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!
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.
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!
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]
For Throwback Thursday, thanks to reader Mannie Ko for letting me know about this facebook page dedicated to chronicling the vintage playground elephants of Taiwan. It’s great to see that these are beloved and being preserved by their communities. I do love a playground elephant (see several previous posts on them here). Delightful!
Aaaand I’m back from the land of voting agreements and dilution formulas to the happier place of playgrounds…thanks for waiting! I talk alot here at Playscapes about the fact that playgrounds should be local: they should relate uniquely to their site and their community. But I really like the fact that this new castle playground installed in 2014 in Zulpich Germany didn’t attempt to directly compete with the turrets and battlements of the REAL castle just behind it. Instead, RMP Stephan Lenzen Landscape Architects used an reinterpretation of the castle: a series of faceted forts set in a traditional defensive circle that kids can range about, through and on via ramps and ropes and climbing walls. The red and white flag-like accents bring just enough color and visual appeal to accent the precise, modernist wood construction. Note that two of the forts rise higher than the others and a gap between them draws children into the open center ‘bailey’ just like a traditional castle gate does (visible in the background of the photo with the swing). The bailey–indeed the entire ground plane of the playscape–is covered in tons (literally) of sand, the original playground material. And no safety surfacing in sight, yay!
Paige’s Note: As I’m working to close an investment deal at the moment, I’m reminded of how great it is to have Susan Solomon’s columns as a part of Playscapes. Not just because it helps me fill in the posting gaps when my own schedule reaches its overstretched limits(!), but also because her insight into the American playground scene is erudite, historically informed, and unsurpassed. In today’s ‘After the Deadline’ column, she touches on an issue that is a thorn in both our sides–discussions of ‘Nature Play’ and ‘Natural Playgrounds’ as if such a thing has just been invented…and by Americans of course! No, not so. Nature play and natural playgrounds as a formal idea began in the 19th century, and were strongly emphasized by philanthropists in the 1920s and 1930s concerned about children in cities (they didn’t call it a ‘nature deficit’, but much of the rhetoric is the same), then taken up again in the back-to-nature movement of the 1970s. Most recently, beautiful natural playgrounds were being installed in Europe by dedicated and thoughtful practitioners like Helle Nebelong, well before the johnny-come-lately Americans began waving the ‘natural’ flag. Europeans still exceed us in the development of the natural playground art, largely because they have avoided the death-grip of overzealous safety guidelines that restricts play here in America. I’m glad to see the increased emphasis on nature play in the United States, but anyone who tries to lay claim to originality either doesn’t know their playground history, or is simply unwilling to acknowledge those on whose shoulders they stand.
The Nature of Nature, by Susan G. Solomon
Taking a cue from Richard Louv, I suggest that we consider “Nature Design Deficiency.” Nature playgrounds in the US usually have to be constructed– albeit that that is an oxymoron- or they can be naturally wild areas where the kids are left to be on their own. So far, we haven’t done a particularly good job with the former and we rarely see evidence of the latter.
See recently on a visit to London, this gentle, hilly playscape with with artisan-carved additions for turtles and fish. Billed as a community space rather than explicitly a playground, this simple intervention provides great play and picnic value in a small, gardenesque space: a much better choice than installing ugly safety surfacing and a set of poles and platforms equipment. Remember that the best place to begin any small play installation is with a hill: playgroundsshouldnotbeflat! This playscape is fenced, which I generally oppose, but its position along the Thames and the need to keep the area free from dogs make fencing a reasonable choice here. By Groundwork London. More from London in the next few posts, and see other turtle-hills in this past post.
Even though it’s properly a sculpture, the Alice in Wonderland statue in NYC’s Central Park is essentially used as a play feature: every time I visit there are 20 or so kids climbing up the rabbit and hiding under the mushrooms. It was thus in the 1970s too, when Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) took some rather sweet photos of Jimi Hendrix and band and kids draped over the statue. The playful images were his choice for the cover of Electric Ladyland, though the record label overruled him and picked something quite…different. And now our count of playgrounds-on-vintage-rock-album-covers stands at 2. [see the other one here]
Like a Wallholla without the wall, this linear playscape by JDS Architects traces a thin line down the “Wave’ of Kalvebod Brygge in (where else but) Copenhagen, the world’s best city for play. Wow, look at the height that Denmark is willing to allow kids to play at, with no ugly safety* surfacing in sight! The Wave project continues the development of some ideas JDS expressed in their Maritime Youth House, also in Copenhagen, utilizing similar wide sloping planes as roofs-floors-slides. Constructed way back in 2004, the Youth House’s undulating roofscape should rightfully be given credit for starting the whole ‘playable roof’ trend that has now been taken up by other designers.
*Given the new studies on how rubber safety surfacing may actually contribute to playground injuries, we should perhaps call it ‘danger surfacing’. Watch this space for more news on the battle to keep grass from being thrown off the playground.
As part of a grand project revitalizing the interior of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, A24 Landschaft designed a “Netzvilla”; a house of nets nearly 8 meters high, with an escape slide, of course. Reminiscent of the temporary play installations of Numen, the house of nets also reminds me of the Wallholla ‘wall of play’ by the Netherlands’ Carve, which soaks up as many as 60 kids within a small footprint. Both of these room-like designs construct playable space within a defined architectural frame, a great option for urban locations with space constraints.
As if in answer to my plea of “why can’t playgrounds be more beautiful?” up springs a kaleidoscopic basketball court in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. At 22 rue Duperré, in the Pigalle neighborhood, an existing court tucked between two buildings has been overhauled due to the advocacy of Stéphane Ashpool, creator of the Pigalle fashion brand and committed basketball player, with funds from Nike.
My first thought was of Mondrian, but according to the project’s artistic director, Subreville Thomas at Ill Studio it’s actually inspired by the Russian constructivist artist Malevich and his images of athletes.
Art and Play and Urban Reinvention all at once…great inspiration for the movement to appropriate urban alleyways and vacant lots for play!
[source, and thanks to Chris for the tip!]
“They were just there one Monday morning.”
Defying the usual norms of consultation, artist Ronan McCrea “purposefully did not mediate or discuss…or identify the markings as being anything in particular (particularly as being art)”, when he filled the drab asphalt play yard of a Dublin school with circles and arcs.
“The markings do not signify any game or sporting code, but are used by the children in their own play they invent for themselves everyday. Some circles are very large in diameter and extend into other tarmac areas of the school property such as the car park. Some are so large that in one’s imagination the circumference extends beyond the school property and into the hinterland of the neighborhood.
In some subliminal way the circles are linked in the artist’s mind with the image of childhood, education and ego from Joyce’s bildungsroman, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man:
“Stephen turned to the flyleaf of the geography book and read what had been written there himself, his name and where he was:
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
A second part of McCrea’s project was to document the arc-activated schoolyard in use: he fixed a camera at an elevated position before breaks and relied on the children’s random movements in and out of frame to create the compositions. The resulting photos reveal the way in which the children’s play both incorporates and defies the lines and volumes traced by the arcs.
Some years ago I posted the most beautiful climbing wall in the world; a carved wooden orb at a preschool in Finland. I’ve seen nothing since to even approach it, until Bård Breivik’s KUBE sculpture in Bergen, Norway. Its shiny, touchable surfaces attracted not just the attention of children but also their instinct to climb. I doubt they cared that the stainless steel sculpture materialized mathematical equations, including the Doppler effect, but I very much like the idea that they were climbing on math.
Breivik would certainly welcome it; he is also the sculptor of Bergen’s lovely water rills, making runoff (drainage issues should be generally seen as an *asset* to a site) not just visible but also playful.
And I ask–for the millionth time–why playgrounds aren’t more beautiful? How would playgrounds be different if they had to qualify, like these examples, as pieces of a permanent art collection?