…a game @ ‘London needs to learn how to play’ debate at the RIBA

photo via LFA website find it here

This year’s London Festival of Architecture revolved around the theme ‘The Playful City” in an attempt to examine the Olympics’ effect. Checking the program it seemed that a debate aspiring to decide if ‘London needs to learn how to play’ was a must-attend event. However it was unclear to me from the beginning if by ‘London’ the organisers were referring to the city’s public spaces or the actual Londoners and if it was the latter how could the citizens’ playfulness be separated from the spaces they were supposed to play at. The political dimension of the subject was totally ignored by chairwoman Daisy Froud in her introduction. Instead she defined play as the process of ‘taking risks together’ adding that she was reintroduced to this concept after becoming a mother.

The speakers invited were Peter Murray, author, LFA’ s founding director, and former chairman of international consultancy Wordsearch, Peter Fleming professor of Work and Society at Queen Mary college and author of ‘Dead man working’ and Clive Dutton, Newham’s executive director for regeneration.

Peter Murray’s presentation. Images of pall mall game/2004 LFA/Londoners playing

Peter Murray was the first speaker and he started by stating that Londoners do not need to learn how to play. He attempted to be controversial suggesting that it is not accurate to examine playfulness in association with the Olympics because for the athletes sports are work. He also said that athletes are not really healthy as they put their bodies under tremendous stress and they have high mortality rates in relatively young age. Additionally, since the Olympic sponsors are junk food providers, this is what is mainly consumed at the games hence they are unhealthy for the visitors as well. That was already quite contradictory as this year’s London Festival of Architecture title ‘The Playful city’ was chosen exactly because of the Olympics. He explained that the LFA’s aim was not to reproduce the games in the streets of London but to make the city generally more playful. In the images projected while he spoke, random Londoners engaged in sports like pall mall and ping pong. He finished by showing a photo from 2004 LFA where turf was laid down on a London street and mentioned that people knew how to sit down and enjoy it by having a picnic.

Peter Fleming started his presentation by saying that being playful in London is not a psychological question but a sociological one and was more related to the neo-liberal favouritism towards privatisation of public places, than the Londoners’ ability to play. The increasingly authoritarian companies promote conservative ways of playing in order to satisfy people’s inherent need to play which is a fundamental need of humanity. By ‘conservative play’ he meant the childish games invented by fun-sunltants (consultants of fun employed by companies to entertain their over-worked employees). He added that a meaningful emancipatory way of playing springs from the joy of pure democracy and he used the Paris Commune as an historical example. This sort of care-freeness challenges and changes society and should be a civic norm, not the privilege of a very small elite. He concluded by posing the question:” Do we actually dare to play like that?”

Clive Dutton mainly presented statistics and numbers in order to show that Newham (Olympics’ host) was the loveliest, happiest and most playful area of London. Apparently this is proven by the fact that Newham has one of the highest birthrates in the country and the majority of its inhabitants are under 34. We additionally learned by Clive’s speech that London is playful, stimulating and exciting because it has 7.000 pubs 25.000 acres of parkland, 14.000.000 tourists per year and organised 10.000 street parties for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, consequently it does not need to learn how to play.

Top photo Peter Fleming/middle and bottom photo Clive Dutton’s presentation

After the panel’s presentations, the audience contributed to the discussion with very interesting comments. An architecture school graduate suggested that cities are places where people come into contact with systems and negotiate social landscapes. He also said that since the 80’s law and order has increasingly been more oppressive, discouraging the inhabitants’ interaction with their environment. Additionally he mentioned that the ‘right to the city’ as it was introduced by the Situationists, has nothing to do with the ‘right’ to have a picnic on a patch of grass that has been temporarily installed somewhere. Meaningful play is about the evaluation and transformation of social relationships.

Someone else in the audience mentioned that playfulness is largely associated with youthfulness and that most people are actually terrified of playing.

A man shared his personal story of having played football at Hackney marshes every weekend for years and recently not been allowed to do so because of a BBC Olympics related event. Peter Murray turned this argument around by saying that he should not complain as he was allowed to play football all weekends except that particular one, which proves that London generally is a playful city.

Another man in the audience mentioned that he had recently spent 6 months in China and Londoners should not complain as freedom to play is much less in Shanghai.

Clive Dutton kept asking the audience ‘what would you do if you could sprinkle magic dust and change London in order to increase its playfulness’. Several people replied that they would undo the privatisations and remove some of the rules and regulations. Still Clive disregarded those comments and insisted that people were not replying his question with a valid proposal. He also sidetracked the discussion by reading a list of the 10 most miserable places to live in the US in order to make London look like paradise. The audience admittedly found that amusing.

Finally Peter Murray said that upsetting the counsellors at school or stealing apples from the orchard is an anti-authoritarian practice that is ultimately pleasurable. Contradicting himself once again he admitted that at times London is a difficult place to live in but that is where its beauty derives from. It is not clean, it is not Singapore, it has chewing gum on the side-walks and police in the streets and that at times he finds amusing to be chased by security guards when cycling through private places. When chairwoman Daisy Froud agreed with him adding that play would not be as fun if there were no restrictions, Peter Fleming intervened telling them they were playing a dangerous game as this argument could be pushed to extremes in order to justify any authoritarian neo-fashist society to which one should be ‘grateful’ to, for aspiring a sense of rebellion to the people. He concluded by saying that the magic dust that Clive kept referring to was the fact that Londoners are somehow still managing to have fun, regardless of the impossible neo-liberal system that increasingly deprives them of their rights and playfulness.

What I concluded from this debate was that it was similarly informative to the ‘Defence of the Public realm’ event but had a totally different feeling to it. It was more conservative and supportive of the statement that London is playful enough and does not need any alterations. Even the chairwoman did not do such a good job in being impartial, in my opinion she was rather biased in favour of the idea that London does not need to learn to be more playful . However a vote by raising hands was held in the end and the outcome showed that the audience believed the opposite.

The debate took place in the RIBA on the 26th of June 2012

Listen to the whole debate here

LFA 2012 program here

  1. That Peter Flemming speech sounds very interesting, especially that link that you mention between pure democracy, Paris commune and playfulness

  2. Yes it was very interesting. There is a link under the article for a recording of the debate so you can listen to the whole thing. His initial presentation was only 8 minutes long

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