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On playfulness and order: Asking why and how in contemporary architecture

We invited IB Diploma Programme (DP) graduates to introduce us to topics and concepts from their field of expertise. Alumna Sofia Singler has been awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship for the pursuit of a PhD at the Department of Architecture of the University of Cambridge, UK. She provides us with an DP alumna’s perspective of an architectural career.  

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After receiving her IB Diploma from Jyväskylän Lyseon Lukio, Finland, Sofia Singler continued her studies at the University of Cambridge and Yale University School of Architecture. Photo credit: Jason Kurzweil

By Sofia Singler

Playfulness is lauded in contemporary architecture as a virtue: it takes only a cursory glance at some of the typical residential, institutional and commercial buildings from the past decade or so to be overwhelmed by an array of kaleidoscopic color palettes, rich supergraphics and complex structural systems. Age-old conceptions of order, exactitude and timelessness have been replaced by a desire for spontaneity, frivolity and impermanence, often expressed very literally. The latter are important concepts in architecture, but it appears that today’s understanding of them remains rather simplistic – inconsistency is accepted uncritically as delightful jolliness in the ordering of façade panels or the pattern of floor tiles, for example.

To master playfulness, however, one must first grasp the serious. Virtuoso playfulness is established only in contrapuntal opposition to solemn thoughtfulness, just as skillful asymmetry is always rooted in a robust command of symmetry. Contemporary architecture could elevate itself from the realm of the superficially frolicsome to a more sophisticated sphere of playfulness if it first asked itself why and how it is attempting to express joy, liveliness and surprise in its composition and syntax. What is its relationship to previous conceptions of architectural truth and codification? What is it ‘playing’ on? Why and how?

Throughout my architectural education and practice I have sought to understand the architectural discipline’s changing definitions and understandings of order. I learn and work from a deep conviction that much of today’s architecture acts too soon: it neglects asking the whys and the hows before it launches into its ambition to render itself playful. In its ignorance, much of today’s architecture fails to reach refined expressions of play, and instead devolves into unremarkable displays of randomness and novelty.

As a discipline, architecture intertwines a range of fields from psychology and history to mathematics and visual arts. The IB Diploma Programme’s aim to cultivate broadly knowledgeable and holistically intelligent students constructs a robust foundation for the complicated, multi-layered learning that architecture necessitates.

The IB Diploma Programme’s focus on the philosophy of knowledge provided me with a sound foundation from which to ask the most important questions in architectural education: why and how does architecture work today? Methodically asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ should act as the basis not only of the architectural discipline, but of any field of learning – persistent inquiry into these questions is what makes an IB education such a valuable step into higher education. IB students learn to appreciate the importance of the whys and hows throughout their studies, most pertinently in studying the Theory of Knowledge. These questions form the core of the IB ethos and also serve as the beginning point for any architectural design pursuit: Why do we build, and how should we go about it? Why has symmetry historically been valued as an expression of truth, and how might we position ourselves relative to it in today’s socioeconomic, philosophic and cultural reality?

As a discipline, architecture intertwines a range of fields from psychology and history to mathematics and visual arts. The Diploma Programme’s aim to cultivate broadly knowledgeable and holistically intelligent students constructs a robust foundation for the complicated, multi-layered learning that architecture necessitates; the very structure of the Diploma Programme, with its careful balance between languages, arts and sciences, mirrors the trans-disciplinary conditions that define a field as rich as architecture. Just as the whys and the hows sit at the center of any architectural design pursuit, so too the same questions sit at the center of an IB education. The complexities and synergies of cross-subject collaboration, whether in the architectural office or in the Diploma Programme, are rooted in the theory of knowledge.

After graduating with a Bilingual IB Diploma from the Jyväskylä Lyceum in 2010, I went on to obtain a Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Cambridge. I practiced as a junior architect in Boston, Massachusetts for a year before I began my Master of Architecture studies at Yale University, where I am currently in the last month of my degree. In October, I will return to Cambridge, this time for a PhD in Architecture, to research the history and theory of 20th century architecture as a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholar. The most meaningful legacy of my IB experience was the Diploma Programme’s rigor in reminding us students never to neglect asking the most rudimentary questions of all. These questions have followed me throughout my architectural education, where I have sought to create conditions for an architecture that responds to cultural ideals like playfulness with self-reflexivity and critical consciousness. If we are to express non-order, we must first understand order, and that understanding comes from asking the whys and the hows.


Miss Sofia Singler has been awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship for the pursuit of a PhD at the Department of Architecture of the University of Cambridge, UK. Miss Singler’s research will focus on 20th century architectural history and theory.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarships, awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are some of the most prestigious and competitive international scholarships in the world, with awards being made to roughly 3% of the applicant pool each year. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme was established in October 2000 by a donation of $210M from Bill and Melinda Gates to the University of Cambridge to support academically outstanding graduate students with the ability to make a significant contribution to their discipline at a global scale.