Narrated by William H. Whyte in 1980.
Classic, and strangely familiar if you work in product, or skateboard.
I admit it: I collect hippie books. Optimistic books about making things published by very small presses in the 1970s.
But I only recently realized that I can download PDFs of many of these books from the Library of Radiant Optimism for Let’s Remake the World, and I’m so glad I did. Because I’ve now discovered the joy of Ken Isaacs and want to share his work with the world.
Isaacs was an architect who designed and built modular, multifunctional Living Structures (bigger than furniture and smaller than architecture) which reconfigured the volume of a room. Living Structures were also called Matrices, groups of “mobile space modules like 3D graph paper that you live in and around.” This work led to the development of Microhouses based on stacked tetrahedrons: tiny freestanding buildings made out of stressed-skin plywood panels and galvanized steel pipes.
His 1974 DIY classic How to Build Your Own Living Structures is very hard to find, but you can download a PDF of it from Let’s Remake or a higher-resolution version from Public Collectors, which has a collection of equally awesome books up for grabs (check out Working Big: A Teacher’s Guide to Environmental Sculpture).
I’m really not very handy, and I’m an unlikely secret hippie, but Living Structures has actually got me motivated to go find a “real hardware store” (“where the clerks are grim as deacons since they are the last guardians of scarce and arcane products”) and buy some woodworking tools. The book is extremely fun to read and also contains the kind of concise, no-nonsense specs any product person can appreciate.
You get a sense early on of where Isaacs is coming from when he starts talking about lofts.
THE NEW FREESTANDING SLEEPING LOFT/ Marshaling long arguments in favor of the sleeping loft right now is about as gratuitous as paperbacking an Eskimo edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s early food-refrigeration experiments. The loft bed is so nifty and exciting to retire to and makes so much sense spatially that it is even rumored that politicians use them. Sleeping above floor level frees a large area of the room for other uses. The traditional static worldview plops a monster BED down in the middle of a room and forever after that the room is a bedroom. It doesn’t even matter how big the room is. Traditional beds, space-eating monsters hunkering down on the floor, are such a presence that three of them could crowd the Astrodome. We are just getting on to the fact that what we can can really use now are multifunctional spaces which can be camera workshops in the morning, rehearsal halls in the afternoon, friendly restaurants in the evening and sleeping areas for only about six hours late at night. Space is too precious to be limited ritualistically to single functions.
But he also goes into fatherhood:
supercool didn’t prepare me for the wonder of the benign explosion which was the entry of Joshua Henry Isaacs into our collective life. I tended to think of abstract reasons for rearing children making it worth the hassle. The awesome truth is that it’s some experience, like having some exotic stranger come for a long visit. It’s the one life experience I’ve found impossible to take for granted even after all this time. No ego trip like the old-fashioned world but more like watching a beautiful little peach tree grow. The only ego thing involved is watching reinterpreted echoes of your own behavior and attitudes appear in this midget like the reverb from some mighty speaker in the sky driven by the DNA spiral. Sometimes this is OK but sometimes it makes you cringe and hope for the best.
If you want to read these things in bed or in transit on your iPhone or iPad, I recommend the free MyPDFs mobile reader or the iPad-optimized CloudReaders. Back issues of Radical Software are also fun to read this way.
“The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building, or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.
“This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated by the seed.”
(The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)
But the websites we’re building are less akin to houses and parking lots than playgrounds. We want people to stick around, have fun, socialize, create, and find new and novel uses for the structures we’ve put in place.
When people are spending a lot of time on your site connecting with one another, essentially engaged in play, your site can begin to attain that “quality without a name” Alexander wrote about. It starts to feel alive.
So I’ve been spending more time reading about playground design. Not just Isamu Noguchi’s playground work, which is a life’s study in itself (and a great drama, Noguchi v. Robert Moses), but contemporary playground design theory which appears to have been flourishing in continental Europe for some time.
Great playgrounds and great web apps are rich with opportunities for play and inspire creative approaches. They’re open-ended enough for you to make them your own and reveal new possibilities as you become more engaged with them. And they’re accessible: a beautiful playground or website that no one uses doesn’t cut it. Kids are discriminating about where they play, and people don’t use websites just because they’re there.
In Play England’s Design for Play: A Guide to Creating Successful Play Spaces, a set of design principles for playgrounds are enumerated which could as easily be applied to web apps. Successful play spaces provide a range of play opportunities, meet community needs by engaging everyone in its design, build in opportunities for risk and challenge, and allow for change and evolution based on usage.
It’s important to leave the door open to new usage, similar to the way classic skateboarding spots like the Southbank Centre Undercroft in London (and hopefully someday the Brooklyn Banks) have embraced their designation as places to skate.
In the United States, we happen to be living in a golden age of poured-concrete skatepark construction. A half-dozen have opened in New York City within the last year. And after a period of sticking to various conventions and tropes, skatepark designers are pushing themselves to create public spaces packed with possibilities. See: Skateable Art and this park by Jeff Paprocki in Middlefield, CT.
Fundamental to great skateparks and play spaces are non-prescriptive features. Design for Play highlights Trefusis Playing Field in Kerrier, England, which contains elements with no defined function such as this curved concrete structure. It can be used for skateboarding, seating or for children to run along, or something else we haven’t thought of.
Facebook the lobster trap and Twitter the blue-ball machine both contain non-prescriptive features put to creative use daily. Twitter occasionally builds in support for some of these uses, like retweeting.
Playscapes is a playground blog I encourage spending time on (most of the playground pics here are from there), and Susan Solomon’s American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space is a playground book I encourage owning.
In A Pattern Language, Alexander recommends adventure playgrounds for children: “a place with raw materials of all kinds—nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass and water—where children can create and recreate playgrounds of their own.”
I like to think of the internet as one big adventure playground where we’re creating our own playgrounds.