Pentalum: Playful Bliss at the Lawn on D in Boston

Paige’s Note:  Rounding out our set of play-enlivening-public-spaces this week is the recent installation of Pentalum at Boston’s Lawn on D.  And here to describe it is Chris Wangro–who started off in the circus and wound up producing the likes of Mick Jagger and the pope.  He’s one of the most playful people I know (and one of the only people who instantly got my references to Ant Farm), and has a unique perspective on the use of play in public space.  What would it be like  if even our more traditional and static playground spaces could be imbued with the beauty, awe, and exploration of the Pentalum?  I can tell you…they’d be more active spaces, more energized spaces, building community for kids and adults alike.  They’d be packed with people all the time, and they would absolutely compete with the digital world for a child’s attention.  Here’s Chris:  

Entering the Pentalum is like falling down a rabbit hole, one is instantly transported to another world. It is a place that surprises and tweaks your senses. The Pentalum took Boston by storm this month; in a four-day showing it created something of a media and social media frenzy, not to mention four-hour lines in the rain.

Full disclosure; I wear the Creative Director/Programmer/Impresario hat for Boston’s Lawn on D. As readers of your blog might know, the Lawn on D is a new and experimental park/event space in South Boston. The space is 2.7 acres and has become a hotspot for arts and events. My favorite review of the space comes from a leading blog for Boston culture, Bostinno: “Finally Boston has a playground for adults”. Music to my ears.

The LOD was built as a temporary space, it is a nice open green space but relatively featureless. Our first big step towards enlivening the space was to commission a major piece of public art. We wanted this work to become an icon for the space and draw people to this new and unknown spot, but more – I wanted the commission to be light-hearted and playful to help define the venue as a place that should be enjoyed, actively, by all. The result was “Swing Time” designed by the immensely talented team at Howeler Yoon; it is a dynamic, interactive, tech-forward swing-set that quickly became one of Boston’s most popular pieces of public art. It was a tough act to follow but the success of this large scale play sculpture paved the way for the Pentalum.

On May 28 we opened the doors to the Pentalum, an extraordinary folly created by Alan Parkinson and the Architects of Air. Describing the Pentalum is difficult because the impact is visceral and emotional. The pneumatic structure is vast – and scale here is important – the footprint in Boston took up the better part of an acre. The exterior is impressive but also misleading; it looks a bit like a Nintendo-influenced bouncy house on steroids, it’s eye-catching, fun & formidable but not what the experience is all about. The fun starts when you step inside…

Having the ability to observe people streaming through the Pentalum over the course of several days I noted a few things, first – pretty much everyone despite their age, the heat inside, the long wait to get in, was instantly smiling, if not laughing out loud. The Pentalum creates awe and wonder. The space is also disorienting, its organically shaped tunnels twist and turn in ways that are hard to understand and so the visitor becomes explorer. Being an explorer is exciting and rewarding. I think this is part of the secret to the transformational nature of the experience. The thing is also beautiful.  Natural sunlight filters through opaque colored panels and becomes magnified on reflective silver walls that make the interior one big dazzling glow. It overwhelms the senses. Finally, everything is soft (it’s an inflatable after all), people bounce off the walls, lay down everywhere and bask in a place that is gentle and other.

I offer these pictures from my mobile, which brings me to one important note; the most common reaction for visitors no matter race, creed, age, etc., was to whip out their phones and get busy. I’d venture that out of the thousands that passed through, no more than a handful went through without taking pictures selfies/Instagramming/Skyping/Facebooking/Flickring/Tweeting/Vineing. Although Alan began designing the Luminaria two decades ago – long before the age of self(ie), documenting and transmitting the experience is now one with the experience. I leave that as an observation and keep critical thought aside, but there’s no denying that the creative act of making the moment digital is now part of the play.

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