experience is an educational process, which “aims to enthuse, intrigue, surprise, delight and perhaps shock”.[22] The winding, non-hierarchical, pathways approaching the building slow down the Minga, in preparation for entering the world of play and the Anangu culture within (see image 7). The shaded, cool, dimly lit curvilinear spaces, in contrast to the open desert outside, along with brightly decorated walls emphasise that the Minga has entered a world of different rules and knowledge (see images 8 & 9). The compressed desert earth floor, the mudbrick walls, and the structural tree trunks are an internal continuation of the desert landscape outside through the building material (see image 10). The world created by the building is similar, yet different, presenting the reality of the Anangu’s Uluru. From personal experience (both Justin and George have visited the Cultural Centre and Uluru), the winding path and discreet curvilinear dark entrance creates a sense of enticement, a curiosity which opens the visitor up to learning about the Anangu and their culture. Once inside, the interplay of spaces, with the inside and outside overlapping and the natural use of materials, grounds the learning experience directly into the landscape.

The Anangu believe that the Minga move about very quickly, and stay too short a time at Uluru to really see the place.[23] The interaction with the building succeeds in slowing them down, and by sharing the Anangu reality of their stories and their profound connection with the land, it allows a glimpse into experiencing Uluru the Anangu way. The Centre gives the Anangu agency to present themselves and their culture to the tourists in a 'solid' way.

We have established a graphical representation of our the role of play in the Minga's interaction with the Uluru Cultural Centre, presented below in diagram c.

diagram c: model of the interaction of the Minga with the Uluru Cultural Centre

image 7: the winding indirect path leading to the entrance of the Cultural Centre

image 8: the desert landscape around Uluru and the Cultural Centre

image 9: the cool, dimly lit, brightly painted entrance to the Cultural Centre

image 10: the mudbrick walls and structural tree trunks of the Cultural Centre

diagram d: the winding paths leading into and through the Cultural Centre

iii. The Relevance of Play to Sustainability in the Uluru Kata-Tjita Cultural Centre

The reality of Aboriginal Australians is one of social, political and economic disadvantage. The Uluru Kata-Tjita Cultural Centre, and the play inherent in its design and use, attempts to address each of these.


There is a cultural divide between white and Aboriginal Australia: on the level discussed in this essay, between the Anangu and the Minga, between the Anangu and the designers, but there is also the more general level, between the Anangu and the white bureaucracy and white Australia in general. The history is rife with misrepresentations, with romanticisation, as well as negative stereotypes. This is addressed in two ways: firstly, play in the design process was instrumental in bringing together the two cultures, the Anangu with the white designers, which resulted in a building that addressed the Anangu community’s cultural concerns, providing a place of which they feel ownership and a place which shares an honest representation of their culture.[24] Secondly the building is successful in sharing and communicating this knowledge to the Minga, and by extension to the Australian mainstream. The Cultural Centre empowers the Anangu by allowing them to share and communicate their knowledge on their own terms. This interaction is unmediated by the usual judgemental voices of the mainstream media, enriching the understanding of Aboriginal culture by white Australia, helping to fight racism and dispel negative stereotypes of Aboriginality.


Prior to the establishment of the Cultural Centre, the Anangu had little means of capitalising on their relationship with Uluru, other than a small shed on the highway through which they sold artwork to the passing Minga. As part of Australia’s Aboriginal community they were significantly economically disadvantaged.[25] The Cultural Centre has provided multiple outlets for the community to address their economic situation. The Centre offers employment as a Park Ranger through the National Parks Service. It also allows the Anangu to run their own businesses such as the tour agency, the cafe and the gallery selling arts and crafts (see image 11).

image 11: the commercial endeavours of the Anangu in the Cultural Centre


The Anangu are the traditional custodians of Uluru and its surrounds. Fundamental to their culture is their unique relationship to Uluru, a process and an understanding and experience of the landscape. Play in the design process allowed an honest sharing of this knowledge, an understanding which the design team embodied in the building. Without play, the designers may not have reached the level of understanding of the Anangu culture's primary relationship with the landscape. Therefore intrinsic within the design was a strong environmental consideration. The Centre exhibits this in a number of ways. Drawing on local building structures such as the Anangu traditional wooden shelters, Burgess used a straightforward construction method of “technological innocence” with structural timber tree trunks with individual connections, radially sawn timber, local mud brick adobe walls and natural earth flooring.[26] This results in a building which treads lightly, and also integrates into the landscape.

Not the direct results of play, but a consequence of the understanding it fostered, the building is designed to be energy efficient and climate responsive, with heating and cooling requiring little help from mechanical means (the offices are mechanically cooled). Burgess writes that the Centre “together with its surrounds, transforms according to the season”. The deep shade canopies, vines and overhangs, help cool in the hot summers. The mudbrick adobe walls work as thermal mass, absorbing the heat during the day and releasing it at night. The long, winding form allows for natural cross ventilation. In winter, the rooflights open, and the canopies lose their shades, allowing the penetration of warm winter sun (see images 12 & 13). The apex opening allow for natural stack ventilation (see image 14). Local sands are used for the foundation and the adobe walls, as well as the floors and paths.

image 12: the large canopies and adobe walls

image 13: warm winter sun flooding through the rooflight

Conclusion and Discussion

While the construction of the Cultural Centre at Uluru was able to address the particular requirements of the Anangu community, this may not be a solution which suits other Aboriginal communities due to the unique nature of Uluru to Australia and its tourism. What is applicable is not the building itself, but the model of the design process. It is a model which demonstrates that when Aboriginal communities are engaged with on an equal footing, which an activity such as play allows, social and political boundaries can be transcended, and social, political, economic and environmental issues can be redressed, little by little. This model is not the answer, but a step in the right direction, a step towards Aboriginal social sustainability in Australia.

This analysis of the role of play in the design process to address social sustainability has elicited a number of question which we will briefly discuss.

A design process centred on play is time consuming; Gregory Burgess spent one month living in the Anangu community. This is obviously an expensive exercise. Given that social disadvantage is usually tied to economic, is it a feasible idea to propose the play design process as a means of addressing social and economic concerns? Our paper suggests that it is. The higher initial expenditure is more than balanced in the long term, because the product is a better building, which better responds to the demands and desires of its users.

Budgets and timelines are a real constraint, and play can still have a less intensive role in the design processes? Quick games, like the board game in the office refurbishment in the Netherlands, or the games for the planning of Roxburgh Park, are an accessible way to obtain the outcomes offered by play.

Play challenges the normal interaction in the relationship between architect and client.
It proposes a relationship built on communication and trust, based in creativity and the levelling of hierarchy. Play allows architecture to move beyond the standard relationship between a rich client and an architect. The world of play allows an engagement on equal footing, bridging cultural, social and economic divides, creating a shared space of sharing, understanding and knowledge. Our model of play in design can be used for engaging with people from different backgrounds, to overcome differences, using play as a common language of communication. Further analysis of different types of play, play adaptation, and the relationship between play and the spatial experience, could uncover the appropriateness and broader applicability of play.

In conclusion, this paper suggests that play can be an integral part of addressing various aspects of sustainability: play forces interaction, and interaction forces a connection with reality.

Image 14: cultural sharing and interaction on more equal terms

1. Donald Winnicott, Play and Reality, (London: Routledge, 2005), 56
2. Winnicott, 63
3. Winnicott, 49, 67
4. Winnicott, 53, 69
5. Delfin Lendlease, “Caroline Springs”, [accessed 01/06/2009]
6. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play Element in Culture, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 13
7. Jeffery Segrave, “Sport as Escape”, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, (Thousand Oaks: Feb 2000), 63
8. Segrave, 74
9. Segrave, 67
10. Annelise De Jong & Evi De Bruyne, “Participatory Design of Office Spaces by Game Playing?”, Keynote AKFEI08 Conference, (Las Vegas: 2008), 2-3
11. De Jong & De Bruyne, 5
12. De Jong & De Bruyne, 7
13. Wendy Sarkissan & Kevin Walsh, “Teamwork and Collaborative Planning for a New Suburban Development in Melbourne: the Case for Roxburgh Park”, Community Participation in Practice Casebook, (Perth: Murdoch, 2003), 55
14. Sarkissan & Walsh, 58
15. Sarkissan & Walsh, 54
16. Gregory Burgess, “Toward an Ecology of Culture”, A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, (no. 5) May 1997: 103
17. Burgess, 103-4
18. Lisa Findley, Building Change: Architecture, Politics and Cultural Agency, London: Routledge, 95
19. Minga literally means ants, and is used to describe the tourists because they look like tiny hurrying specks as they climb up the side of Uluru. See Findley, 83
20. Burgess, 103
21. Burgess, 104
22. Burgess, 107
23. Findley, 103
24. Burgess, 104
25. Findley, 87
26. Findley, 107-111
27. Burgess, 106


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