On Minecraft, the Fun Palace and Scale
There is a large and growing body of interdisciplinary research pointing to the significance of radical theatre director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (1961-64) for contemporary cultures, even though the project never advanced beyond the planning stage. Most writers tie this significance to the scalar qualities of Price’s body of work in general and the Fun Palace in particular.
“Scale” is an interesting concept in part because its meaning remains contested. Alenda Y. Chang points out in a chapter on scale in Playing Nature (2019) that many fields across the disciplines use the term but rarely define it in the same way (72). In the sciences, the term only became popular in the 1970s (74); Chang notes that a recent literature review of the use of the concept of scale in the field of experimental design finds that it is “both poorly understood and applied”; and in the hard sciences and engineering, she observes, prominent NASA researchers suggest avoiding the term entirely (74).
Nevertheless, both Chang and other writers who are working in several disparate fields (including Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky, in Discard Studies (2022), and Robert Smithson, throughout his Collected Writings  but especially in his writing on the Spiral Jetty) suggest that what is compelling and useful about scale as a concept is the very thing that makes it difficult to define: its relationality (Chang 72; Liboiron and Lepawsky 150 and passim.; Smithson 116, 122, 141, 147). Scale is both temporal AND spatial. The epitome of variability and uncertainty, scale fluctuates constantly, and the experience of it can be vertiginous because it draws attention to our own positions and their relative in/significance. For that matter, scale is inherently embodied and subjective because it includes the observing subject in the assemblage under scrutiny (Latour, Reassembling the Social 184-85) and draws attention to the unit of measure being employed. And, in a contemporary context, scale is inherently political because, as Liboiron and Lepawsky insist, it references “relationships that matter within a situated context” and therefore require action on the levels of policy, management and activism (150). From our own perspective as researchers, then, using “scale” as a concept is not just about displaying an interest in relationality; it is also a technique for flagging matters of concern (Latour 175).
Price’s projects range from vast infrastructural initiatives like Potteries Thinkbelt, which proposed the redevelopment of an entire industrial region, to local projects intended to create access to accessible space, like the Inter-Action Centre. Their variable scale reflects Price’s lifelong interest in creating contexts that would encourage, even produce, different forms of learning and entertainment. Commentators agree that what makes Price’s work significant is this particular scalar, relational quality.
For example, Tanja Herdt writes that Price’s “relational approach to architecture, which emphasized the link between material resources and the possibility of individual action, that is, between information, space and social order” marked the relative beginnings of a shift in the discipline of architecture from observing systems of social interaction to intentionally attempting to construct “‘new systems as active agents'” (59). His collaborations not just with Littlewood, but notably also with the cybernetician Gordon Pask, and with R. Buckminster Fuller, make his work a site of the relative beginnings of thinking about architecture in terms of changing, self-governing systems capable of responding to the needs and desires of their creators, owners and various publics rather than as static monuments for the ages. As such, Price’s projects set the stage not only for the emergence of “smart” buildings, but for the transformation of the industrial economy into the knowledge economy, by retrofitting industrial forms and structures for various forms of lifelong popular education and networked leisure.
This is the point where Price’s oeuvre becomes what Latour refers to as a matter of concern. For critics like Vittorio Aureli and Mary Louise Lobsinger, despite Price’s social democratism and his active role in the British Labour Party, the relevance of his projects today is their “unwitting anticipation of the most perverse neoliberal tendencies to exploit labor power” (Aureli 113). To be feasible at all, the realization of Price’s most ambitious projects would effectively require massive government deregulation and the ceding of not just industrial, but also cultural and aesthetic regulatory control. As Lobsinger notes, “The effects of this kind of deregulation, idealized as individual choice and, in the Swinging Sixties, attached to popular notions of participation and consumerism or as market freedom facilitating economic expansion, resonate with present-day experiences within the deregulated environments of late capitalism and the championing of barrier-free, laissez-faire development” (249).
Nevertheless, Lobsinger does not position Price as cynical or naïve, but as exemplary of a particular problem of scale in British public discourse, characterized by an incommensurability of goals, methods and results. Her carefully historicized archival research demonstrates that the 1960s British enthusiasm for scientific planning, cybernetics and systems thinking, along with changing ideas about governmental roles in higher education and economic growth, “had little recognizable association with traditional political categories”; the relative beginnings of neoliberal discourse and the knowledge economy unfolded across the entire political spectrum (251). For example, through close attention to the writing of Labour MP and Fabian Society member Anthony Wedgwood Benn, another of Price’s collaborators, Lobsinger demonstrates that “The Labour Party, assumed to be the voice of socialism, promoted efficiency, decentralization, and the emergence of a new subject, Homo economicus, thus transforming traditional understanding of the social and the collective” (251).
Rather than denouncing Price’s work, though, this is precisely the moment to dig in and become capable of developing a response (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble 1,3). Aureli contends that “Every architectural and urban project always contains the capacity to be developed further, contains something that remains unsaid and demands to be acknowledged and reengaged” (117). The value of Price’s work is that is provides us with a rich diagram of the techniques, spaces and discourses that underpin the conflation of work and leisure in the 21st century, for better and worse. These are relationships that matter, and taking Price’s work seriously “means to see in its abstraction, explicitness and directness the potential for appropriation in an alternative direction, toward the possibility of seeing the university, and the city in general, not just as the realm of play, but also as the site for political struggle” (Aureli 117). What is it about a site like the Fun Palace that exceeds the instrumentality of its role as a diagram for producing happy knowledge workers and plugged-in precarious labourers without state intervention?
The Fun Palace — not so much a building as a giant framework of gantries, walkways, platforms, moveable walls, modular rooms pods, screens and fungible spaces, shot through with computerized communication systems — is itself an allegory for the planned, mediated space of technoculture that produces leisure and play: a promise to the masses of less work and more leisure, imbricated with the neoliberal ideology of the pursuit of individualized pleasures and ever-expanding creative capacity. The Fun Palace was meant to be an amorphous, responsive sandbox, in which the cultural desires of the moment (including illicit ones) could be anticipated, adapted and configured via film, live performance, art, and so on. In this sense, the totally immersive, totally interactive Fun Palace provides a sort of “engineering diagram” (Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia 14) of Minecraft and sandbox video game culture more broadly.
As Molly Wright Steenson has argued, Price was an architect whose work participated in the cybernetic revolution, utilizing networked computer technology as a means for generating new forms of social interaction in and with the built environment. “The point of architecture,” he wrote, “should not be to lock people down, but rather to open them up: to ease up the choice, to free the opportunities of the individual user as to what they would do next” (qtd. in Steenson, 127). We argue that Minecraft is the kind of architectural technology Price was envisioning … and that it also epitomizes all of the ambivalent and incommensurable characteristics of the knowledge economy we have described above in relation to Price’s own work.
Aureli, Pier Vittorio. “Labor and Architecture: Revisiting Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt.” Log 23 (2011): 97-118.
Chang, Alenda Y. Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games. Vol. 58. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Chicago: Duke University Press, 2016.
Herdt, Tanja. “From Cybernetics to an Architecture of Ecology: Cedric Price’s Inter-Action Centre.” Footprint 15.1 (2021): 45-62.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Liboiron, Max, and Josh Lepawsky. Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022.
Lobsinger, Mary Louise. “Optimizing Freedom and Choice: Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt”. In Cupers, Kenny, Catharina Gabrielsson, and Helena Mattsson, eds. Neoliberalism on the Ground: Architecture and Transformation from the 1960s to the Present. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. 236-56.
Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: MIT press, 1992.
Mojang Studios, 2009. Minecraft (beta). (multiplatform). Mojang Studios, Microsoft.
Price, Cedric, and Joan Littlewood. “The Fun Palace.” The Drama Review: TDR 12.3 Architecture/Environment (Spring 1968): 127-134.
Simon, Bart. and Darren Wershler. “Childhood’s End (Or, We Have Never Been Modern, except in Minecraft).” Cultural Politics 14.3 (2018): 289-303.
Smithson, Robert. Robert Smithson: the Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Wershler, Darren, and Bart Simon. “The Allegorical Build: Minecraft and Allegorical Play in Undergraduate Teaching.” Gamevironments 15 (2021). Special Issue on Education and Games. 197-236.