The World Cup is everywhere, so what better time to thread a series of theoretical passes together into a sinuously flowing move? On why football is so compelling for so many people, and what can that tell us about the practice of design and architecture. (I'm thinking of playing John Cage in the hole behind the front two, flanked by Johann Cruyff and Aldo van Eyck. And if this piece doesn't guarantee my season ticket for Pseud's Corner, I don't know what will.)
To set the scene. I'm writing on a sunny day in London, that same sun bestowing itself upon European cousin Germany to the east, ensuring a radiant glow under the eyes of most on the planet. Yes indeed, World Cup 2006 is ablaze with individual talent, peerless team performances, intrigue and torment, instant-classic games, and goals goals goals.
And what glorious goals: a barrage of ball-technology-assisted long-range screamers and thumping headers; swishing flurries of one-two'd parries followed by a deadly rapier thrust; and, well, one of the best goals the game has ever seen.
Argentina's second goal, in their ruthless destruction of Serbia and Montenegro (an almost callous act, as that country ceases to exist after this World Cup), was instantly being lauded in such terms. The awe-inspiring sight of the entire Argentina team moving fluidly as if to some pre-ordained ballet - "a symphony of collaboration" according to The Guardian - was simply Liquid Football (™Alan Partridge). 24 passes throughout 8 of the 10 outfield Argentines, utterly bewitching the Serbia & Montenegro team. But this apparent perfection, whilst honed by endless individual and collective drills of technique and teamplay in training, was also largely improvised in real-time, entirely determined by the context of the opposing team - which cannot be accurately predicted at all.
This emphasis on unpredictable, interpreted creativity being performed within formal systems actually suggests interesting parallels to me, reminiscent of those discussed in my recent 'Architecture and interaction design' summary. I talked of 'the social process of design'; of the interaction between a system of space, articulated by designers or architects, which is then interpreted and adapted by users with individual creativity and agency.
Progressing this, at my Aula 2006 talk last week, I described a further parallel - that of examining composers of contemporary music, such as John Cage et al, as they might provide useful metaphors for thinking about participative media - given the interplay between composed and vernacular, chance, improvisation and interpretation. Little is deterministic - only a trajectory towards a goal or scenario, articulated via a score, which can be interpreted during performance.
Actually, to pause on mapping systems of possibilities, I also discussed the idea of co-opting such graphical notation or scores from music, with respect to my 'Lost' article. Now look at the potential similarity between The Guardian's daily infographics describing the narrative of games and goals (annoyingly not online). A graphical score developed for football may be an appropriate way of describing coordinated movement through time and space. I don't know of any developed to this end (anybody know what the pre-eminent information system in football, ProZone, uses for this?). I imagine it could also be similar to the notation of dance collected and discussed by Tufte.
Leaving aside the possible use of scores as design tools, look at the relationship between these ways of thinking about music and design - systems which cannot be perfectly engineered, but instead provide suggestions, interpreted and performed. This turns out to also have some parallels, however tenuous, with a certain kind of thinking about football. In David Winner's superb book 'Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football', we find many of these concepts carefully harmonised around the football intellectual's favourite ever thing: the 'Total Football' concept of the early '70s Dutch national team and Amsterdam-based Ajax (in which highly-drilled players freely switched positions during a game and improvised attacks from every angle. Interestingly, the Argentina goal described above was finished off by a defensive midfielder.) Winner describes how a previously unwritten yet tangible unified theory of 'a Dutch sense of space' influenced this approach to football, drawn from the Netherlands' modern history of architecture, design, art, planning and politics. (The image above left is artist Jeroen Henneman's sketch of a Dennis Bergkamp pass, taken from Winner's book and captioned "One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide".)
Daringly tracing a line between the work of Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff at Ajax, the Amsterdam school - a 'Total City' approach, based around the ideas of architects Michel de Klerk and H. P. Berlage - the mid-60s Provo movement, Wim Crouwel's Total Design studio, numerous artists and photographers, and the topography and environment of the Netherlands itself, Winner describes how Dutch football's pervasive and serious discussion of space and systems is an entirely predictable product of its culture.
"All systems should be familarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system,' said key structuralist Aldo van Eyck, talking about modern cities but sounding uncannily as though he might be laying down a template for the Ajax football system. Herman Hertzberger, the last of the great structuralists still living, says of the need for flexible buildings, 'Each form must be interpretable in the sense that it must be capable of taking on different roles. And it can only take on those different roles if the different meanings are contained in the essence of the form' ... It was not until 1974 that the word totaalvoetbal entered the Dutch language, used as it was to describe the Ajax-style football played by Holland's national team in that year's World Cup. Also in that year J.P. Bakema, colleague of Herzberger and Van Eyck in the influential Team 10 and Forum magazine, passionately advocated a 'Total' approach: 'Total Urbanisation' and 'Total Environment' and 'Total Energy'. A man has three life questions: What am I? Who am I? Where am I? In this period of Total use of earch and space, balance between use and care can only be given by Total Architecture.'" ['Brilliant Orange', David Winner, pp30-31]
Read the book for more. But my tentatively-made point is that in designing for adaptation - in designing for participative media in particular - there may be something in these parallels. In effect, changing ends with Winner and looking instead from football to design and architecture.
I'll write up the Aula talk, which will further develop these ideas with respect to Cage and contemporary composition, but in both cases, I'm interested in the balance between creating systems which describe possibilities but enable individual improvisation and interpretation.
(And if the composer or orchestrator figure, such as Cage, provides a metaphor for a form of design for participation or adaptation, it may be that the equivalent figure in a football team - the quixotic 'number 10' - also provides a useful analogue. Someone who pulls the strings; imagines the space and time that a move might be conducted in; who provides direction for the team flowing around him; who doesn't necessarily finish or resolve the move - the number 10 is not necessarily prolific scorer, but provider instead - one who describes the arc of the move through his own movement, or through shaping the ball's movement through the intersection of players and space. One of the greatest English writers on sport (and music), Richard Williams, has a new book out exploring this particular position and profiling some of the greats who have defined it. No English players feature, perhaps tellingly.)
So I think one reason people find football aesthetically and formally appealing - leaving aside other obvious reasons - is to do with this see-saw balancing act; when the fragile beauty of design can be denied so effortlessly by the combination of chance, improvisation, circumstance and irrational passion. It's the call-and-response tension between these forces that makes the game at the highest level so thrilling. And it's this tension which is reminiscent of adaptive design ideas discussed here previously; that design isn't the end of the process, but the beginning; that interpretation and improvisation will define the end-product, not the original design - in architecture, in music, in football.
This is slightly tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, merely yet another way to trigger interesting angles within old discourse; to find the Bergkampian killer through-ball, reversed through a thicket of defenders' legs whilst looking the other way ... Yet there may be something in these analogies with music and football. Play and gaming is often discussed in new media circles of course, but usually confined to the relatively bloodless worlds of massively multi-player online games (with some honorable exceptions). Until video games become either genuinely physical and genuinely economically-productive, why not look at the greatest massively multi-player game the world has? Something truly globally popular as well as physical, participative, tangible, impassioned. It's right under our noses ... And if you think this is all a bit too frivolous, last words go to John Cage, ironically:
"Purposeless play (is) an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord."