Announcing the 2015 Play Hero Blocks honoring Isamu Noguchi!

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This is the third year for Playscapes’  series of blocks inspired by heroes of  play, and I’m pleased to announce the 2015 edition honoring the great sculptor Isamu Noguchi!  As early as 1933, Noguchi was designing sculpted landforms for children’s play when the rest of the world had only recently come to acknowledge the swing and the slide.  His grandest conceptions (like the surrealist playscape for the United Nations building) were never realized, though his smaller play sculptures and equipment were.  Nevertheless, Noguchi’s influence can be felt in virtually every site that can truly be termed a playscape.  He was the first–and for a long time the only–designer to understand that spaces for play should be fully realized and non-flat landscapes rather than simplistic sets of equipment.

Artist and artisan Jen Bulthuis of Fidoodle has designed the Noguchi blocks that you can arrange endless configurations of the Noguchi play works and children at play.  Perfect for kids from 3-99!

I’ll be saying much more about Noguchi and his play designs as the days count down to a new year, but from now until the end of the week (December 5), enter PLAYNOGUCHI during checkout at the Playscapes online store to get 25% off your set!   The 2013 (Aldo van Eyck) and 2014 (Theodor Sorenson) editions are available there as well.

Sensory Playscape, Gudgudee, Mumbai, India, 2015

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While I love to feature high-design projects like the Nova, there is always a special place in my heart for the small and inexpensive, and low-cost projects can (and should!) be just as visually appealing as any grand design.

The playscape designed by Indian design firm Gudgudee  for the Research Society – Jai Vakeel School for children in need of Special Care, Mumbai, India fits the bill:  it has been dubbed “Chiri Chiriyo”,  which means laughter of a child in Malayalam language.

In quite a small space, Gudgudee has installed a sensory landscape with great local texture: bamboo chimes from local Maharashtrian craftsmen (who usually carve out flutes) and copper bells in different sizes and resonances from Kutch region of Gujarat.  Setting both these items into colorful, geometric metal frames adds significantly to the visual character of the space.    Convex mirrors–like those used for store security–are readily available, inexpensive, and add that optical element I’m always looking for in playgrounds.   There are also foot-friendly tactile pavers, and an interactive wall organizes the space and provides a focal visual element.  I like the fact that its top surface is smooth for climbing and sliding.  The niches and cutouts make individual hide-outs as well as enabling simple games that improve fine motor skills like passing ropes through the holes.

Well done, Gudgudee!  I’m always excited to see new design firms get into play, and I look forward to more interesting work from you.

Nova Kaleidoscope Playhouse, SOFTlab, New York City, December 2015

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Things I’d like to see on the playground…in my ongoing quest to inspire more use of reflective and chromatic surfaces–optically active stuff–on the playground I’m inspired by the holiday commission for the Flatiron district in New York City:  a grown-up playhouse, really, that features kaleidoscopic facets and sound-responsive LEDs.   The color effects come from the use of 3M Dichroic film on the interior; a relatively inexpensive material that playscape designers should be using!   Another great feature of Nova is the apertures in the exterior that frame iconic landmarks of the neighborhood.  Playgrounds should always PLAY LOCAL by including unique aspects of their site’s history and surroundings, and adding intentional viewpoints to other urban features is a great way to do this.  The Nova installation is by SOFTLab, commissioned by the Van Alen Institute, and it’s temporary, so make sure you experience it before Christmas!



The deadline is approaching for teams to register to design an innovative play space for a public school, library, and recreational center in Philadelphia! Note that “Multidisciplinary, integrated teams must have at least one licensed landscape architect, architect, or civil engineer”, and it does cost $300 to enter.

DEADLINE:  November 30, 2015!


Seeking artists for a climbable, playable sculpture to be part of a new playscape in Miami, Florida!  Local or Florida artists preferred, but others are welcome to submit as well.  Send me (arcadyatcoxdotnet) some information about yourself and either images or links to your work, and a quick draft concept that would fit within a roughly $80,000 total commission!  DEADLINE: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2015.


PLAY[ground] for Vivid Sydney, 2015

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The international design firm HASSELL recently teamed up with non-profit Archikidz and Sydney Living Museums to create PLAY[ground], a three day destination event in the in the heart of Sydney.  A sell-out crowd visited over three days to swing, climb,  crawl, tunnel, jump and connect.  A free but ticketed event, PLAY[ground] reached capacity before the gates even opened. Six thousand people – including 4,000 children – attended over the course of the three-day installation that was part of the 2015 VIVID Sydney festival.”

“The Archikidz brief called for a single playground. But, after testing early plans with a group of children, HASSELL created a collection of interactive installations to inspire different types of outdoor play. Kids were diving into multi-coloured ball pools, shimmying up ropes, and running through the maze of plants and a forest of multi-coloured ribbons made from old parachutes. Retired sailing spinnakers and timber palettes were given new life as platforms for kids to swing on, climb through, crawl under and jump off.  At the end of it all, everything was repurposed, returned or recycled – accomplishing the ultimate low cost, low impact event at the heritage-listed barracks.”

Great design and great fun, of course, but I love that the goals of this project went beyond “just” play.  The team wanted to “make kids seen and heart in the city”, and in so doing inspire city makers to think creatively about the future of cities:  what makes them great, and what makes them playable.   Too many play advocates just wave their hands vaguely and cry “let the children play!”  But more rigorous and expansive thinking is required to build a playful future, to see play as both an end in itself AND a means that helps us understand and build community.

“The program for PLAY[ground] included a number of free workshops about city-making and the built environment. Kids, families and friends immersed themselves in green wall workshops with specialists, Junglefy, drew their visions for the future city, and experimented with new ways of travelling through the city with parkour lessons.

Kids shared their thoughts about how they would make cities more liveable and fun in the HASSELL ‘Little House: Big ideas’ – a wooden cubby house in the middle of PLAY[ground]. While there were plenty of references to jet packs and robots, many kids spoke about the importance of green space, how living in an apartment allows you to make the most of the city, and new types of environmentally-friendly transport they would like to see ‘when they grow up’.

“The legacy of PLAY[ground] lives on…the green wall created by Junglefy with hundreds of kids and their parents will be installed in its permanent location at Ultimo Community Centre very soon. The parkour equipment has a new home at Pyrmont Community Centre, and will soon become a new location for the boys from Jump Squad HQ to run parkour workshops.”

Collaborators: Archikidz, Sydney Living Museums, Junglefy, Andreasens Green, Design Landscape, Innov8 Access, JumpSquad, Imprint Acoustics
Photography: James Horan, Vin Rathod, HASSELL

Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen by Susan Solomon

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Paige’s Note:  As I try to again ease back into posting after an intensive focus on my other life in science (aka, the Alternate Universe), I’m pleased to present Susan Solomon’s latest After the Deadline column with thoughts on the Superkilen: a rebellious public space in best-city-for-play Copenhagen.  I’ve never featured it on the blog, not because I didn’t know about it, but because I doubted it.  It’s undeniably photogenic (and I was excited to see a Japanese play octopus, one of the first sculptural pieces I featured on Playscapes)  but I wondered whether the self-conscious settings translated to a good experience on the ground for either pedestrians or players.  I’ve never had the opportunity to visit, but Susan Solomon has, and her analysis confirms my concerns that this playful public space was designed more for visual effect than for visitor experience; a disservice to the residents it was supposed to serve.  And it is of historical interest to me that Superkilen’s heavy-handed, top-down design approach was implemented in a neighborhood that once fought a losing “playground war”  to retain a self-built, community constructed adventure playground.  Times have clearly changed.  

Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen, by Susan G. Solomon

I worry about public space that is captured in images that are “too good to be true.”  Such is the case with Superkilen, an urban linear park in Copenhagen.  And like the old adage, the on-the-ground experience is not as good as the photos.   When I saw it this past summer, I came away thinking that Superkilen is a wonderfully photogenic one-kilometer long stretch, one that sadly does not live up to its promise. It’s a pity the results are not more positive because millions of people are already familiar with it (they might not know its name) thanks to an iPhone ad that placed it on magazine covers and billboards this past spring. Readers might remember the dramatic images of white squiggly lines on an undulating black surface.  The cost of Superkilen- over $8 million-compounds my feeling of unease.

The results are all the more dispiriting because heartfelt intentions underlay the Superkilen concept.  It represents a potent belief that design can ameliorate social shortcomings and foster community.   Creating Superkilen was an attempt to improve the everyday life of newcomers who have arrived in Copenhagen over the past decade.  Many are poor and live jammed together in the roughest area of the city, Nørrebro  (although to American eyes this neighborhood appears much more benign than inner cities in the USA and there is at least one street, previously notorious for killings and crime, which now hosts upscale restaurants). Superkilen was introduced as a respite space, a series of outdoor hubs where local residents could gather. Read more…

Inflatable Playascape, PneuHaus, Burning Man 2015

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I’ve never been a fan of the “bouncy castle” genre of temporary play installations, so it’s exciting to see the new company PneuHaus (founded in 2013 by designers Matthew Muller and August Lehrecke) re-interpreting the playable inflatable by draping two types of nets– loosely woven for climbing and tightly woven for sitting–over giant air-filled columns.  It’s Burning Man, so grown-ups at play, but I’d love to see kids get a chance at this Playascape.

Also don’t miss their Pneumatic Masonry (last 2 photos), which is like a temporary, air-filled version of the bubble climbers of Peter Pearce from the 1970s and 1980s.   Very interesting ideas here…I’ll be watching, PneuHaus! (and thanks to Chris for the tip!)


Gatos Recycled Playground, Basurama, Rio de Janeiro, 2015

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Basurama Brasil’s latest playful resurrection of recyclables is open for play at the Casa Daros Museum Rio, “for children under 99 years old”!  Reminiscent of the Lions’ Park playscape by Rural Studio in Alabama,  it takes oil barrel-based construction a bit further by enlivening a selection of 200 of them with punchy colors and creative patterns, and adding tent-like roofs made from obsolete museum banners by Argentinian artist Fabian Marcaccio.   I love the addition of nets, too,  which are such an easy way to make any self-constructed playscape even more playable.  If you are so lucky as to be in Rio, you can visit and play until November 15th.

Lizard Country, Rathenow Germany, ZimmerObst, 2015

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One of those delightful Gartenschau playgrounds is the “Lizard Country” constructed by ZimmerObst in Rathenow, Germany for one of the 2015 BUGA regional shows.  ZimmerObst (apologies in advance for the low-res photos from their website)  were responsible for construction on the previously posted Modern Castle Playground in Zulpich, and they’ve used similar faceting to add to the playability of the lizard’s body in this install.   Lizards, snakes and dragons are no stranger to the playground, but I particularly like how this design allows the creature’s body to essentially become the *entire* playscape, rather than just one element in it, as it bends and twists throughout the playable space.    The lizard’s tongue is a slide, and its tail has jets of water.  At points where it’s body appears to dip above or beneath the sand (note:  NOT rubber safety surfacing), rope and bridge features add climbable connectivity.

One of the best things about the garden show tradition in Germany is that the playgrounds constructed for the show generally stay in place, becoming a permanent addition to the landscape of the host city.  It’s a great overlap of interests between private capital and public works:  the garden show gets a crowd-pleasing, audience-increasing feature for the duration of the show (sometimes as long as 6 months), and the municipality gets a high-quality, design-focused playscape ever after.  If any of my Deutsch readers can tell me how the financing of this works, I’d love to know more.

#TBT Futuristic Garden Show Playground, 1974, Vienna Austria

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For #TBT, a couple of images from a trippy, futuristic playground installed at a garden show in Vienna Austria in 1974 that seems to combine a playhouse/slide with a boatable lake! Note also the playscape of rounded white hills in the background. I could find very little information on this playscape (do get in touch if you know more), but I came across it while doing some research into Germany’s spectacular tradition of garden shows. I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the factors in the advanced development of the playground art in Germany and nearby countries is the importance of these shows, and the inclusion of large playgrounds in them. Innovative designs are displayed every year and visited by tens of thousands of professionals and parents alike, thus disseminating new ideas and high standards for design throughout the country. There is no equivalent tradition here in the United States. Watch for more from the great Gartenschauen over the next few weeks!

Parkour’s First Appearance on Television in 1997

Today’s post is a mashup of ThrowbackThursday and PlaySculptureSaturday, but that’s too long for a hashtag!  Thanks to reader Mark for sending me the link to this intriguing piece of recent play history:  the first time parkour was featured on television in 1997.  Beginning at :053, the clip shows the runners scaling Pierre Szekely’s monumental Dame du Lac sculpture between Evry and Courcouronnes, considered by many to be the birthplace of the new play sport.   Szekely completed the sculpture in 1975, incorporating many of the ideas he had worked out in smaller play sculpture installations (see this previous Playscapes post on his work).  Though the invention of Parkour was still years away, the forms of his sculpture seem to have perfectly anticipate the free form running-climbing-jumping-swinging that would be adopted on the site, and spread eventually throughout the world, including to other sculpted landscapes like those of Lawrence Halprin in the United States.  So is Pierre Szekely the real father of Parkour?  A playful question to ponder on your Saturday.

DOKK1, Literate Playground, Monstrum, Århus Denmark, 2015

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The working title of the book I’m writing for Norton about the cultural history of the garden (if I can ever finish it in between the nanotechnology and the business deals!) is The Literate Garden, and so when the nice folks at Monstrum sent me a description of their latest installation The Literate Playground immediately came to mind.

I love that this playscape is attached to Scandinavia’s largest library, and that it represents in its own way a collection of knowledge:  five play spaces organized as a  ‘Kloden’ (globe) along compass directions for specific locations around the world, with giant creatures (Monstrum’s biggest ever!) that tell the wonderful stories of each place. Each of the five playscapes “contains small fragments and stories about nature, animals, landscapes, geology, culture and much more. The aim is to inspire, arouse children’s and adults’ knowledge desire while creating space and opportunity for play and exercise.”

I will just offer the wee criticism that the playscape has far too much safety surfacing for my taste.  Though I understand its low-maintenance and clean-lined appeal in a public space like the one around this library, I sincerely hope that Denmark, with its historical acceptance of risk to achieve the reward of great play, isn’t adopting the over-regulation of surfaces that plagues playgrounds in America.  Push back, Denmark!

Also of interest is that the project was funded by the Herman Salling Foundation. This is part of a worldwide trend I’m seeing in which the most innovative and ambitious playgrounds are increasingly funded by foundations who are willing to take design risks that municipalities will not.   For a long time, foundations seemed more interested in playground quantity than in quality, and they often funded formulaic manufactured solutions.   Naturally, I am pleased as punch to see this change!

Floriade: Architectural Playscape, Stephan Lenzen, 2012

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Also from RMP Stephan Lenzen Landscape Architects is this thoughtful concatenation of play with garden and architecture in a pavilion designed to display the environment of North Rhine-Westphalia at a Dutch garden show.  Over the last fifty years or so western culture has largely restricted play to the designated real estate known as the “playground”.  So when re-integrating play into other public spaces–public squares, sidewalks, exhibition spaces–it is often necessary to add cues to say “play is welcome here!”.    Lenzen’s architectonic interpretation of hills and valleys  is quite playable just on its own, but the addition of chalk-drawing panels, climbing walls, and bean bags–all in bright red–*invites*  children to play in a way that the wooden planes on their own would not.   If you’re designing playable elements outside of a traditional playground space, think about adding cues to give the public–adults and children alike–permission to play there.  Without them, you may find your playscape–no matter how thoughtful–lacking in players!

And adding to our collection of playful pachyderms is this German example; providing  unexpected whimsy in front of a severe modernist housing block in midcentury Mirow, Germany.  [source]