Play Lab

or Constructivism, Play, and the Spatial System

Spring 2017 Topic Studio at the USC SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE
Instructor: Laurel Consuelo Broughton

Partnered with The Knowing Garden,  a constructivist elementary school in Redondo Beach, CA. Special thank yous to Samantha Lee, Gabriela Schweizer, Cristina Gomez, and Tien Thinh Nguyen.


According to lore, Charles and Ray Eames considered at some point giving up design and joining the circus. At what point in their career I’m not sure—I often wonder when it was that this idea was entertained. Say after a particularly annoying day when the plywood molder broke? Or if a check was late from Herman Miller? Or just late at night in socks over a bottle of wine. Did they even have late nights in socks? Or was it simply an all the time a topic of constant conversation?

Regardless, their photographic documentation of the circus reappears in projects and films throughout their careers. Charles noted in a talk at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1974), “ The circus is a nomadic society which is very rich and colorful but which shows apparent license on the surface… Everything in the circus is pushing the possible beyond the limit… Yet, within this apparent freewheeling license, we find a discipline which is almost unbelievable.” Discipline is the substrate which underlay the playful sensibility of the Eames’ work and their maxim: “take your pleasure seriously.”


And it is this idea of discipline and pleasure or rather play (not Discipline and Punish but probably related) that we explore in this studio through an investigation into constructivism, modular toys, and the production of flexible spatial systems.

We understand “discipline” in two ways, first as a rigorous engagement with our topics of research and second, as an engagement or conversation with the “discipline” of architecture. It is a well known fact that both architects and buildings take themselves perhaps too seriously. And that architects rarely like people to play with or change their buildings. (Note Edith Farnsworth, Mies van der Rohe, and that rumored matter of curtains.) But what happens when architecture is designed as a big toy? Or can we design a toy system that is so big that it becomes architecture and yet can be moved, changed, rearranged, and added to by the users? These questions move us toward the final design project of the semester, an experimental indoor/outdoor play lab.


The studio oscillated between quantitative and qualitative research modes. A such was structured around a constructivist idea of learning through making. We began the semester by studying canonical constructivist toys, then making our own modular toys which scaled into modular spatial systems. Students employed systems at multiple scales (object, furniture, building, film) and in multiple mediums (rhino, physical models, drawings, film, wood, etc) and using myriad techniques to produce animated and filmic representations, functional models, and 1:1 objects that transformed the toys from idea to artifact and space.