(Bethlehem, PA) November 19, 2013
The Imaginarium is a small, kid-size building made in response to the 2013 Annual Playhouse Design Competition organized by the Eastern PA chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The competition promoted design and architecture in the Lehigh Valley and the entries were open to the public to use with the start of Christkindlmarkt, the traditional festival of the season in Bethlehem, PA. In late December the entries were auctioned to raise funds for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley.
The playhouse was designed and built in under 3 months by Lehigh University faculty Nik Nikolov and Wes Heiss, and undergraduate Architecture/Engineering dual-majors Kathryn Stevens and Julia Klitzke. The collaborative team was interested in expanding the idea of play beyond something that is either learnt or unlearnt. The resulting design is a mysterious faceted crystal-like house which resisted the common strategy applied to children-bound creations - to create small versions of big things (princess castle), or big versions of small things (mushroom house).
“We didn't want to adhere to any previous notion of what a kid's playhouse has been or should be. Kids are far less locked into preconceived notions of perception than adults. We wanted to create a place of discovery that opened up new ideas of what it means to play.” Wes Heiss
Ideas of public/private space were of particular interest - how privacy is cultivated, inhibitions and self-awareness are imposed and assimilated. Can architecture simultaneously provide prospect and refuge? While asking these questions the team drew inspiration for the initial designs from a variety of cinematic and literary sources.
The form of the final design was generated in 3d computer modeling software which allowed for quick modifications in the design, iterative simulations, and prototyping. Components were then moved to various software applications so they could be laser-cut or CNC-routed by local commercial fabricators. All the final assembly was done by hand. Materials used were 3/4" plywood, 1/4" two-way mirrored acrylic and laser-cut 18ga steel joints.
The effect produced by the two-way mirrored acrylic is such that during the day you can see out, but no one can see inside. At night a photo sensor turns on a light inside and the effect is inverted - the house is completely transparent to the outside observer and completely mirrored to the inhabitant. The playhouse turns into a place where a kid can see everyone but no one can see them, only to have that same idea flip directions at night. New games and ways to play with this effect are easy to imagine.
Nikolov and Heiss were surprised to find just how interactive the design really is. As the resulting reflective-transparent effect started to materialize during construction, it became a psychological game of perception. Standing inside at night the user has no idea if anyone is looking at them from the outside and yet they are seeing this infinite space of reflections.
“We feel this project revealed the great potential of student teacher collaboration. Even though we are basically 'done' the students are still coming by to see if they can help more.” Nik Nikolov
Location: Bethlehem, PA, US
My Role: project manager and designer
Additional Credits: Wes Heiss, with Julia Klitzke and Kathryn Stevens