Modes of Play

We work along four epistemological modes of engagement with the urban on its various scales: (1) Coming into play, (2) How to play, (3) Play and (4) Understanding the play. These four modes are repeated iteratively in research and teaching and are continuously developed so as to keep the process open. This openness, however, is not without structure. A minimal structure is provided by what we call Takes that serve to order theoretical considerations, practical issues and experiences, and reflections. The Take is a specific didactic form that derives from film and music. In jazz, for instance, a take is the recording of a piece in different versions with different improvisations. In research, teaching and design activities, the Take allows looking at different aspects of a situation, seeing a situation from different perspectives with different assemblages of theories and methods and reflecting under different circumstances. Serial fragmentation, taking apart and re-assembling, cataloguing and indexing are employed so as to pay attention to immanent potentialities and account for contingency, which is crucial for a real-life and contextual understanding of learning and practice in Urban Design. We are less interested in the representational effects an image seeks to trigger and more in the representation of traces into which are inscribed the possibilities of new ways of production (of meaning, of knowledge).

Coming into play

A series of Takes offer the concentrated collection and assemblage of data gathered from an always particular perspective and relating it back to context and its mode of production. This perspective requires both grounding in a relational understanding of space as socially co-produced and reflection over how a subjective ‘matter of concern’ 1 presents an entry point to creating an argument that problematizes a situation without closing its vector by seeking a solution. The collected material presents raw data that is analysed and re-assembled throughout the process of framing a project. Reviewed individually at first and then together when all Takes have been undertaken provides the basis to consider the specific focus under which the project will continue. Without claiming a finished product or result, working with a series of Takes is a first step of getting involved and coming into play.

How to play

The series of Takes provides the minimal structure necessary to work with an open form. Serving to produce perspectives and glimpses, associations and emphases rather than complete assignments, the Take is a way of collecting and working with material without closing it, i.e. without finalising a specific interpretation so that the collected material remains open for further perspectives, analyses and interpretations apart from the perhaps obvious disciplinary standpoint. Both the approach and concrete means and instruments to gather, document, analyse and interpret data are introduced in two subsequent methodology seminars and simultaneously applied in the projects. Methods of data collection (perception, observation, survey and interview) are followed by methods of documentation and visualisation (documentation, cartography, diagrammatic, narration) and lead to methods of data analysis and interpretation (Situational Analysis, Scenario). The superposed process of designing the research determines the specific application of this chronological order of going about a research undertaking. Following the emergence and articulation of a motif, a research question is framed and, if necessary, broken down into different aspects, which serves to clarify the research interest. The constant repetition and articulation of motif, question and interest in iterative loops throughout a research process borrows from music etudes and film takes. The engagement with the ‘how’ thus includes the reiteration and specification of the ‘what’, while the explication of the ‘what’ conversely feeds into the clarification of the ‘how’ – the kinds of data that need to be collected, documented, analysed and interpreted.


After a number of Takes have been undertaken, the collected material is now ready to be cut up, re-assembled and scaled up or down. Play, the liberal and open, yet internally structured and methodically applied research activity, echoes Arendt’s notion of agency. We transpose three of Arendt’s criteria in relation to action. That is firstly the connotation of the Greek ‘archein’, the ability to begin 2 – which leads to an unorthodox re-linking of archein to architecton –, secondly the character of unexpectedness as ‘inherent in all beginnings’ 3 and thirdly the capacity to ‘act in concert’ 4 . Playing with material (i.e. sketches, photos, interviews, descriptions), questions, ideas and associations as well as theoretical considerations (Grounded Theory and Actor-Network approaches) and practiced experiences (i.e. perceptions, observations, reflective mappings) enables or lays open a relationality and perspective that over-structured or overly teleological exercises do not allow to emerge. In fact, while exercises appear as streamlined paths to specific results, the Take gives an impulse, requires a personal interest to be taken up; it is impossible for students, academics or practitioners to undertake a Take without a motif. This understanding of work as play also involves the work’s presentation using A4 (and all other DIN-formats resulting of possible combinations of) sheets of paper pinned to the wall, so as to enable a discussion of the material in its intra-scalar relationality. Presentation here is not so much the graded exam situation in which students show their work and then sit back; it is in fact somewhat the opposite, another start as students and lecturers together discuss the issues and questions arising through a diagrammatical reading of the raw material and its context so as to unlock alternative ways of reading it out and developing further perspectives, new questions and novel relations from within it.

Understanding the play = Display

In light of the above noted handling of wall presentations, the final submissions by students are again displayed on the wall, yet without making claims to a final, closing product that answers all the questions emerging during the research process. Rather, the book – or pages and excerpts from it – present their own diagrammatic take on the subject at hand. The display itself turns into a mode of play and provides another step in the course of the research-practice. Making both data and the ways in which it is dealt with accessible plays a crucial part in communicating the research without losing motif, research question and epistemological interest out of sight. This way, the process of doing research becomes part of the research project rather than following an abstract procedure merely applied to the project. The way the display is set up – both in terms of its content and its form – thus serves to open up further ways of reading the data, making connections and re-assembling knowledge, for instance by way of holding a reception, involving the communities that the research addressed, or a round table that invites all research participants to discuss the results. The research activity is actively understood as an intervention and thus as a way of posing questions rather than proving something or producing definite results.

So how do these different modes of play – of playing with disciplinary and disciplining coproduction – unfold in the research-practice as taught? The following three vignettes can only provide glimpses into the lived practice of doing research and teaching. Despite their brevity, however, these glimpses figure like Takes: they are limited, meander between description and research conceptualisation and are by no means complete pictures or representations of the situations in question. On the contrary, they are employed with a view to illustrate that a situation cannot be grasped before we actually engage with it: ‘The fundamental challenge is the kind of search when you don’t know what you’re looking for but will recognize it when you find it.’ 5

  1. Latour, Bruno, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 225–48
  2. Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 177)
  3. ibid. p. 178
  4. ibid. p. 179
  5. Stark, David, ‘Searching Questions: Inquiry, Uncertainty, Innovation’, Working Paper Series, Center on Organizational Innovation, Columbia University, 2008