A common foundation behind many great works of architecture is that they combine aesthetically compelling forms to create functioning structures that elevate the way humans live, work and relax. Creating such structures requires a strong visual and conceptual mindset and process, and the flexibility to try many different outcomes before arriving at a finished project. It also necessitates an astute understanding and feel for working with a range of materials and three-dimensional manipulatives, many of which are actually derived from the educational play materials for young children.
The most notable types of these learning toys are called Fröbel’s Gifts, and were designed by Friedrich Fröbel in the mid-nineteenth century to coincide with his opening of the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837. Another prominent and widespread example is Caroline Pratt’s Do-With Toys, which were released around 1911. While Fröbel’s Gifts contain abstract forms intended to be used to develop skills and cognition in sequence; Pratt’s toys include people, animals and furniture which children could use in any way they devised. Both are integral to how we think through abstract and concrete materials and concepts. Due to the widespread implementation of these materials in schools, it is no wonder that several of the modern era’s leading architects and industrial designers could technically say that they received their initial training in kindergarten. Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller’s architectural structures in particular reference both the form and function behind Fröbel and Pratt’s pedagogical inventions. It is well documented that both architects grew up playing with them (see: MacCormac, 1974 and Rubin, 1989). I have also written extensively on this subject matter (see: “Art Education: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”).
The adjoining element between educational manipulatives and architecture, is that children are apt to recreate and interpret their environment (both real and imagined) through play. Think back to your own experiences as a child, did you spend mornings, afternoons and evenings creating environments and even entire worlds by arranging geometric blocks and figurines? Toys enable those who play with them to emphasize their worldly observations and express their lived experiences in a fun and profound way. These actions lead to the construction of knowledge and awareness of our presence and potential in the world. With global civilization in a constant state of flux and turmoil, envisioning a brighter world has been a key component of many artists’ practice.
An example is Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s oeuvre of architectural-inspired sculptures like Ville Fantôme (1996), which is a scale model of an idealized cityscape featuring iconic and symbolic references to a variety of the world’s civilizations. Kingelez describes the sculptural installation as “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all the races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven” (quoted in Davis, 2018). Structures within Ville Fantôme and other cityscapes were often made using scrap and discarded materials such as cardboard, paper and plastic. The commonplace materials contrast with the extravagant and exorbitant materials used in mass construction projects today. The thrifty repurposing of ordinary materials to create fantastical visions of utopian societies makes Kingelez’s art both whimsical and profound. Its uplifting message also emphasizes the importance of playfully interpreting our environment through artful processes; as well as having the creative framework and vision to utilize objects to show how transformative change is possible. Both of these principles are indicative of learning to express and expand our sublunary understandings through play. Kingelez elaborates on this by stating, “without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live” (quoted in Cole, 2020).
American contemporary artist Sally Curcio also references the seriousness of play by creating imaginative architectural tableaux envisioning models for utopian societies. Her recent MFA thesis, Tableaux for the Future (see: Curcio, 2022), describes specific artworks that depict scale models of imagined, futuristic cityscapes. Curcio’s aims and objectives are in line with the pedagogical concept of learning through play and recreating and/or interpreting worlds based on observations, experiences and materials-based explorations. What stands out in Curcio’s oeuvre of sculpture and installations is the unbridled optimism and playful sense of possibility, expressed through a complimentary combination of form, color, balance and scale. At large, the structures that make up the tableaux have a very unified look. This arrangement is made even more familiar and comforting when you take the time to look closely and realize that Curcio has repurposed everyday materials like combs, ice trays and egg cartons, to represent the affordances of objects in urban spaces.
Curcio’s imagined supercities, like Megalopolis (2022) are indicative of her optimistic outlook on future worlds that equitably share resources and thrive from cooperative daily endeavors. Materials include painted blocks that are stacked upon plaster cast forms to represent skyscrapers and other buildings. Rounded glass vessels, recycled plastic from consumer products and Legos all add to the idea of Megalopolis functioning as a well populated, maintained and interconnected city. In addition to the use of common materials and objects associated with early childhood play, Curcio notes that the retrofuturistic qualities of her installations are inspired by one of her favorite childhood cartoons, The Jetsons; a show that is representative of the hope and forward-looking zeitgeist during the early years of the space age (1950s -1970s), which assured that the benefits of science and technology would make every aspect of our everyday lives more efficient and easy. It is not hard to conclude that we have not realized the utopian elements of retrofuturism. However, Curcio reminds us that while futurism is often seen as a fantastical projection of what will come, we should prompt ourselves to design a better future for ourselves and others with these tenets in mind.
By using ordinary materials in extraordinary ways, Kingelez and Curcio’s art posits that we can achieve great and beautiful things in our everyday lives, even when it seems as though the odds are stacked against us. The ingenuity required to transcend the notion that something is impossible, is an artistic habit of mind. Art educator and pedagogical theorist Judith Burton defines this quality as “resistance to closure.” This essentially means thinking with an open mind and depicting a multitude of meaning and possibilities in aesthetic forms and artistic experiences (Burton, 2000). Similarly, theorist and educator Elliot Eisner calls this habit of mind “making judgements in the absence of rules.” In Eisner’s words:
“The arts teach students to act and to judge in the absence of rule, to rely on feel, to pay attention to nuance, to act and appraise the consequences of one’s choices and to revise and then to make other choices. Getting these relationships right requires what [philosopher] Nelson Goodman calls ‘rightness of fit.’ Artists and all who work with the composition of qualities try to achieve a ‘rightness of fit'” (Eisner, 2002).
Resisting closure and making qualitative value judgements are aptly realized through materials-based explorations. Materials-based learning is the foundation behind how we envision and communicate understandings of abstract spatial, social and emotional relationships. Selecting and arranging artistic materials leads to insights into real-world issues. This is why learning through materials is the crux of the kindergarten curriculum and why a lifelong kindergarten approach has been advocated (see: “We All Scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits”).
Arts educator and researcher Louisa Penfold explains this concept with an example of how block play via Fröbel’s Gifts and other early childhood manipulatives apply to the aforementioned artistic habits of mind: “wooden blocks could be used to teach numeracy and counting. Then the same blocks could be used to build a house, allowing children to learn about concepts such as height and size. Finally, the block house could be used to construct a story and teach literacy and language skills” (Penfeld, 2020). This method of turning abstract thinking into open-ended, yet tangible results is in line with the architectural mantra “form follows function,” which means that the purpose of a structure should inform how it is physically shaped.
In art, the idea of form following function is a flexible standard that depends on judgment rather than finite measurements or rules. When making judgements, exhibiting compassion and empathy (other habits of mind taught through the arts) is paramount towards establishing meaningful responses and making a cultural impact. We can become more empathetic by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can both inspire and challenge us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from their distinct vantage points. An essential question to ask when addressing our current experiential reality, is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? Artwork elicits open-ended conversations regarding what it means to make space for a plurality of voices and support each other’s agency and expression. A better world is not out of the question, and art has a variety of answers and visionary examples that should inspire us to work towards making the idealistic elements of futurist societies a distinct possibility.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Burton, Judith M. “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 41, no. 4, 2000, pp. 330–45. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1320677. Accessed 26 Mar. 2023.
Cole, Lilly. 2020. Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in a Changing World. New York: Rizzoli Ex Libris.
Curcio, Sally. “Tableaux for the Future.” University of Massachusetts Amherst Masters Thesis. 2022. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/masters_theses_2/1260
Davis, Ben. “Congolese Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Most Ambitious Work Is an Intricate Dream City. Here’s How to Understand It,” artnet, 26 June 2018. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/bodys-isek-kingelez-1308167
Eisner, Elliot W. 2002. “What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education?,” The Encyclopedia of Pedagogy and Informal Education’ https://infed.org/mobi/what-can-education-learn-from-the-arts-about-the-practice-of-education/ (Originally given as the John Dewey Lecture for 2002, Stanford University).
MacCormac, R. C. “Froebel’s Kindergarten Gifts and the Early Work of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 1(1), 1974. pps. 29–50. https://doi.org/10.1068/b010029
Penfold, Louisa. “Froebel’s Gifts and Isamu Noguchi’s Playgrounds.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 15 April 2020. http://www.louisapenfold.com/froebel-gifts-noguchi-playscapes/
Rubin, Jeanne S. “The Froebel-Wright Kindergarten Connection: A New Perspective.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 48, no. 1, 1989, pp. 24–37. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/990404. Accessed 26 Mar. 2023.
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Thank you for sharing my writing!
Fantastic writing! This a great read accompanied by amazing art. I learned a lot. 🙂
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