1 – Failing to build The Fun Palace

On 1 & 2 October 2016, almost 300 temporary Fun Palaces were created in Britain, Ireland, France, Norway, Australia and New Zealand, all inspired by the vision of Joan Littlewood. Since 2013, this movement has come from an idea by Stella Duffy, picked up by tens, then hundreds and now thousands of other people. Both the original vision and its subsequent expression are at the heart of what participatory art is about, so each day this week, I’ll post about Fun Palaces, then and now, and what could be learned from the experience of trying to make them happen.  


Part One – The Original Fun Palace

For years in the 1960s and 1970s the theatre director Joan Littlewood pursued a vision of a place where working people, like herself, could get involved in art, science, discovery, learning, pleasure…

‘Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.’

Littlewood wanted everyone to benefit from the social change happening around her and to have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. She drew on an ideal of the university and its capacity for self-development. New ones were then being built in Essex, Norwich, York, Sussex and Warwick to facilitate social mobility, though her description actually sounds more like the radical learning spaces that briefly flared during the student sit-ins of 1968 at Hornsey College of Art and elsewhere.

But she drew also on all sorts of other radical ideas and folk memories that were bubbling up at the time: socialism, her own theatre work, the pleasure garden, adventure playgrounds, mechanics’ institutes, community art and who knows what else. Littlewood called it The Fun Palace, apparently in response to Jennie Lee’s (Britain’s first arts minister) assertion that ‘What people want now is fun’. The phrase caught on, but it also caused difficulties. It was hard to explain, and it made some people think that this was all an indulgence – the fantasy of unworldly artists.  As her friend and biographer, Peter Rankin, writes:

‘Joan, just by talking, could create the Palace before your eyes but soon she would be talking to people who would go away thinking: ‘What was all that about?’; and those were the people who would be giving planning permission and providing money.’

It didn’t help that Joan Littlewood could be very difficult to work with. For all her commitment to the collective, she was not a team player. Still, she battled for her idea. With the visionary architect Cedric Price and the support of friends and colleagues, she campaigned for her Fun Palace for years, drawing up plans, raising funds, identifying sites, attending council meetings, persuading, arguing, coaxing…  in vain. There were temporary versions: a playground made on a bomb site, a colonised industrial building on Martin Street or Bubble City in the City of London Festival each explored aspects of the idea, but Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace was never built.

Which might have been a good thing.

… Part 2 tomorrow



    1. Interesting question – my guess is that art labs principally attracted/sought the involvement of people who already thought of themselves as artists, but it is just a guess. Thanks for the link: looks interesting.


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