Compare Myers’ work to the tenement playground in a Boston alley, photographed by the great Lewis Hine, c. 1909. Via wikimedia commons, but owned by the George Eastman House. This is what the playfields, playgrounds, and sand gardens were were designed to address.
[Jumping right in to Throwback Thursday since I am in the middle of relocating my laboratory to a new place with room for scientific co-working! And art! So excited. Back to regular posting next week.]
The paintings of artist Jerome Myers provide an insightful view of changes in the American playground space in New York City in the early 20th century. The first, simply entitled ‘The Playground‘ , c. 1907, shows a grassy sports field to which some play equipment for smaller children has been added. This was the common format for early play spaces, though the children’s play area was more often separated from the field by a hedge or a fence. The word ‘playground’ was at first nearly synonymous with ‘sports field’. Note how young the children are, and the long (but orderly!) line awaiting a turn at the single piece of equipment. (“The Playground” sold at Christies for $30,550 in 2000)
“City Playground” from 1937 immortalizes the sandbox, whose portability and low cost quickly made it an essential urban distraction, without the maintenance and indeed, risk of equipment with moving parts. New York City was not the first in this regard; Boston was the great city of what were then called ‘sand gardens’, in which children in sun bonnets sprouted like so many flowers. From Boston, the idea spread rapidly throughout the United States, often implemented by philanthropic women’s groups…another thesis topic waiting to happen. (“City Playground” is in a private collection.)
Jerome Myers was born in Virginia but spent his adult life painting New York City. Any Gotham history buffs who can pinpoint the location of these scenes?
““All my life I had lived, worked and played in the poorest streets of American cities. I knew them and their population and was one of them. Others saw ugliness and degradation there, I saw poetry and beauty, so I came back to them. I took a sporting chance of saying something out of my own experience and risking whether it was worthwhile or not. That is all any artist can do.”
Sometimes our grown-up design eyes look down at ‘themed’ playgrounds as too literal. But I think most kids look at them with delight. This giant red wagon is one element of Spokane Washington’s Riverfront Park, by artist Ken Spiering. [image source]
This is truly advanced DIY, but I’m glad to see this instructable for a concrete gecko! The design steps could be adapted to other forms, and the artist’s sharing of his concrete recipe (3 parts sand, 1part Portland cement, 10% Magnesium Oxide, Fly ash, steel fibre reinforcing, glass fibre reinforcing, water reducing compound) is particularly useful. [thanks, Oleg!]
A round-up of some miscellaneous playful ideas today…this sculpture, on the grounds of the Memphis college of art, is an interactive version of those flip-face books we loved as children. I’d like to see this on a playground! [via flickr, artist unknown. If you have more info, please provide it!]
Going waaay back for Throwback Thursday, to a pre-playground era and the emblem book of Jacob Cats, (1577-1660), a Dutch poet, lawyer, and statesman. Children are at play in a city square (yay! play in the city center!) at blindman’s buff and leap frog, somersaults and bubble-blowing. No “equipment”, but there are jumpropes, kites, hoops, whirligigs, stilts, plus dolls and kitchen implements (for the girls) and lots of stick-swords and military band instruments for the boys. In keeping with the values of the time period, gendered play was seen as preparing the children for their adult roles, and the imagery bears a hidden moral message (all emblem books do)…the stilts represent ‘ego’ because they are higher than others, the bubbles represent the brevity of life.
Play, even if it appears without sense,
Contains a whole world therein;
The world and its complete structure,
Is nothing but a children’s game;
Thus, after the frost thaws
When you look at all that foolish youth does,
You will understand on the street
How the whole world goes;
You will find there, I know it well
Your own folly in children’s games.
4. Make swinging a rich experience. That’s really why so many people went to the Ann Hamilton Event of a Thread; not just to swing, but to swing in the middle of an art piece–illuminated in a patch of light, underneath a billowing cloud of fabric. So think of how you might add a layer of additional experience to your playground swing:.
WATER—perhaps just a summertime mist rather than the deluge of the Waterfall Swing, but I’d like to see some more integration of water and swinging (I know, I can hear the safety police coming now).
SOUND: The Swing-set-drum-kit by visual artist Dave Ford might be too raucous for a permanent installation (though great for a festival), but the bell-like tones of 21 balancoires are melodious enough not to annoy the neighbors. The bottom of the swings are also lit, forming beautiful arcs at night. The original 21 balancoires installation in Montreal was wildly successful, so daily tous les jours created a more portable project; The Swings (video below), with a greater variety of tones and a greater emphasis on night-lighting.
MOTION: Swinging can be easily transferred to other forms of motion (like the waving banners of Swing-it), or with a bit more difficulty translated to other forms of energy (like the electricity of Moradavaga’s Swing), or simply detected. Particular Heightsby Paul Theriault and Siebren Versteeg ‘counts’ each swing above a certain height. The count is shown on a counter attached to the swing, but it also forms part of a gallery show in which a webcam captured snapshot of the swinger in flight becomes part of a looping stop motion visual. See also the Laughing Swing previously featured on Playscapes, which generates sounds of laughter relative to the height of the swinger’s arc.
LIGHT: At Nuit Blanche NYC 2011, Amanda Long’s Bring to Light generated multi-colored projections of swingers onto a wall in front of them. And creative technologist Phil Reyneri proposes a combination of both motion and light effects, in which “Participants on the swings will look up to see massive columns of light sweeping through the night sky; each set of beams acting as a visual extension of an individual’s motion. Encoder data will drive game logic, encouraging users to “unlock” brightness and color patterns by swinging in sync. Participants are rewarded with more complex and spectacular light shows the more they work together.” I really hope it gets built.
That brings us to 5. Make swinging a communal experience. Many of these installations are richly communal; bringing a variety of users together in a single space. Playgrounds should learn from that. Look at the faces on participants of the swings in series at Swing Hall Swing All, by keetra dean dixon. Not the same if you’re alone. The one swing art installation I didn’t like was Jacques Rival’s Bird Cage swing in London, where the swinger swings lonely in a cage. I much prefer Silence, by Lea Lim. I’m sure there is some safety regulation against hanging so many swings together, but noone can move very much, so really, where’s the harm? Swings are best in community.
I started this blog with the thought that playgrounds should be better. Swings should be better, too, so let’s get busy. If you build an amazing, innovative swing, get in touch.
I sometimes get mail criticizing the number of art installations I feature, as not being ‘true’ playgrounds. But these temporary play spaces–by artists, designers, makers, and urban interventionists outside of the narrow field of play practitioners–are where the playgrounds of the future are being born. They, not academics and not formulaic manufacturers, are the ones testing new forms, experimenting with innovative ideas, and particularly addressing the neglected interface of play and aesthetics; all necessary to engage children and parents with play spaces amid the visual saturation of the twenty-first century.
Thousands stood in long lines to visit Anne Hamilton’s Event of a Thread swings in New York last year. Why aren’t playground swings that engaging? What can playground makers learn from the swing-as-art-installation (which, like the slide-in-office, is having a moment)?
1. Everybody loves a swing. Children, but adults, too, and playground designers should picture grown-ups as participants, not just ‘pushers’ in swinging. The ’21 balancoires’ of award-winning design group Daily tous les jours accommodate both large and small swingers. Your playground should too.
2. Free the swings from the playground. One of the key elements of the ‘Post-Playground Era’ (some of we playground people are considering hosting a conference on that, by the way…get in touch if you’re interested) is the distribution of smaller play elements throughout the cityscape in new places and unexpected ways. Coming upon a swing in a playground is no surprise. But at a bus station or in a market square or a parking space, like the temporary Swing Park in Dallas, it is sheer delight, and engages both children and adults in a whole new way (see also A Brief History of the Urban Swing). Swings are particularly interesting in spaces of urban neglect, as seen so beautifully in the work of Basurama.
3. Shake up the traditional visual of the swing. Put them in cherry red houses, like at Mi Casa Your Casa, by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Swinging lasts awhile, and the swinger’s eyes are free to look around. So give them something to look at already. Place a mural of clouds (ala Jillian Mayer’s Cloud Swing) or a mirror nearby, inspired by the ‘Swing to Infinity’ of Thilo Frank. Most kids would indeed swing for.ever. if they could watch themselves in a mirror while they did so.
“We felt strongly that the piece needed to connect with the local community and to record their memories and experience of play we held a poetry workshop with the local youth theater group yewtree and between us we wrote a poem called ‘dirty knees & mucky faces.’’”
The community was also engaged in making paper weavings that inspired the patterns for the bright swings and seats, and which reference both the Yorkshire region’s history of textile manufacture and the woven picnic blankets that are a traditional part of the British summer.
The 10 m high scaffold structure links the swings to the mobiles and signs, so that with the motion of the swingers the banners wave overhead in an invitation to come and play.
Swing it! remains in place until September 30, with free admission!
“Swing” was a temporary installation by Portugese art and architecture collective Moradavaga. Swing installations are nothing new, but I like how Moradavaga combines a techy conversion of mechanical to electrical energy with rustic materials that reflect the manufacturing past of the host city of Guimarães. Traditional hemp rope, bicycle chains, and wheels make for an industrial feel, and I particularly love the sounds…the whirring of the wheels and clack of the wooden blocks are the tones of a factory, whose communal ‘production’ is electricity to illuminate the base of the installation.
For more of Jim Miller-Melberg’s playground sculptures, see also a flickr set of his turtles, which also includes some saddle slides and Castles. Miller-Melberg’s playground animals were installed all over the world; this lovely image by photogeniks shows one of the turtles near Kuwait’s iconic towers in the aftermath of what in the USA is called the Gulf War, c. 1992.