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Community / Public space

“When playing with shadows is useful”: how York's streetlights became something playful

In 2014, eight streetlights around Bristol were augmented to record and play-back shadows.

The lamps were prototypes designed by my design studio Chomko & Rosier in response to Watershed’s Playable City competition, which asked for ideas on how the “smart city” could be turned into the “playable city. The project, titled Shadowing, made a simple statement: that cities are about the people in them. After a two month installation in Bristol, the lamps are now on exhibition at the London Design Museum, and across the city of York.

There was no clear municipal purpose to Shadowing – yet there it was, embedded within local-authority maintained streetlights in eight street settings. It showed us how a purely utilitarian public resource can evolve into something interactive, playful and even beautiful.

Shadowing (and similar projects, like Hello Lamp Post by PAN Studio, the inaugural Playable City Award winner) feed into the potential role of technology in promoting education, playfulness and artistic appreciation within the public realm. 

Shadowing from Chomko & Rosier on Vimeo.

That role has been explored since at least the 1960s, when projects such as the “Fun Palace”, an automated and adaptable public space for entertainment, art, theatre, and learning was proposed by British architect Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood. The Fun Palace, although never realised, demonstrated a municipal application of technology that would support public life in all realms.

Price and Littlewood proclaimed the freeing potentials of automation, saying it would allow people to “[choose] their own congenial work, [do] as much or as little of it as they like, and [fill] their leisure with whatever delights them.” They were not alone: architects, academics and politicians prophesied the wonderful capabilities of technology.

This future in which technology would enable freedom from work has clearly not materialised. One could argue that we’ve seen the opposite, with work pervading all parts of life.

But designers of urban landscapes have long understood the necessity for spaces that promote leisure and interaction. The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck built over 800 playgrounds across post-war Amsterdam, believing that multi-functional public spaces for play, meeting and relaxation were essential in rebuilding torn communities. Using low-cost materials and multi-purpose designs, Eyke demonstrated that municipal intervention could make the street the cornerstone of public life. Software, operating through ever more available technologies, and applied to spaces and objects often already built, presents even greater opportunity for multi-faceted experiences within our urban lives.


The Playable City movement is reinserting this idea that technology in public space can support leisure as well as the operational needs of society. As cities become “smart”, computation pervades public space. These projects simply ask that this computation reflect and support the reality of the urban experience, which blends work with play, bringing a human perspective to the increasing economic and functional design of urban space.

With Shadowing the municipality was still providing the public with the required levels of lighting – but technological intervention had allowed this utility to simultaneously form an unlimited and bespoke source of public entertainment, interaction and even fun. The choice here wasn’t utility or leisure, practicality or art.

The recent “Back to the Future” Day ended up as a celebration of our dissatisfaction with the technological applications we have arrived at in 2015; “Where are the hoverboards?” the internet cried. The futures of the past, it seemed, were not being satisfied by our glowing handheld machines.

Society probably doesn’t needs hoverboards, nor street lights that capture and playback your shadow. Then again, the urban plan never demanded plentiful and carefully landscaped parks, nor swings, grassy verges and open-entry art galleries.

But it is the enjoyment and proliferation of such public interventions that has continued to make cities places to not only to function within, but also to live.

Matthew Rosier is co-founder of London-based design studio Chomko & Rosier.


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