“In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more provocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities.” – Langdon Winner
When we leave our homes and step outside, we never question why things are built the way they are. Here, asking yourself why something was built does not mean asking what purpose it serves. Asking “Why?” means digging deeper and thinking critically. Could we be blind to the fact that the objects we see every day influence the way we behave? According to Langdon Winner’s work “Do artifacts have politics?” (1980), the majority of architecture, city planning, public works, etc., have been built for a political purpose. In other words, everything we see encompasses so much more than just its everyday immediate use.
Taking a simple case in point, we see playgrounds as nothing more than places where children run around and play. However, what if there is more to playgrounds than just swings and slides? What if the designs, the colours, and the shapes were all planned to serve another purpose? Turkan Firinci Orman explores this thought in “Bulgarian playgrounds in transition: do children’s and parent’s perceptions differ?” Orman discusses the Bulgarian playgrounds before and after the collapse of Communism. More specifically, he examines the designs from the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods and how they reflect the ideologies of their time.
Compared to the playgrounds that are commonly seen in Bulgaria today, those that were built in the 60s and prior to the collapse of Communism were quite different. This does not mean that their immediate or professed use was different but rather that their political purposes were different. Orman writes that the old playgrounds contained equipment marked by the ideological passions and trends of the Cold War. That is, the playgrounds contained climbing frames which resembled rockets, boats and planets as well as swings and slides. Initially, there seems nothing odd about this. However, digging deeper and thinking more critically, one can see that these simple designs carried political meanings.
As seen in the photographs above, the swings found in the old playgrounds were built double-seated. That is, two children could swing back to back, next to each other, or facing each other. Moreover, as seen in the final photograph, some swings were even built to fit four children. This kind of playground equipment was found in many communist countries (such as the Soviet states and parts of Eastern Europe) and the designs reflected their social and moral codes. Taking this idea further, the political implications of such swings are simple: every child is expected to share a seat and learn how to be a part of a community. It is important to note that the concept of unification and community was an integral part of the socialist ideology. This is because socialists believed that communities and groups of people held more power than individuals. Therefore, from an early age and through a seemingly innocent piece of structure, children were taught the socialist values and ideologies.
After the collapse of Communism, these values and ideologies gradually disappeared. In addition to this, Orman writes that in 2009, an ordinance published by the Bulgarian State Newspaper issued new terms and conditions regarding playground equipment and safety. Furthermore, the ordinance stated that “under the new guidelines, playground equipment must meet specific EU standards”. Since the old playgrounds did not reflect the new standards, they were set to be replaced by 2014.
The renovated playgrounds were completely different … politically speaking. In other words, to children and parents, a new playground was just a new playground and new swings were just new swings. Parents did not notice their political purposes and children are too young to understand how the place in which they play shapes their character.
Unlike the old playgrounds which promoted collectivism, the new playgrounds were built with an individualistic approach. This means that instead of having a double-seated swing, the contemporary playgrounds were designed to be used by one child. While this difference may seem trivial, it plays a huge role in how it shapes a child’s values and moral codes. The new swings loosen the ties between individuals and subsequently, the importance of community fades away. Instead of being taught that they have to share everything and that they must form strong bonds with everyone in their community, children are taught the importance of individualism. Orman explains this concept as he writes that in contrast to collectivism, individualism teaches that ‘each individual will look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family’.
If something as simple as a children’s playground is built to serve a political purpose, Winner’s theory that physical arrangements, architecture and city planning can encompass “purposes far beyond their immediate use” is undoubtedly true. So, the next time you step outside your home, try to look around and ask yourself, “How do the everyday structures around me reflect the social and moral codes of my culture?” You might be surprised by the things you discover.