Anyone can list such cases encountered during their explorations, where a lesson was learnt, or a phenomenon was interpreted. On one of his early travels to Italy, Peter Behrens visited the San Miniato al Monte church in Firenze, a gem of Tuscan Romanesque architecture. Only after seeing this architecture and learning about the tectonic relationships between the marble surfaces and the structure, sequences of interiors and parietal decoration, reaching its pinnacle in the magical apse with alabaster windows, did he – a set designer, artist, and designer – start to develop sensitivity towards the three-dimensional potential of architecture and its “composition”, which will leave a mark on his future professional career. There are endless references to the significance of visits to Italy for the young Le Corbusier, particularly his encounters with classical architecture, e.g. his sketches and photographs of Ancient Roman architecture (particularly Pompeii and Villa Adriana), urban morphology, and articulation of public spaces of historical cities (e.g. the St Mark's Square in Venice). The avantgarde spaces of this Swiss architect, who developed them from the mid-1920s onwards in his villas, urban complexes, and public buildings are none other than the result – albeit in different scales and articulation – of the same tools as those used by Ancient Roman architects: complexity of sequences, polycentricism and polythematics of spaces, use of various plans, use of shadow or contrast between illuminated and shaded surfaces.
Coming nearer to the present day, we can remember the passion that Peter Eisenman in the 1960s developed towards the great Italian modernist architect Giuseppe Terragni. In his Italian travels, Eisenman, then a student of Colin Rowe, had the opportunity to visit the famous Casa del Fascio in Como, where he studied, with his own criteria and inspirations, the complex three-dimensional skeleton staged by Terragni, as a unique taxonomy of relationships between architectural elements, surfaces, and spaces. This analytical reading led him to experimental design of a series of Houses of Cards in the 1970s, though only four were actually completed; particularly worth mentioning is House II in Vermont.
I had the opportunity to get to know Aldo van Eyck and Alison and Peter Smithson, and study Team X in general, only during the final period of my university studies at the Venice IUAV. In the school’s clearly inspiring, but not very playful, atmosphere, which in the early 1990s still partially dictated international architectural theory, there simply was no room for innovative and creative design methods from the 1960s. The monumentality of architectural articulation and urban typologies by Aldo Rossi, the consistency of grand-scale design by Vittorio Gregotti, or rigorous historical and theoretical lessons developed by Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co dominated with their sublime logic the transfer of knowledge to the students of architecture. Everything that was the result of thinking, supported by theoretical analysis and reflection, everything that touched upon architectural and literary origins, was considered and estimated as “good architecture”. There was never enough room for improvisation, personal taste, or inspiration. Hollein’s Alles ist Architektur, De Carlo’s spatial labyrinths, and any type of Neotopia (from Superstudio to Archizoom and Archigram) were rejected, and – which we still agree with today – any kind of linguistic trivialising of architecture was shunned, as triggered by the Portoghesi biennale during the catastrophic times of postmodernist tendencies.
For a long time I thought, under the ideological influence of my school, that architecture cannot be playful. Then, during an explorative pilgrimage of Dutch architecture, I got to learn about Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds. Several hundreds of playgrounds for children, built between 1947 and the late 1960s, were built throughout Amsterdam and thus in a simple way filled the gaps that occurred after the devastation of Dutch ports during World War II. Apart from being fascinated by the quality of individual developments, the most interesting aspect of this urban design initiative was the idea to develop the whole city as a play area, as one large, branched-out network connecting points, which are created for a child’s exploration and discovery.
Even though these playgrounds have now mostly disappeared and are forgotten, in the historical and theoretical sense they are still understood as one of the key paradigmatic projects of the 20th century urban planning. Van Eyck’s initiative is a symbolic shift from modernist methodologies of integrated planning, used by architects to spatially determine practically each segment of human lives – an ideal which was part of my formative years at IUAV. My encounter with black and white photography, documenting this vast number of various playgrounds, played in this sense – in terms of my formation, my understanding of architectural and urban design – a decisive role: laughing children having fun, swinging, and running in playgrounds inside Amsterdam’s dense urban structure; on the one hand, their activities created urbanity, on the other hand, the architect created the diversity of urban spaces without interfering with the authorship of the architecture. These photographs opened in me new views of architectural and urban design practice or, better put, action based on the idea of bottom-up planning, which is literally supporting the idea of an open-ended function and playful and imaginative use of urban spaces.
I, too, grew up on such playgrounds, but I was not aware of this until my encounter with Van Eyck. As a child I was not aware that other people did not have the same privileges as I did. I grew up on the streets of Split III, on Dinka Šimunovića street at Trstenik, one of the most elaborate neighbourhoods of a gigantic project designed by the design team at the Urban Planning Institute of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, headed by Vladimir Braco Mušič, Marjan Bežan, and Nives Starc. Here we refer to the expansion of modern-day Split, composed of polyfunctional neighbourhoods, which developed through a network of pedestrian-only streets that connected parallel residential buildings. In this pedestrian paradise all of us, children of Split III, felt that the world was our playground, to paraphrase Van Eyck. We used and discovered countless, different, open spaces, as conceived by the architects. Each game had its space and its space was open to our innovations. From the terraces of the concrete lamellas, our mothers could look over us playing, feeling calm because of the separation of our playgrounds and traffic. Kindergartens, schools, health clinics, shopping centres were all within our reach via pedestrian-only streets, which followed the old Roman centuriation, whose traces were still present in the 1960s, while designers skilfully exploited, and spatially interpreted, them from the design competition onward. The housing buildings per se (disliked by Croatians today only due to their socialist origin) provided home to people, among which, of course, were friends, and spatially delimited streets so that the scale, dimensions, and development of pedestrian-only streets were reminiscent of the kalas (narrow streets) in Dalmatian historic old towns. We felt safe, we identified with the part of the city, and lived in the same way as depicted in the movie Sreča na vrvici (Happiness on a Leash) by Jane Kavčič and Vitan Mal, which was shot in the first completed neighbourhood by Mušič, Bežan, and Starc: BS3 – Bežigrad Neighbourhood Number 3.
In Split III, far away from any direct references to historical heritage, designers used tools of ancient builders, but using completely new scales and materials. According to Mušič, the observation and interpretation of Italian and Adriatic towns were among the fundamental aspects of Ravnikar’s studies during his frequent seminar field trips in Italy and Yugoslavian coast, where “rather than relationships between buildings and open city spaces, this involved the behaviour of citizens and what was wittily called espresso urbanism: an array of attractive extrovert cafés, unlike introvert Slovenian bars”.
In this sense, the revisiting of historical architecture or urban complexes once again strongly affected the culture of designers, which in the years of discussions about the crisis of modernist methodologies in design looked for new tools and new spatial inspirations. Indeed, Van Eyck, playfulness, and creative design were the key inspirations for Slovenian designers.
Nevertheless, more than any visit of architecture, urban complex, and vision of an image the formation – the learning process itself is the most intensive process of playing that I am aware of. Not only to learn from those who possess knowledge, but to see learning as a game, where curiosity, patience, and resilience lead to unknown and unexpected results. This destabilises each certainty created in a specific period in history.
This Editorial is dedicated to the memory of Marjan Bežan who passed away in 2017.