Spaces in play


Reena Ardeshana

The Situationist International were heavily concerned with the cultural crisis of the time. The SI criticised the economic, political, social and cultural state of society. They believed that ‘everyday life’ had become enslaved by consumerism and had led to the emergence of the passive observer. The passive observer was one whose environment was founded on capitalists ideals such as money, wage labour and ownership. In response, the SI proposed a communistic society where profit was replaced by pleasure, division of labour by increased leisure, resulting in a reduced antagonism between work and play. To create social change and a shift in the operation of ‘everyday life’, the SI believed there must be a fundamental shift in ‘everyday spaces’. They believed they could improve social life by altering the way in which people engaged with space and play.[4] 4 - David Pinder, ‘Situationism/Situationist Geography’, in: Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift (eds.),International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, vol 10 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009) p.144 For the Situationists, play became a unique tool, employed to undermine the institutions of language and therefore social order and authoritative control. They implemented urban play tactics as a means to establish an engagement with space and cause a critical understanding of one’s environment.[5] 5 - Libero Andreotti, ‘Architecture and Play’, in: Tom McDonough (ed.),Guy Debord and the Situationist International (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 213.Their aim was to create a ‘total work of art’ that moved away from the traditional form of art (i.e. a separation between artist and audience).[6] 6 - Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 1998), p.105.In a bid to instigate social change, the Situationists actively developed tools in which citizens could inhabit and construct their own space. In breaking down the boundaries between play and everyday life, people could actively construct their environments to become spaces that were appropriate for their lifestyles.

Examples of urban play tactics devised by the Situationists include the dérive and psychogeography. In his Theory of the Dérive, Guy Debord defined the concept of the dérive as ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’.[7] 7 - Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in: Libero Andreotti, Xavier Costa and Paul Hammond (eds.), Theory of the Dérive and Other Situationist Writings on the City (Barcelona: ACTAR, 1996), p. 22.Like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, [8] 8 - The flâneur is a man of leisure that observes society through strolling or meandering. See: Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘flâneur’. Online: [accessed 17 December 2016].  the dériver responds to invitations and inducements that the city presents. Whilst this way of walking is essentially unplanned and unstructured, it is also spatially misguided in the way that it orients the walker, not by the conventional organisation of a city, but through the playful juxtaposition of elements that construct the city. The walker can experience new relationships and spatial intentionalities that are mapped through psychogeography, as indeterminate boundaries of exclusion, compelling currents of encounter and unconstructed gateways of chance.[9] 9 - Chris Jenks,Transgression (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 148.

The dérive engages the drifter in, what the Situationist referred to as, ‘playful–constructive behaviour’. Debord interprets ‘playfulness’ as a deliberate removal from everyday life in order to be present within one’s environment. The drifter, unlike Benjamin’s flâneur,is not a passive observer, aimless and absent-mindedly walking through their environment, but rather an active player in constructing his/her urban environment. The level of engagement required in play induces a keen sensitivity and alertness in the player. The drifter moves according to a certain order; a system of play with scripted rules. The dérive thus emphasizes the seriousness of play. The combination of a multiplicity of players[10] 10 - Debord suggests the dérive should be carried out with 3 or 4 people. Any more persons could lead to a collapse of organisation and fragmentation into multiple micro derives. Fewer than 3 members could lead to a narrow reading of the environments, as a thorough understanding of the environment could only be achieved through intense discussions.and a system of rules, stimulates a ‘subjective’ reading of an ‘objective’ space. The city becomes inscribed by man’s navigation of and through space. A parallel can by drawn to the labyrinth.[11] 11 - The model of the labyrinth is being investigated within the Border Conditions studio as a means of looking at a space through the simple elements of walls and route. The labyrinth and its component platform balance the internal experience with the external overall view.By entering the labyrinth, one establishes a subjective reading of space, as from within it can only be understood by the components that construct one’s immediate environment. The internal space offers no concept of the overall organisation and system of paths. Upon reaching the centre, a platform above the labyrinth would give one a comprehensive overview of the overall system, but would lack the bodily engagement of being within. Returning to the dérive, this method of walking offers the possibility of being within the space, whilst also removing oneself from the constraints of reality. Like the labyrinth, the dérive offers two perspectives; the experience and observations of bodily engagement within an environment during the dérive, and a constructed understanding of the journey as a whole and therefore the theorisation or mapping of the journey itself.

The engagements and situations that are established between people, city and play, and the disruption of these relations have been the subject of détournement; an urban play tactic. Détournement builds on cultural cues, taking recognised forms and re-using them in new situations in order to subvert cultural meaning and create new aesthetics.[12] 12 -  Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 1998), pp.17-18, p.44. As Debord writes in his essay on Methods of Détournement:

‘Any element, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations… when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed… The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy’.[13] 13 - Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, ‘Mode d’emploi du détournement’, in: Les lévres nues, no.8 (Brussels, 1956), translated as ‘Methods of Détournement’, in: Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, pp.8-14.

One way in which the Situationists went about constructing situations included occupying found buildings and forcefully adapting and re-purposing the space with a new use that differed from its original intent. This tactic formed part of a strategy designed to undo the urban hierarchy present in the capitalist city and deconstruct the borders between public and private.[14] 14 - Sadie Plant, The most radical gesture; The Situationist International in a postmodern age (London: Routledge, 1992), in: chapter 3 ‘… a single choice: suicide or revolution’, p. 89.The Situationists played with the borders and boundaries of conventional city planning in a spatially ironic way in order to contest contemporary cultural society. The term ‘spatially ironic’ describes how only through the opposing and contradictory notions of seriousness and playfulness can one begin to de-construct societal norms. By claiming their control over space, through appropriation, they were able to transgress the accepted conceptions of inside and outside, use versus non-use, and re-establish a private territory that acts as a borderless public exterior as well.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture