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Child's play

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reviews - Only Make Believe: Ways of Playing At Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 5 June

A recurring theme in studies of Frank Lloyd Wright is the influence of Friedrich Froebel's teaching tools, which Wright played with devotedly as a child. 'The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: so form became feeling. And the box with a mast to set up on it, on which to hang with string the maple cubes and spheres and triangles, ' he writes in An Autobiography.

Froebel called these teaching tools 'gifts' (there were 20 of them in all), and they feature in the first room of 'Only Make Believe' - a new exhibition in Stanton Williams' galleries at Compton Verney, curated by the novelist and critic Marina Warner. As well as the suspended cubes and spheres, there are boxes of little coloured rods and papers for folding and cutting - materials that children would manipulate with increasing sophistication as they followed the 'occupations' that Froebel suggested.

The theme of this first room is 'Creating Forms', its exhibits including such basic elements as the 10 wooden cubes, finely graded in size, that make up the educationalist Maria Montessori's 'Pink Tower'. Playing with this would foster manual skills along with a feeling for proportion, while children would be free to arrange the cubes in many different ways. Rather more prescriptive is The Little Architect - a booklet of circa 1920, with a kit of parts to cut out and assemble into a miniature building.

There are examples here of architects designing for children - Rietveld's Beach Buggy of 1918, a mobile cousin to his Red Blue Chair, and Ernö Goldfinger's 'alphabet playtray', where the infant's task is to slot each wooden letter into the right-shaped recess.

Also on display is a 1942 drawing by Goldfinger, showing 'a typical modern type of urban enclosure': an idealised scene in which mother and child play harmoniously on a sunlit terrace, against a backdrop of green space and housing blocks - Ernö's utopia.

More contemporary is 'a doll's house for a new era' - the Kaleidoscope House (2000) by artist Laurie Simmons and architect Peter Wheelwright, which has walls/windows of multicoloured translucent plastic, that slide to make it less routinely cellular than it seems at first.

'When seeking new forms, our path is first irrational, then increasingly rational, ' says a text on the wall, quoting Bauhaus teacher Gertrud Grunow. But the emphasis in this first part of the show is definitely on the rational - on play as a means by which children situate themselves in the world physically and eventually make an ordered contribution to it.

That emphasis shifts abruptly, and a heady mix of fairy tales, puppets, psychoanalysis and Surrealism - mediated by two dozen or more artists - makes play, creativity and childhood itself seem more shadowy and perturbed. Then architecture returns at the end, with a cube-shaped room by the young Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, who occupied all of London's Serpentine Gallery with an installation late last year. While that was a disappointment - just an angular subLibeskind 'labyrinth' - this work at Compton Verney is much more engaging, the painted forms on the walls and ceiling creating an illusory architecture at odds with the room's actual boundaries.

Stretching boundaries is maybe one point of the show, at least as far as its architectural subjects are concerned. Almost always we see Wright, Rietveld or Goldfinger in just an architectural context, which can become rather precious: a world of carefully judged proportions, precise lines and balanced forms. By putting them in such disparate, sometimes disturbing company, 'Only Make Believe' shows what the search for such harmony must always contend with: the threat, or the lure, of the irrational.

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