The YMCA is an institution that boasts a lineage of both education and play. However, the Y has kept these two entities separate—education and play programs are typically segregated within the typology. This project seeks to merge these two elements. In doing so, this project reconfigures the Y to function as an educational playscape. It seeks to teach, through architecture. In doing so, the project proposes an open architecture for a series of non-prescribed uses.

The building consist of 4 layers of different landscapes, which are consolidated in one building. Open spaces create an experience of continuity and give users the freedom to move in any direction. Three vertical circulation cores are scattered throughout the building. They foster flexibility through vertical movement. At the same time, each floor plate functions as a modulated ground datum, to create distinct spatial experiences on each level of the building.

The layout of the proposal is informal in that it does not prescribe a specific set of uses for the visitors. Rather, the open layouts encourage a diversity of uses and experiences which point to learning through play.In spaces like the ground floor playground and classroom floor, users must invent spatial uses through play, which then generate moments of learning through and from the building. Most of the spaces and facilities are in organic shapes, which appear as ambiguous objects. They represent abstract ideas and invite open-ended use. These abstract shape become the alphabet of the building, which offer a didactic role and presence within the structure.

Certain furniture elements can move around, with decisions totally in the hands of the people. Users will be able to accommodate themselves in a variety of ways, and allow flexibility for the expression of various human activities. The intent is to animate the building through increased user engagement, or to educate through an architecture of play.


What prompted the project?

The YMCA has an architectural lineage of both play and education, albeit typically segregated within the typology. My project searches for an alternative typology to merge these two elements – play is introduced as a less traditional form of exercise to promote well-being, while at the same time used as a tool for educational purpose.

What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

At the moment, not only YMCA but also many other institutes are designed in a traditional approach, where spaces are rigid and uses are inflexible. Neither are they children-centered. To me, fitness and venues serving education purposes should not be designed like military training spaces. Children should be able to learn in a more experimental way. In response to this issue, my project aims to design a new YMCA which allows creative engagement. Most of the spaces and facilities in the YMCA are designed as ambiguous amoeba-like objects, representing the desire for less formality and encourages imagination and free play. The spaces are multi-functional, with movable furniture that encourage active participation from users who are welcome to employ their own creative thinking to come up with unconventional and innovative ways to utilise the space and facilities.

What examples of playgrounds did you look to which in you view are successful?

I looked into Isamu Noguchi’s early and most important contributions, including his “Playscapes” in Atlanta and “Kodomo No Kuni” in Yokohama. Noguchi successfully used landscape design as a way to merge art and function, and created spaces that are ideally inclusive, open to all people regardless of races and social status. My project is also very much inspired by his playground facilities design. He designed the facilities as a primer of shapes, colours and functions, so that users can bring to life their own imagination and creativity to the objects, rather than be told what to do.

Nowadays children are ever so more engaged with the digital space of play in their iPad, how important is the playground as physical space of growth and play?

Today, play is not only physical activity, where children climb the monkey bars or run around the field. Play can be stationary activities where you are seated indoor with your eyes fixed on the screen, totally absorbed in what is streaming onto the device. However, what is seriously lacking with digital play on iPad is that all the information received is two dimensional, without real world feedback. Perceptions and interactions in the real world are very different, and much more complex than what is portrayed in the digital world. In comparison, physical play facilities encourage children to interact with the world around them, stimulate touch and spatial reasoning. Through interaction and exploration, children get to understand the real world and physical phenomena. Children stay active, exercise and develop important motor skills. Emotional and social skill can also developed through interacting, and cooperating with peers in group games.

You talk about the building consisting of layers of different landscapes, could you expand on this further? Can you define the term landscape?

Each floor is described as “landscape” as each floor plate functions as a modulated ground datum to distinct spatial experiences. Low extrusion and soft modulation form different spaces, creating a subtle boundary to separate different program without creating physical barriers. The absence of partitions offers an unobstructed view of a horizontal field. I want to apply landscape design to the building, as I find open layouts create a sense of freedom and offer an experience of continuity.

What tools did you use when developing and designing the project? From the initial sketches to the last perspectives, which is for you the most emblematic image of the project?

The most important tools for developing the project are sketch drawings. The image above is the most emblematic image of the project. It depicts an early attempt to combine my research on play typologies into my drawings. The project starts with series of quick sketch studies through playing with different organic shapes to explore spatial arrangement. Abstract plans are created searching for an alternative spatial typology, as well as finding suitable visual representing abstract ideas and open-ended play before it evolves into an architectural plan, integrating different YMCA programs into the drawing. I kept revising the drawing, adding architectural details and altering the proportion to meet building regulations until it is transformed into a concrete, legitimate architectural composition.

How did you approach the representation of a space which encourages freedom and diversity of usage?

I use an abstract language, especially in plans and models, to suggest multiple interpretation that enable flexible and diverse usage. The organic nature of the shapes suggests artistic freedom, rejecting concretization and the notion of standard typology. In brief, the landscape is open to all purposes.

What role do the figures play within the perspective images?

Since the program spaces could seem ambiguous, human figures help to suggest ways to accommodate activities and experiences. For example, with figures interacting with the facilities such as pulling the movable panels, it helps readers to understand how certain elements could be used. The figures also add a sense of scale and depth, and enable audiences to imagine how they can fit in relation to the space.

How important is the plan as projection through which to reveal the project?

For this project, plan drawings help communicate the design intentions more clearly compared with section drawings. Contour lines with annotations reveal the subtle floor height changes, showing the concept of maintaining an open layout by creating subtle boundaries through modulating the floor height. The plans also help readers to understand spatial strategies to accommoda¬te different programs on different floor levels.

One challenge is to arrange the complex geometries in an organized and logical way. In order to resolve this issue, different spatial strategies are applied during the planning process. Sets of rules are established in order to compose a harmonious architectural piece. For example:

1. Relationship between shapes – Shapes touch to create barriers, or separated create walkways. Geometries next to each other are in essence jigsaw pieces, which fit tightly together.

2. Relationship between the edge and content shape components is established. Façade goes around the edge of those components, with furniture arrayed, resulting in a curve that offset from façade.

A harmonious architectural piece is thus composed.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

I see drawing and physical model making as the most important creative process that facilitates successful ideation and invention. They enable architects to see and test the idea quickly before too many resources get used. In this way architects can make appropriate decisions and refinements while grasping the opportunity to get inspiration from unexpected outcomes.


Carolyn Tam is an architectural designer currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work stretches across the fields of architecture, art, and products. Educated from the Bartlett School of Architecture and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her interest lies in reshaping how we relate to our environment, by incorporating narrative designs with advanced technology.