Child’s Play

On the cultural perception of architecture as a kind of uber-kindergarten.

“Mini V5,” Melbourne, 2007. [All photos by Ben Thomas]

Once upon a time I was visiting a friend’s architecture practice, and we were discussing the model of a building they were working on in the office. Another friend, not an architect, was due to meet us there. When she arrived and found us peering into the model, she immediately asked, with perfectly timed faux-innocent facetiousness: And where does dolly sleep?

The joke was a riff on the similarity between the scale model and the doll’s house, hence a crack about the work life of architects being really not employment at all but a kind of sheltered workshop: a sanctioned, professionalized playgroup. It confirmed something I had long suspected. At university, students from other courses felt that we in architecture weren’t really studying at all; to them the studio seemed like some kind of uber-kindergarten, legitimated for academic credit. All that drawing and coloring and making of models, the schoolroom pleasures of handwriting and penmanship; the campish technicality of architecture’s tools seemed to them closer to props and toys than specialist implements (the quaintness of drawing instruments, back then, when I was training — T squares! compasses! stencils!). The architecture profession seemed from the outside, and perhaps even to us on the inside, to promise an idyllic eternal childhood of balsa and glue and gee-whiz drawings on computers.

The architecture profession seemed to promise an idyllic eternal childhood of balsa and glue and gee-whiz drawings on computers.

There’s no point arguing that such perceptions have little basis in the hard reality of architectural work — as with all mythologies, no amount of “truth” will dispel the power of the idea. And furthermore, as the years have passed and I have observed actual architects in their work environments, I have indeed seen scraps of evidence of — well, if not childishness, at least youthfulness enduring amongst them. It’s a fact that many architects affect a youthful persona, dressing much younger than their years, often staying in the garb of their early twenties for decades. I can only speak of Australian architects, but it is notable how the men tend to avoid business suits in favor of expensively casual jeans and “streetwear,” and while in my experience the women tend to be more formally dressed, even then it’s not unheard-of to come across a female architect in pigtails and flip-flops.

Then there is the way that architects’ offices are often full of curios and geegaws that in other, more conventionally “adult” professional contexts would appear entirely out of place, and which in some cases are literally toys. It’s revealing that there are indeed so many architecture-themed toys available — apart from your classic building blocks, and all the children’s books about architecture and architects, and of course Architect Barbie, Lego sells a fabulously peculiar architecture collection ranging from modernist classics (the Villa Savoye and Fallingwater) to the Burj Khalifa, the Brandenburg Gate, and the 14th-century Korean Sungnyemun. Leaving aside their appeal to the preteens, there is a pleasure for architects in such toys, in the flirtatious play between high and low culture: what could be more amusingly pop-transgressive than a Lego Farnsworth House! Mies would be rolling in his grave, and that’s the fun of it. I would warrant there are plenty of these sitting on desks in architecture offices; maybe architects are even the primary target market.

Top: “From a Wheel,” Melbourne, 2007. Bottom: “Bump,” Tokyo, 2008.

So way back at university, there was envy in the attitude of my buddies from other disciplines, as well as a kind of cynical knowingness: pity and protect these poor fool architects, playing with their toys in a fantasy world while reality grinds on around them. But I thought I also detected a kind of superiority in their attitude, and this was later confirmed in another moment of accidental insight from a non-architect friend. It was the early noughties and I was teaching in an architecture school in Sydney. I decided to bring my new squeeze to the opening of our graduating student architecture exhibition. My date happened to be a medical specialist — you’d think someone with a suitable respect for long years of education and training. But as we walked among the drawings and models, she said it: I reckon I could do this. It doesn’t look that hard.

Dismaying as it was to hear those words, especially having spent five long years teaching and shepherding these students towards their final projects, I realized immediately that there was more going on here than some version of that irksome old response to abstract expressionist art: my four-year-old could do better. That chestnut is usually (I assume) the result of the viewer objecting to an apparent lack of technique and craft in the work, and balking at the class distinctions and taste implications of an art world that takes such apparent squiggles seriously. The statement represents an attempt to point out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. But my date wasn’t saying that at all. Rather she believed that anyone really can design buildings: that we’re all experts at occupying and inhabiting them, and it’s only a short and easy step from that to designing them yourself.

Over on Stuff White People Like, Chris Lander has argued something similar. “The reason white people love architecture so much is that deep down they believe that they could have been a great architect. They feel the same way about other professions including: professor, writer, and politician.” In my experience, and leaving aside for the moment Lander’s acute observation on architecture’s “whiteness,” this is absolutely true. But if everyone could have been a great architect, then the work of actual architects, great or not, tends to diminish; and this is what my friend was casually inferring, as we walked the aisles of painstakingly prepared drawings. She had articulated what so many people seem to think about architecture, and about houses in particular —that anyone can design their own dream home, and could have done so virtually since birth, or at least since they could hold a pencil and sketch on a napkin. The only reason you might need an architect would be to draw it all up. Architecture, in other words, is child’s play.

Top: “Impossible,” Paris, 2009. Bottom: “Dumbo,” New York, 2011.

Playfulness, Creativity, Superfluity

Of course, play doesn’t have to be childish, and in any case the idea that all creative occupations are some form of ludic behavior is fairly commonplace. But the thing about play is that it’s both enjoyable and seemingly aimless, so when a profession is framed in this light it leads both to glorification and marginalization. In architecture this is borne out in many ways, not least from a client’s point of view — architecture is the frolicsome thing you spend your money on after you’ve made it in some other, more serious pursuit, like banking or law. The apparent frivolity of architecture — its dedication to more than the simply pragmatic and practical — is also the mark of its superfluity. Vitruvian delight might just as easily be called folly. And if architecture can be recognized by the presence of ornament, as Ruskin argued, then might it not follow that architecture itself can be dismissed as “merely” an ornament to the built environment? And doesn’t this make it both redundant and frivolous? Furthermore, by the time we start to seriously examine the ways in which architecture and architects are framed in popular culture, the question inevitably arises: why is architecture so consistently infantilized?

If architecture can be recognized by the presence of ornament, might it not follow that architecture itself can be dismissed as ‘merely’ an ornament to the built environment?

But despite all of my observations on the matter, over many years, it wasn’t until I recently wrote an essay for this journal about children’s books featuring architects that I got to thinking more deeply about how architecture aligns with the interests of children, and how it is framed in the popular mind as a somehow childlike pursuit. Children’s books like Iggy Peck: Architect and If I Built a House spell out a clear message: that the talents required to be a good designer of buildings — imagination, non-conformity, inventiveness — are all born rather than made; they are innate and hence already present in children. Following from this line of thought, education and training are by definition unnecessary, even harmful, and the best architects are those who remain closest to their authentically creative and playful (child) selves, rather than their apparently hidebound and conventional (adult) peers.

Let me stress that I don’t actually subscribe to such ideas — all this is the ideology of genius, unvarnished. But what I do find interesting is the cultural construction of architecture, and the strange and unique place it seems to occupy in the popular imaginary. This is almost entirely a matter of perceptions and projections from outside of the profession, and it is both constructed by and evidenced in popular culture, and in particular the movies.

Top: “Coiting,” San Francisco, 2011. Bottom: “Platz,” Berlin, 2009.

Cinematic Playboys and Prima Donnas

Let’s look at the portrayal of the movie architect as playboy; and I use the word playboy advisedly here, since the vast majority of architect characters in film are male. There are exceptions (the Michelle Pfeiffer character in One Fine Day, for example) but the connotation is different when the protagonist is a woman, and I am most interested here in the apparent playfulness of these desirably carefree male heroes. Nancy Levinson has discussed the ways in which architects are fascinatingly over-represented as characters in popular film. 1 How many times have you innocently sat down to watch a movie only to groan when the male lead turns out to be another bloody architect? What a hoary cliché! If a distant race of alien anthropologists were to gather all their information about human beings solely from North American movies, they would think that half the male population were architects: uniformly handsome and stylish, sensitive yet masculine, creative yet constructive, cultured, rich, well appointed in clothing, dwelling and vehicle, and strangely unbounded by deadlines or indeed the apparent need to do any work at all. The stereotype is so dusty that it has itself been parodied — in the 1998 Farrelly Brothers gross out/romantic comedy There’s Something About Mary, not one but two sleazy dudes pretend to be an architect in order to win the affections of the female lead. In actuality (or in the actuality of the movie) one is a private detective and the other a pizza delivery guy, so in the grand hierarchy of occupational status, architecture must be higher up than both of these, deservedly or not. 2

Of course, on the flip side of the playfully creative movie-architect-persona are all the bad implications of childishness: the infantile, petulant, irresponsible, self-indulgent prima donna. There are plenty of these fey architects in the movies too, led by that archetypal megalomaniac-narcissist Howard Roark of The Fountainhead. For what else was his final defiant act — blowing up his compromised high-rise — if not a massive tantrum? It doesn’t take much for idealism to tip over into stubbornness, for the singular pursuit of creative vision to cross the line into recklessness with someone else’s money. But still, on balance, architecture gets a lot of very good press in the movies — it’s the most popular job you never had.

The practice and profession of architecture floats in a liminal space, somewhere between imaginative and practical, art and engineering, the child and adult realms.

Since it seems like such a fabulous life (and lifestyle), it’s little wonder that the architecture schools are still turning applicants away, even as actual professional working conditions become arguably less attractive by the day. But if the actual practice of architecture is about as grown up as you could get, with its high stress, long hours, low pay, and relative lack of creative opportunities, still the image of the profession in popular culture remains bizarrely glamorous, carefree and playful. In fact the question is not whether it should really rank so high on the list of desirable occupations, but instead what this constructed position can tell us about how the public (that is, the clients and users of buildings) tends to perceive architects, and their buildings. And in this sense we can see that the practice and profession of architecture floats in a liminal space, somewhere between imaginative and practical, art and engineering, the child and adult realms.

Top: “Advance,” London, 2009. Bottom: “Brohattan,” New York, 2011.

Doll’s Houses and Scale Models

And this brings me back to where I started from, the analogy between the doll’s house and the scale model. Their most significant commonality, of course, is miniaturization. Both are at scale — the standard for dolls houses is 1:12, which makes them relatively bigger than most architectural models, but which also underscores that they are indeed scale models themselves. Both have accuracy in/and/of detail — their correctness as pleasing as their smallness, their exactness as pleasing as their delineation. What they miss in size, they make up in detail, as though their very intricacy could be infinite. Both doll’s houses and scale models thus throw the viewer into a new relativity — they make us gigantic, casting us as Gulliver to their Lilliputian likenesses. They literally give a new perspective, but this is a warped and yawning trompe l’oeil, since the miniature house reframes the viewers as enormous, but simultaneously casts them as children. At the same time, there are many things about doll’s houses that are decidedly not suitable for children — tiny, delicate furnishings just begging to be broken, inhaled or poked up a nostril. On the contemporary market, doll’s houses are bought and appreciated by adults just as much as children — the only difference is that the adults are called “collectors.”

Doll’s houses were not originally the domain of children at all, as the English professor Susan Stewart observes in her magnificent and kaleidoscopic book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Like fashion dolls, which were originally the playthings of wealthy society ladies, the most famous early doll’s houses belonged to powerful women: both Duchess Augusta Dorothea of Schwarzburg-Gotha, in the 18th century, and Queen Mary of England, in the early 20th century, had doll’s houses which, according to Stewart, were “extravagant displays of upper-class ways of life which were meant to stop time and thus present the illusion of a perfectly complete and hermetic world.” 3 The doll’s house thus offers the ability to control both space and time, and within its strict confines it allows both a perfection and a permanence unattainable in the real world. To stand outside the doll’s house is to be powerful and transcendent, looking inwards into a kind of theatrical stage set. The interiority of the doll’s house, its privacy and homeliness, which can equally be a prison-like enclosure, makes it a highly charged space for narrative (as Ibsen well noted). Stewart observes that doll’s houses embody the idea of containment: a container for dolls, certainly, but also for their entire world, which is just like ours only controllable, domesticated, fixed.

It’s true that the architectural model and the doll’s house stand in a different temporal relationship with real buildings. Working models usually precede a building; they are a means for architects to resolve design ideas at scale, “playing” with form and spatial configurations, while presentation models are built to “sell” a set of design ideas, again as a precursor to construction. Doll’s houses, on the other hand, are all about imagined inhabitation of a complete building — they are almost always fully furnished, and not only with furniture and fixtures, but also tiny pots and pans, fruit and vegetables, doilies and teapots. Scale models are about the formal qualities of the building as empty shell, while the doll’s house is entirely occupied, even over-occupied: doll’s houses go further than simply being furnished, they accommodate a whole self-enclosed and coherent world. And while architectural scale models are most often vacant, a formal shell occupied only by the architect’s gigantic fingers, doll’s houses are well and truly inhabited. Interestingly though, this is often not by dolls as such: “doll’s house people,” at the correct scale and proportions, are viewed amongst aficionados as the proper occupants of such dwellings.

And this brings me back, finally, to my friend’s joke: And where does dolly sleep?

Top: “Take,” Berlin, 2009. Bottom: “Arc,” Paris, 2009.

It seems to me no coincidence that the tease is itself a diminution; it has the effect of shrinking the pretensions and scope of architecture, both domesticating and feminizing the profession. Which is of course why it was funny: it was effectively an insult. But an insult can be instructive, and on reflection it is easy to see the larger implications of popular culture’s infantilization of the architecture profession: architects themselves are the “doll’s house people.” How unsurprising, then, that scale models and doll’s houses should be so easily equated: if the pursuit of architecture is child-like, then all scale models are doll’s houses, of which the ultimate inhabitant is the architect himself or herself, working in a gilded cage.

In all the discussion around the 2011 release of Architect Barbie, and what she might mean for women in architecture, it was overlooked that Ken — the playboy plaything — could very well have been an architect all along. What are all those movie architects if not Ken-like: simultaneously idealized and disempowered, portrayed as “romantic” in every sense of that word — dreamy, visionary and otherworldly, as well as amorous and desirable. In the movies the architect himself (less often herself) becomes a “model,” a perfect and perfectly malleable figure or type; how appropriate that they should also deal in that other kind of model, its tiny spaces inhabited by imagination. If the profession of architecture is constructed from the outside as an escapist daydream, available for the idle fantasizing and wish-fulfillment of all, then this leaves the whole profession operating inside a doll’s house: idyllic, hermetic and controlled, but largely powerless to act in the actual world.

  1. Nancy Levinson, “Tall Buildings, Tall Tales,” in Architecture and Film, ed. Mark Lamster (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000),11-48. I am grateful to Nancy for starting me off on this train of thought, way back at the turn of the millennium. And now, years later, I am also grateful for her insights and ideas for this present essay.
  2. See also those Seinfeld episodes wherein George Costanza pretends to be an architect to impress women: “Nothing is higher than Architect.”
  3. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 62.
Naomi Stead, “Child’s Play,” Places Journal, April 2013. Accessed 06 Feb 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.30.2013 at 17:55

    "Where does dolly sleep?' is a question more revealing of the asker. A woman (in the broad term) feminizes herself by categorizing and making judgments based on popular perception and looks. The medical person also misses the point--they aren't DOING it, and therefore they never will. A scale model is a 3D sketch. After the scale model (or design school), you move to the development, then construction documents, meetings, politics, more meetings, construction then completion. If models are fetishized, it's for good reason, because those details are magnified 100x in reality whether its a graphic design or building. I'm sure it doesn't look like child's play when that same woman or medical person visits the cocktail party for the completed result.

    It is a fact that many of the greatest insights are discovered early in life when play is more acceptable (i.e. before marriage--the true feminization of man): Einstein thought up the theory of relativity as a bored patent clerk in his 20s, Mozart was a child prodigy who "played" with music, and of course Facebook was invented by a teenager. Roark, the character, was actually not a narcissist at all but completely opposite--he doesn't care what anybody things--that is sort of the whole point of that tale.

    Let's be honest, a woman is biologically programmed to categorize mates based on notions of quality, while most men provide for that women and the most successful men create something new entirely. Without men, nobody would have crossed the atlantic, gone to the moon, created skyscrapers. And all we get is the big piece of chicken and some belittling jokes. Thanks! We still love you anyway.

  • 04.30.2013 at 18:09

    Speaking of Facebook and child's play models, I found that young Zuckerberg's hiring of tired, old Gehry for the Facebook campus to be completely strange. Though, in the span of the average digital life, maybe Facebook is ancient by now.

  • 05.01.2013 at 20:24

    Interesting article. This sort of makes me think of architectural education, what is important and what isn't. Many in the media are claiming that it is "outdated" and needs to take into account the rise of social design and new media. I'm not sure what that means. As long as architectural education is focused on the art of making buildings, new technologies, history and a well-rounded knowledge then it will be fine. If we start accepting the twitter image-baiting digital culture as fact, our society is in a lot of trouble.