Play in the City: in praise of indiscipline architecture

Play in the City: in praise of indiscipline architecture

Many cityscapes are humdrum to the point of deadening banality. Identikit (often dying) high streets, underused public spaces, unimaginative landscaping and public realm. Worse, some of this urban barbarism isn’t even accidental or the result of neglect, it’s designed in. Whether to discourage skateboarding, lying on benches or even sitting at all, it’s so common it’s even got its own Orwellian title: “discipline architecture”

Discipline architecture is anti-social in its most basic sense – it’s not only misanthropic, its design that kills off chance meeting and serendipity. At its worst discipline architecture can harm cities as effectively as any anti-social behaviour that its meant to discourage.

Even if the intention isn’t in question, the brutal aesthetic of much discipline architecture is unnecessary. With imagination an intended outcome can be accomplished with wit and style. My favourite examples in London are Emirates Stadium’s anti car-bomb barriers.

Arsenal’s cannons can be sat on, and the outsize lettering invites photographs and interaction. They accomplish their utilitarian task (and are currently the strongest aspect of Arsenal’s defence – boom boom!) whilst creating an occasion and sense of place.

But elegant discipline is discipline nonetheless. No, far more friendly is design that actually invites play, interaction and reinvention. Let’s call it “indiscipline architecture”. Done well, it brings cities to life.

This approach was key for the Futurecity commission Skystation. Futurecity worked with artist Peter Newman to create a seat which would be naturally social, and give users an occasion to interact in unexpected ways, and even see their cityscape from new, surprising perspectives.


Travelling on sabbatical, I was lucky enough to see a great example of indiscipline architecture here in Auckland this week. The Danish artist Jeppe Hein (he of the Southbank Centre’s Appearing Rooms) specialises in creating public art work that invites play. His newest commission, Long Modified Bench Auckland is on a roof space at the brilliant Auckland Art Gallery. Here’s my daughter’s first reaction to it.


There’s something in the instinct of a circus performer who knows that (other than the macabre threat of the trapeze artist or lion-tamer coming a cropper) what audiences really want to see is extraordinary feats enacted with humdrum objects. Jugglers with kitchen knives and frying pans. Balancing acts with chairs, tables and lampshades. There seems to be something universally exciting in seeing familiar objects reinvented in surprising, delightful ways.

For this reason, I think that the reimagining of street furniture and everyday features of our urban landscape is often more compelling than stand-alone sculpture. Stand alone public sculpture can be wonderful (like Jim Hodges’ Creative Time commission Look & See, or James Hopkins’ recent Futurecity commission Angled Ball), but too often, with little connection to the environment if finds itself in, it can be what US artist and architect James Wines has dubbed “the turd on the plaza” (or a phrase I like even more – “plop art”).

So more seating that invites climbing; tuned, musical railings; playful, tactile building facades, smart way-finding, naming and signage.

All these create stuff that lets you play with and play in your built environment. It might feel a little more indisciplined, but as part of a well designed development, invitations to play create the kind of places that people want to live in, work in and visit.