October 7, 2007

High Museums, High Modernism, and Activist Games

by Mary Flanagan · , 1:46 pm

The designer, artist, and architect “Le Corbusier” may be quite familiar to many of you, the architectural grandaddy (1887-1965) born under the name of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. Le Corbu altered world architecture forever with his modernist passion for clarity, line, modularity, and what can only be described as ‘legibility.’ His book, The Decorative Art of Today, was a polemic against craft and ornamentation in interior decor (translated by James Dunnett, published by MIT Press in 1987). His other works, The City of Tomorrow and The Modulor series were also published by MIT in translation. His 1925 “Plan Voisin” for Paris, for example, will be a familiar style of modernist urban architecture:

The new Le Corbusier exhibition in Tokyo at the Mori Museum —

on the 57th floor of a great glass tower — the massive show features three to-scale interiors of his design (his Paris atelier), a life size three bedroom apartment from

“Unité d’Habitation,” his design for a 1,600 person apartment block in Marseilles, and a reproduction of his country cabin, “le Petite Cabanon,” which seems a design almost too good to be true for the prefab architecture community.

In this major Japanese exhibit, as in many pockets of planning and scholarship, Le Corbusier is celebrated as a hero of modern design, a symbol of a new social and cultural era. The Mori exhibit extolls the human-centered virtues of the Le Corbusier designs: the wisdom of the daycare centers, for example, to be designed into apartment blocks, or the green spaces designed near every dwelling. Mori curators noted that Le Corbusier’s ideas inspired much of the postwar construction in Japan. The same is true for the Soviet Union, where designs such as his plan for the “Palace of the Soviets”

built in response to a 1931 open call for an administrative center and a congress hall in Moscow, near the Kremlin and on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Le Corbusier’s built buildings such as the “House of the New Way of Life” in Moscow are now facing the wear and tear of age. This building, designed by Moisy Ginzburg for the Narkomfin (the abbreviation for the People’s ‘Commissariat of Finance’) in 1930, had several common areas such as exercise area, nursery, and roof garden.

While the Mori celebrated one of the most well known architects of the 20th Century, many scholars, however (among them Jane Jacobs and James C. Scott) have found Le Corbusier’s high-minded and idealist work also highly problematic. He firmly believed in a strong spatial separation of human functions (workplace, play-place/entertainment, and living should be in distinct districts) in the city. Mixed use, including the corner store, was unfavored and visually unorderly. His ideas for public spaces (such as his plan for the Palace of Soviets competition, 1931) were often cold, grandiose, and sterile. Humorously, his plans and models rarely include more than one or two streets to hold the impending traffic he certainly could not have anticipated. It seems that a visibly legible city should, by the likes of modernists, be a pleasant one to live in, but generally, a New Yorker might voice another opinion.

The reasons I’m interested in discussing architecture here on GTxA are several fold, primarily because, as someone interested in social change (a focus of my lab Tiltfactor), I’m drawn to utopian projects overall. Seeing the disjuncture between this architect’s lived design and the planned design leads to a serious gap between theory and practice. Did Le Corbusier’s designs fail merely because they were only partly executed? Day care and communal kitchens, for example, are lacking in the public housing projects modelled after his designs…

In the early days of interactive design, the best designers were always architects: they anticipated humanity’s penchant for behavior and choice, and their job is to make immersive experiences. Second, architecture such as that of Le Corbusier was embedded with a strong activist, almost utopian, premise: Build a better system, a better city, and we will all have better lives. Time has shown, however, that this is not true. Many such utopian modernist schemes have fallen awry—sometimes, as in the case of public housing towers, seriously awry.

For those of us interested in the political potential in games, we can learn from this design cycle. First, while we cannot merely reskin games and expect the mechanics of the game to embody our desired meaning by association, we also cannot impose radically new player paradigms onto existing systems and expect success. This would be rejecting what people, what players, already like to do; in the comparison with the city, it would be like urban designers ignoring everyday life for something ‘better’ that they designed. Learning from the larger cycles of social movements or the challenges historically faced by activist groups is something I am trying to explore for my work with the games for change community. In effect, I am arguing here for “incremental alterations” and player-centered, or even more specifically, player centered experience-centered, design practices to make sure modernist practices of overdesign for logic, purpose, and aesthetics do not overrun the intent of game designers wishing to embody social change.