See another temporary play installation by LIKEArchitects: they continue their motif of everyday objects as modular construction elements in their design for the PlayLAND pavilions in Paredes de Coura, Portugal, which use beach floats to make a stage, a tunnel, and a tower! I’m glad to see they also left lots of extra floats scattered around for free play.
Continuing the trend for swing installations, the work of Höweler + Yoon Architecture on the lawn at D Street in Boston has been “wildly successful”, according to the Atlantic’s CityLab. As they point out, the space is remarkable for NOT being a master-planned, highly architectural project with built-in elements that tell the public what it must do there. Instead, it’s a temporary installation in an in-between space, just the sort of spot that is perfect for play in the post-playground era.
This “outdoor experimental event landscape” is a testing ground–soon to be a construction site for the convention center’s expansion–of ideas “somewhere between traditional planning and the chair-bombings and overnight parklets of guerilla urbanism” that might be included in a permanent park to be built later,
Barker Landscape Architecture is also responsible for the Carkeek Park Playground in Seattle, which references the nearby Piper’s Creek and its Chum salmon with a design that includes rune-carved grottos, tide pools, and a 19 foot long salmon slide!
Reader Justin also sent me the link to this Seattle tractor play feature ( a year and a half ago, which is about the current length of my email queue, for which I am endlessly apologizing). At first glance, it’s a pretty simple themed object. But a few thoughtful additions–a platform on the back of the tractor, ropes extending back to a tree trunk, and a chassis tilted by mounting one wheel on a tree stump-make it much more playable. Even the simplest of play features deserve our thoughtful design attention. (UPDATE: Bradner Gardens, and the tractor installation, are the work of Barker Landscape Architects.)
Many thanks to Justin for alerting me to the great flickr set from the City of Seattle’s Municipal Archives, “Seattle at Play“. Many of them are of the Broadway Playfield, which is now Cal Anderson Park. The 1969 photo is particularly interesting…it’s an early natural playscape! Note the hill slide, and the tree trunk visible behind the swing set, whose thick block forms are reminiscent of Paul Friedberg’s work on the East coast. (See this post for his gone-but-not-forgotten Timberforms at the East 110th St. playground in Central Park, and of course remember that you can download Friedberg’s midcentury playground books from the blog’s sidebar).
If your city has a play archive, send me the info!
“All children should have a place like this” Dame Helen Mirren
It is always a joy to be at Glamis Adventure Playground, as I was again this year for Open House London. I generally take my own video while I’m there, but you’ll like this one with Helen Mirren better! She planned a short visit to the playground but ended up staying a long time, as does most everyone who visits Glamis.
It’s not just watching the kids play on giant swings, and wacky self-built and self-painted playhouses. It’s not just seeing them fix bikes, and cook over a fire. Whenever I’m at Glamis, I’m impressed by seeing the children navigate their relationships with one another–learning to cooperate, to apologize, to handle conflict peacefully, to test ideas–via the playground.
Glamis Adventure Playground depends on donations for its survival. It has been a part of the Shadwell community since the 1960s, but in 2011, lack of funding forced them to reduce their open days from six to four, in spite of the fact that Tower Hamlets has one of the highest population densities in the UK, with over 60% of the children in relative poverty.
In news from my home state, I’m pleased that the Sooner Play Tower, designed by Bruce Goff in 1963, has been restored and reinstalled! The tower and sandpit were commissioned by Mary Lou Price, whose family were also architectural clients of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bartlesville’s Parks and Rec Department provides a great history of the space age-y construction: “Goff’s design for the Sooner Park Play Tower was based upon mathematic principles: line, sphere, circle, cylinder, spiral and mobius strip. The tower is a spiraling staircase with a metallic mesh sphere that reaches 50 feet in height to the tip of its spire. Constructed of steel components (mesh fencing, perforated plate, textured tread plate, and steel rods), the tower was painted in primary colors red, yellow, and green. The tower was placed within a circular concrete barrier (16” high and 16” deep) filled with sand that spanned 50 feet in diameter which served as a sand play pit. Also included within the circular frame was a 6-foot high mobius strip constructed of continuous steel fencing with welded rods and raised on 12 piers, designed as a climbing and crawling feature. The mobius strip had only one side and one edge, so that by crawling continuously around for 360 degrees, the entire surface of the strip is traversed without crossing any boundaries. Within the circle, the tower was positioned off-center, and tethered to the ground outside the perimeter of the concrete barrier with 12 cables, each adorned with metal beads in the same color scheme as the tower. Once visitors progressed up the cylinder’s spiral staircase, they reached a metallic mesh sphere with a circular seat that gave a spectacular view of the city.”
Constructed in 1963 by Scott and Hill, a local structural steel fabrication company, the whole project came in at around $7,000 and took approximately three weeks to construct. The play tower was closed in the early 1990’s due to deterioration….in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008, a vandal ran a vehicle into the tower cutting one of the remaining cables and damaging the fencing which encloses the spiral staircase. ” Congratulations to Bartlesville residents for raising $144,000 to restore and preserve this unique piece of midcentury play. The unique aluminum ‘floats’ that decorate its cables are coming soon. [thanks to Anne for the tip!]
Also in London, Yayoi Kusama was exhibited at the Victoria Miro. While I would characterize Kusama’s work (including her viral polka dotted rooms) as more playFUL than playABLE, she has done at least one version of her iconic spotted pumpkin as a playhouse, in Naoshima, Japan.
Also in Sheffield, I was introduced to the work of Maggie Hargreaves, who had just won the 2014 Ruskin Prize for drawing. Her work Changing Spaces II, depicting a play platform in decay, was hanging at the Millennium Gallery, which I thought was brilliant for using the architectural language of a mall to draw the public into the space of an art gallery. Changing Spaces II is a large (150×220 cm) intensely detailed charcoal drawing, which you can own for just £1200! (I was sorely tempted, but alas, the scientific start-up must come first for now).
Maggie’s other works, particularly a series entitled “Let Them Play”, relate well to the natural play movement in their commentary on the place of children in nature.
The very last playspace I talked about at Sheffield was the Cypress Hills Playground, by architect Charles Forberg. It’s notable for being one of the playgrounds driven by the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing advocacy for better design in play, which continued well beyond its famous 1954 competition and remains the best example of how the overlap between art and play can help drive innovation. All those obscure artists who did one or two playgrounds in places like Arkansas or Wisconsin in the 60s and 70s? That was the result of MoMA’s involvement in the playground conversation, of using their cultural influence to legitimize and promote the role of artists in play. But Cypress Hills, installed in Brooklyn in 1967, is also notable for being a failure.
The neighborhood was gritty, and it is hard to separate the playground’s failings from the general failings of life, and architecture, in late 1960s East New York, where Forberg’s constructs were sited in an empty no-man’s land surrounded by fifteen seven-story buildings housing over 1400 low income families.
But Forberg was hopeful that he could use indestructible materials to create a resilient, low-maintenance space where 3-8 year olds could play…without supervision. In place of equipment that moved he would create varied spaces that children moved through, and an abstract setting that allowed them to make their own choices.
Cypress Hills was designed to be a playground for children by day and a sculpture for adults by night, with the integration of strong central light that turned its stark concrete forms into a chiaroscuro landscape. But that wasn’t enough to deter the dealers and neighborhood thugs who sheltered within the playgrounds most striking feature–vertical cast concrete panels 7 foot tall set at varying widths to form a maze around the perimeter of the playscape’s 72 foot diameter circular form. Ultimately Forberg’s forms–including a banked water feature, and stacked half-pipes that Simon and Tom Bloor have recreated as gilded miniatures–were aesthetically pure in plan but harsh and unforgiving on the ground. And in seeking to give the residents an aesthetic experience, he forgot to give them a safe one.
MoMA was hopeful, too; they retained the concrete forms so they could be reused to make more playgrounds. But Cypress Hills was torn out and replaced with standard equipment within a few years (I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly when); a playground-example of the failures of mid-century architecture. And that’s okay.
If you’re a regular reader, you know my ‘real’ job is as a scientist. Being a research scientist requires weathering constant failure. Every day I must attempt half a dozen impossible things before breakfast; and most of them won’t work.
As artistic play objects become increasingly important in the ‘spectrum of play’ (and they will!), some of them won’t work out. But that’s what it takes to move the conversation forward toward real innovation. Even standard, boring, pedestrian playgrounds fail. And when they go they leave no trace. Cypress Hills failed, but at least it did so in reaching for something new and better. Its aspiration still inspires.
[Apologies to those who received a draft of this post prematurely in their inboxes! The historical background for this post comes from Susan Solomon's American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space,which is essential reading for anyone interested in play history. Susan has a new book coming out in November, The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds that Enhance Children's Development, and she'll soon be joining me here at Playscapes as a recurring columnist!]
It was a privilege to be at Site Gallery in Sheffield in conversation with my friends Simon and Tom Bloor and some of my dear readers (hello!) to discuss play sculpture, its historical context, and its place in modern play design. Site Gallery is a unique space in that it has been in Sheffield for three decades; a time in which other contemporary art galleries have come and gone. And because contemporary art is designed to challenge and provoke, I intentionally broached some controversial ideas, like “Should we take the ‘ground’ out of ‘playground?” and “Have we defined play too much by real estate?” What do you think?
Play sculpture is simultaneously one of the most popular things I talk about here at Playscapes, and the most controversial. I get mail saying I shouldn’t feature it at all, since it’s not a playground. But I remain fascinated by its potential to extend the idea of play throughout the city, and to go where playgrounds cannot. Sculpture taps a different audience, a different funding stream, and a different set of safety considerations than those that have come to limit what even the most innovative playground can be. Sculpture scales, to small spaces or big ones, and easily occupies neglected spaces. For good or ill, we have attached a higher value, culturally, to ‘art’ than to ‘play’, and play sculpture can tap that differential.
The conversation we’ve been having here at Playscapes for the last six years about the need for great design on the playground–which I strive to perpetuate mostly by inspiration rather than criticism–has really mattered and play design is changing for the better. But I also want to see what I call the ‘spectrum’ for play expand, so that kids have play opportunities throughout the space they move through. Opportunities that range from the temporary to the permanent, from small to large, and from adventurous to artistic with everything in between. Sculpture isn’t the only way to achieve that but it’s one tool we can use. Take a look at a few excerpts from the slides, and discuss! I’d love to have your comments. More from Sheffield tomorrow.
I am in London for a bit longer but my heart is in New York City today, with the friends and family of Jane Clark Chermayeff. I count myself as one of them, though I think that everyone who met Jane felt that she was immediately their friend. She was a force: for good and for children and for play and for playgrounds and for whatever made them better. Jane was one of the first people to believe that what I was doing and saying at Playscapes was important. After enduring years of slights and criticisms from playground ‘insiders’ as a mere blogger, her acceptance and encouragement of my ‘outsiders’ voice nearly brought me to tears, and helped me continue on at a critical point in the blog’s life. Jane invited me to MoMA and included me in her round-table discussions and we had made more exciting plans for new play initiatives when she was suddenly stricken, and ultimately taken from those who knew and loved her far better than I. They gather in her city today to remember, and I add my own small but grateful commemoration to their memorial. I’ll remember Jane today, and whenever I see a swing, in honor of her life and her favorite saying. “Life without a swing is a misunderstanding.” Jane Clark Chermayeff 1950-2014
Finally, finally—scientific breakthroughs sorted and lectures delivered—a day for playgrounds. We’ve got some catching up to do. First up is the lovely Breaker’s Yard, newly installed at Sutton House, one of the National Trust’s only properties in London. What I love about it:
1. It represents work at the boundaries—overlapping garden and play. If you don’t get that reference, maybe watch the first part of my talk from London Open for Play 2012 The most interesting work in play happens at the boundaries; merging garden and playground, street and playground, gallery and playground (more on that later).
2. It honors a neglected part of local history. Play design is finally learning to respond to local context; even inexpensive playgrounds now attempt references to the history of their site. That is serious progress from when I started writing six years ago. But in a city like London, with many local history references from which to choose, how do you pick? Any site there has been many things over time. Our tendency is to pick the part of history that we like best; and that rarely includes the years of neglect or hardship that most long-occupied urban sites have experienced.
But instead of re-creating the tidy back garden of a 16th century Tudor courtier’s house (which is what Sutton House is), this play garden reflects its past as what we in the US would call a junk or scrap yard—a breaker’s yard. That’s a part of history most historic sites would try to forget. The Sutton House play garden engages it, with tires that serve as sand and plant boxes and seats, a welded steel gate–cleverly angled to control the views of passersby—that includes tiny toy cars, and yes, a discarded CARAVAN that functions as a play house, amped up with an elaborately carved fireplace mantel and a spindled staircase; a cheeky reference to the stately homes that are the National Trust’s usual stock in trade.. It’s brilliant, but according to London-based playground expert Tim Gill, it was the piece of the project that almost didn’t get approval. Is it the only abandoned caravan on premises of the oh-so-proper National Trust? I think it might be. Huzzah!
3. Community engagement AND access. Credit goes to Christopher Cleeve of Sutton House for managing this innovative project–which hopefully will serve as a model for play at other National Trust sites–including the selection of the scrap yard landscape (rather than say, a Tudor knot garden) because it was a reference within the recent memory of local residents. Chris has also ensured that locals can enter free of charge, through the house but without needing to pay the usual entry fee, so that the space can truly be a part of the community. Daniel Lobb along with Deborah Curtis and Gavin Turk of House of Fairy Tales designed the landscape, including the playground essentials of sand and water, which sit alongside edible garden beds, an ice cream van, and space for grown-ups to sit in the sun and enjoy the play.
Vintage playground equipment survives most often in out of the way places…this beauty of a globe climber with attached double slides is in Ayacucho, Peru. [source]
The untitled Picasso sculpture on Richard Daley plaza in Chicago,above, is one of the examples of public sculpture I’ll be using at my talk at Site Gallery in Sheffield, 5:30 pm on the 16th. Chicago’s official response to its appropriation as a playground has moved from forbiddance to annoyance to tolerance to acceptance to finally reflectance of the public’s chosen use with the installation of playful letters forming the word ‘Picasso’ that invite interaction.
“Play Sculpture from the Pre-Playground to the Post-Playground Era” As long as there has been public art, children have tried to play on it. At various times their play has been forbidden, tolerated, accommodated, and honored. In the mid-twentieth century, it was actively promoted by the creation of new sculpted forms purpose-designed for play. As we enter a post-playground era, the resurgence of interest in play sculpture provides unique opportunities for artists, urbanists and child advocates to envision new ways of integrating play and art within the public realm. A visual survey of sculpture as both unintentional and intentional playground over time–focused on the mid-twentieth century–will provide inspiration and historical context for a talk that will end with today’s digital landscapes.
Hope to see you there!
**Please note that I doubled-booked myself on September 20th; rather than being in Sheffield again I’ll be at Glamis Adventure Playground in London as part of London Open House. I’d love to see my readers at either event.