Erect Architecture

Erect Architecture

22b Regent Studios
8 Andrews Road
London E8 4QN

T +44 (0)20 7254 6336

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Leaf is Tree

In the early stages of a school playground design project we usually find ourselves in a muddle of model-making with a group of ‘end-users’ - children, parents, teachers. There will be a table-load of tape, clay, sticks and string between us – the venerable cereal-packet-chic - and we often start with a short pitch to get things going.

Design workshops are one of our studios’ must-haves when pitching for work and scheduling projects. It is not unusual to suggest that architects closely consult with clients - we do this to better understand their needs and aspirations; but engaging with children (the people that play on the projects, not clients) is slightly different. To give this process meaningful two-way value means creating a shared language. How do we rapidly communicate ideas of scale, social context, and representation? How do we explain the tension between blue-sky thinking and site/budget constraints? And how do we ensure that the uninhibited ideas of children: the essential exaggeration, optimism, and integration of creatures and living things, find their way meaningfully into playspace design?

Occasionally, a diagram can be so effective that it communicates its meaning equally well to children and adults alike, and builds the bridge of communication we’re looking for. One such diagram is Aldo van Eyck’s ‘leaf is tree’, which explains the relational analogy of ‘tree is leaf and leaf is tree, city is house and house is city’.

Leaf is Tree
Queensbridge Engagement 2
Using vintage architectural diagrams to engage 7-8 year olds isn’t something we usually do; but in this case it enabled us to communicate to the children that they are part of their class, which is part of their school, which is part of their city (our city – Hackney). We showed this diagram to the school council and the idea resonated - they understood that their playspace is a model of the outside world, and that within it, they have creative and behavioural freedom to act and do as children.

As the children described their play structure as a town and drew the analogy between their playground and the city outside, they started to understand the city as something in which they are represented, are welcome, and have creative freedom; something which - like the playground - serves them, and can be changed to make their lives better - a realisation that holds great value.

Queensbridge Engagement
Leaf is Tree Workshop


It is not only play structures that we test through engagement with children; sometimes we show them ‘masterplans’ of their playgrounds and ask them to think more strategically: what goes where, next to what, and why? Another brilliantly simple diagram: Cedric Price’s ‘City as Egg’ – which describes the development of city forms using boiled, fried and scrambled eggs, might be used here. It is simple and complex and universal and I look forward to seeing excited young faces breaking eggs in the name of design.

City as Egg

Jack Hardy