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Modern Architecture as Constructed Environment:
Tati's Playtime as Commentary Spanning the Prosaic to the Profound

Matt Fajkus, AIA
May 18, 2012

Jacques Tati’s film Playtime (1967) is a satire of modern times set in a fictionalized and absurdly modern Paris. The film opens with citizens moving from one place to the next, enthusiastically completing daily tasks without waste or want. Everything is in its right place, every shoelace tied and all garbage properly dispensed. The city’s denizens remain submerged in a pristine cityscape characterized by transparency, honesty and efficiency. In Playtime, the modern ideal appears at its logical end. Everything is modular, as the city appears composed by a series of standardized units; there is seemingly  complete equality in daily life.


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

But even a world so regularized and efficient as the Modern ideal cannot eliminate daily life’s unforeseen events. In Tati’s world every action is one component in the machine of human patterns, but as in many machines, there remains a margin of error. The film’s protagonist Monsieur Hulot stumbles around the street and buildings as if in a daze. He is caught in the machine but does not understand it, and his confused meanderings over the course of the film peel away the polished layers of his modern environment to reveal its absurdity. Hulot reveals that a pristine environment does not necessarily create joy in and of itself, but that chance encounters and unpredictable environments instead bring a much-needed humanity to otherwise mechanistic routines.

Tati said, “I am not at all against modern architecture, I only think that as well as the permit to build, there should also be a permit to inhabit.”1 Le Corbusier might have countered that a truly modern house is precisely about habitation, a “machine for living.” Le Corbusier’s phrase “machine in the garden” describes modern buildings as all machine; machines that sit within nature but are not of it. Yet Le Corbusier’s conception also allows for modern architecture to be particularly sensitive to nature. With its large windows and open floor plans, modern architecture allows unobstructed views and connections between interior and exterior in ways that traditional architecture does not. 

Le Corbusier’s ethos presumes that buildings respect nature in this way. His “machine in the garden” framed and thus foregrounded the garden, but such an idea works only when building density is restrained in proportion to nature.. Were modern buildings to over-proliferate, nature might find itself forced out of the picture altogether, as it is, more or less, in Playtime (save for a brief scene with a sidewalk flower seller). Where Le Corbusier’s modern home looks out on to the natural world it sits upon, Tati’s modern home looks out onto other modern structures.

So as the urge towards equality and punctuality strips humanity from daily life, the modernist utopia becomes dystopia. While critics maintain that traditional architecture can be overly stuffy and bogged down by historical baggage, modern architecture can be too stark and impersonal, though it offers the promise to allow for humans to breathe life into and define the character of each space. The events in the film are at moments playful and optimistic, while confounding and entropic at others. Thus, the tension of modernism architecture becomes transparent in the world around us, brought to life by Playtime. Playtime thus embodies an architect’s conflicted relationship with unchecked modernism, and the simultaneous utopian hope and dystopian fear of its implications.

What Tati throws in Hulot's path is not so much insane as inane; a spectacle of silliness deriving from the sight of human beings struggling to stay human in a dehumanizing environment. Playtime is thus more a critique of cultural homogenization than modern architecture; it exploits man’s instinctive antipathy to technological progress and its association with dehumanization. Using fixed frames and paring dialogue to little more than background murmurs, Tati draws the eye away from people and their actions to the spaces and buildings that house those people. The film becomes an analysis of mid-century modern architecture that has “degenerated from an avant-garde phenomenon into a petit-bourgeois commodity.”2

* * *

Playtime is set in a fictional overly modernized Paris, where the city’s conflation of building types leads to typological confusion, where each building type no longer resembles the icon by which it was formerly recognizable. Tati’s blurring and arguably deliberate degeneration of architectural typological associations allows the viewer to see human behavior without the distraction of architectural backdrops that hold embedded baggage and meaning. Tati’s acute reading of modern society interrogates the functions of the city, which shapes social processes. Tati’s critique is thus very similar to critiques made by modern architects; in fact,  the themes in Le Corbusier’s 1943 report on urban planning, the Athens Charter—housing, work, recreation, transport and historical heritage—are also themes that Playtime seems to use.3

The scenes do not fit perfectly into these boxes but the terminology can be useful, in order to see the film as an interrogation of architectural form and function and its cultural implications on the city. These different realms overlap in different capacities and impersonate each other in particular ways. The main character Monsieur Hulot is a proxy for alienation and disenfranchisement, as his clumsy behavior highlights the surreal nature of the city in each of the respective spaces.4
 

HOUSING


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

Perhaps the most iconic manifestation of modern architecture is the modern house and its management of domesticity. Canonical architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, believing that “form follows function,” meant their houses to express domestic behavior and the spaces required thereof, instead of formal compositions driven by aesthetic predilections. Yet each of these single family houses differ from the housing shown in Playtime. The film’s dense arrangement of apartments is coupled with the perverse fishbowl display of its residents’ inner lives, exposed to passersby on the street. And in another commentary on modern society, television has replaced the fireplace in the Playtime housing block, and even rendered family conversation obsolete. 

WORK


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

In terms of urbanity, large office buildings are the most prevalent artifacts of modernity, as they establish the skylines that define every city. Modern office buildings arose parallel to the development of the modern corporate work structure, which required expansive, stacked floorplates for a white collar workforce filling jobs that had not previously existed en masse. Thus, the open and flexible floor plan that modern structures allow is most suited to this function, employing the tactics of universal space. In Playtime, this concept is expressed by both the array of individual work cubicles as well as the generic conference room, full of men in identical suits, which visually flows out into the city via large expanses of glass.
 

RECREATION


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

In Playtime, recreation appears as a scene in a fashionable dinner club. Hulot's long day's journey lands him in a fancy and freshly-opened venue that has no business being opened at all. Workmen still linger, installing items, and the unfinished state of the place causes no end of frustration for the wait staff, who must constantly improvise solutions to the dilemmas posed by their dysfunctional environment while their customers seem indifferent or even oblivious to the near disasters that surround them. The scene highlights design blunders: customers topple off too-high barstools, raised sections of the floor impede movement, glass doors shatter, neon tubes cast a sinister light on people and food, and the furniture keeps ripping the waiters’ clothing.5  Within the larger discussion, perhaps the most notable disaster is the failure of the air conditioning, which blasts like a jet when restored. The situation is a commentary on the architecture’s failure to block out nature to create a controlled interior environment.
 

TRANSPORT


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

Transport indicates infrastructure, since it is the link between all structures in the city, and even the circulation and movement within each building. The film opens with a scene at the airport then cuts to Hulot as he is literally thrown from a bus in front of an anonymous building. Though the film opens with Hulot’s eviction from a bus—the symbol of mass transport—it closes with cars and buses caught in a traffic circle, slowed to a honking stop-and-go crawl, which Tati playfully compared to a merry-go-round. If the automobile was once a prime source of “machine age enthusiasm,” as Reyner Banham observed, by the 1960s even Banham admitted that enthusiasm was close to exhaustion, like “an old car with a fast-emptying fuel tank and no filling station in sight.”6
 

HISTORICAL HERITAGE


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

Resolutely modern, Tati stripped Playtime’s city setting of history, memory, colors, dirt, nature, family and other aspects of old France.7 References to French history are indirect when they appear. Occasional reflections of the city’s nineteenth century monuments—the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe—artificially imposed onto the surface reflections of glass buildings, make the embedded history and imagery of Paris acutely present in its absence. When Barbara, the American tourist, attempts to take a photo of a woman selling flowers on a corner, she claims it is “real France.”

* * *

In 1925, Le Corbusier presented his Plan Voisin for Paris. Le Corbusier proposed a landscape of towers that wiped out the bulk of Old Paris but saved some of its iconic monuments. “I invent no Utopia in which to build my city. I assert that its proper place is here, and nothing will remove it,” Le Corbusier said. The Plan Voisin was not about destroying the center of Paris but about sanctioning its transformation. With Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier held, “the historical past, our common inheritance, is respected. More than that, it is rescued.”8 In Le Corbusier’s sketches of the Plan Voisin the monuments of the city remain intact, appearing in the foreground as points of reference for a new Paris. As a living and real problem in the city of his time, Le Corbusier considers the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Montmartre as not simply urban relics to be preserved; they constitute the very idea of the city that the Plan Voisin projects into the future.9 Likewise, Tativille is composed strictly of endless rows of identical boxy buildings, which could be argued to respect historical Paris rather than mimic it, although the anonymous buildings seem to have taken over the city.

A Sum of Lines, Numbers, and Surfaces?

Through the simultaneous fetishization and mockery of modern architecture, Playtime displays an austere and pristine urban landscape. Tati expressed modern architecture predominately through geometry and materiality. In fact, Tati played as an architect himself: Playtime involved the construction of a studio city in the Paris suburb of Orly Sud. This surrogate city built from steel and glass was placed on rollers—it was literally a “city on the move”—where a character’s movement through architectural space played a central role. The set’s material manifestation is a literally artificial construction that represents a figuratively artificial city. The glistening desaturated environment created by the film’s surreal purgatory of glass and steel quickly became known as “Tativille,” which Tati himself admitted as “the star of the set” more than any of the characters.10

One of modern architecture’s main characteristics is its tension between solid and void, and the frame which defines and exaggerates the latter. The composition of solids and frames is an exercise in layering, as in the collage techniques used in Cubism, Purism and even Surrealism. Transparency is the attribute that allows for interplay among solids and voids, as well as inside and outside. Translucency, as opposed to absolute transparency, is when the transmission of image breaks down, yet light still passes through.11 The key modern architecture project dealing with transparency, as Mies van der Rohe understood it, is the Tugendhat House. Due to an incredible mechanism that lowered large glass panels into the basement during good weather, glass became nothingness. Without glass, there is only the frame; the structure that defines and composes nature. Mies’ hoped to produce clarity—a lack of obstruction—to replicate architecturally the continuum of space evident in nature.  In Playtime, the windows, frameworks and mirrors of glass architecture play havoc with solidity, where characters crash into the transparent glass planes and thresholds are generally confused.

The Cartesian Grid of Modern Architecture

Tativille—the city that Tati built for Playtime—is organized by a Spartan grid. In a sense the film is about the rationalization of human patterns through orthogonal structures, which supposedly would govern all lines of motion into ninety-degree angles. Mazelike cubicles of space count, organize, prod and channel and shepherd people.

For modernist architects the grid is an infrastructure that allows for an infinite number of activities in a non-prescriptive manner. However, within the fluid continuity of Playtime’s urban grid, one man falters and is confused: Monsieur Hulot. As Hulot stumbles through the film, his environment’s gridded glass surfaces appear alienating to fundamental human interaction, with their sleek interiors as sterile and inefficient space.

Playtime has no plot in the traditional sense, as the film is a study of the city as an ideal grid and what happens to the grid under pressure. In this way it is a study of resistance against a system, geometric maneuvering and catastrophic reorganizations of space.12 This gridded order is not specific to any one city in the film. It is found in every major city—as shown in several travel posters throughout the film—suggesting that the grid itself is infinitely consistent.

Playtime can thus be read as a counterpoint to the rational behavior expected from technology, machines and their mechanistic ways. Within the spectacle that is “Tativille,” the characters point hilariously to the inefficiency of the gridded hyperefficient ideal, yet the film is still an affirmation of humanity, warmth, adaptability and fun.<Aric Chen, "Outside In," Metropolis (June 2002): 128. In that sense, human nature is the element that animates the work. The characters render the film as a celebration of the worlds we make for ourselves with and within the built environment. Yielding to the unpredictable chaos of good times, Hulot and other revelers win the day over the sterility and alienation of modern life, ending the film in a traffic circle rendered as a merry-go-round. Tati described his intention to bring a ‘little smile’ to modern architecture, allowing for comic coincidences and architecturally orchestrated mishaps. By its literally transparent and revealing nature, modern architecture frames the inherent comedic qualities of culture and the nuances of social interactions.13 Thus, rather than a restrictive and hyperrational regulation of space, Tati shows modern architecture as laced with potential surprise and the joy of abstracted space free of formal and functional predeterminations.  Modern architecture, though prosaic in its austere and minimal structures and enclosures, allows for profound and unpredictable possibilities. It creates an environment defined by human nature rather than a stylistic mandate imposed by the architecture itself.
 


Jacques Tati, Still from Playtime, 1967.

The built modern framework provides a circumstance that eventually leads to an evanescent “relationship,” where Hulot gives the American tourist (Barbara) a lily sprig as a gift. It is a symbol of something natural within the overwhelming surrounding artifice. She notices the flower resembles the bending street lamps against the sky.14 Just as it began, the film ends with the camera panning to the sky. It originates and ends with nature, as though mankind’s constructed environment—whether composed of modern architecture or not—is a fleeting presence in a larger scheme.

 

In the first half of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners to their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warmth, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film.’

- Jacques Tati

Special thanks to Audrey McKee, who was a key sounding board in the development of this article.

  • 1. Isabelle Chaise, "Paris Rediscovering Jacques Tati," Blueprint no. 281 (August 2009): 21
  • 2. G.D.L. "La Ville en Tatirama," Abitare no. 420 (September 2002): 160-161
  • 3. Chaise, 21.
  • 4. Hilary Powell, "Recycling Junkspace: Finding Space for 'Playtime' in the City," The Journal of Architecture 10 no. 2 (February 2005): 201-221.
  • 5. G.D.L, 161.
  • 6. Reyner Banham, "A Home is Not a House," in C. Jencks and G. Baird, eds. Meaning in Architecture (New York: G. Brazilier, 1969): 111.
  • 7. Ian Borden, "Material Sounds," Architectural Design (January 2000):26-31
  • 8. Gabriele Mastrigli, "Manipulations, Or, Rethinking Tabula Rasa," Log no. 10 (Summer/Fall 2007): 71-79.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Chaise, 21.
  • 11. Cynthia Davidson, "Reflections on Transparency: Interview with Terry Riley," ANY: Architecture New York no. 9 (1994): 56-57.
  • 12. Peter Macapia, "Dirty Geometry," Log no. 10 (Summer/Fall 2007): 137-152.
  • 13. Borden, 26-31
  • 14. Michel Chion, The Films of Jacques Tati (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987): 11.
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