Thanks to all of you New Yorkers who have sent suggestions for great playgrounds to see on my visit in conjunction with the MoMA playground symposium in October! One that I’ll definitely be stopping by is Richard Dattner’s Adventure Playground at the West 67th Street entrance of Central Park. It serves as the central case study for Dattner’s 1969 book Design for Play, now available as the third playground classic through Playscapes Press.
From the original book jacket:
“Richard Dattner’s Design for Play was really designed to shake up the troops. The troops in this case are those of us who are responsible for the acceptance of play equipment and facilities designed with indestructibility and minimum maintenance as basic criteria…“
The troops still need to be shaken up because the context of Dattner’s work was very similar to the context of playground design today: city departments and community groups focused simply on increasing the number of playgrounds without engaging with the quality of the spaces they are installing. New York City’s Park Commissioner Robert Moses increased the number of playgrounds in the city from 119 when he took office in 1934 to 777 when he retired in 1960. Sounds great, huh? But they were mainly steel play frames installed on asphalt deserts; generic and often of limited utility to the communities they were designed to serve. Moses is more often remembered today for rejecting Isamu Noguchi’s innovative playground designs than for installing ‘traditional’ playgrounds that have long-since disappeared from the city.
Richard Dattner’s legacy, however, has remained: from the renovated but still beloved West 67th Street playground, to modular construction toys and easy-install ‘play cubes’ that prefigured current trends and even in the adoption of the term ‘playscape’ (he also coined the term ‘streetscape’).
And it is recalled–fondly–in a recent must-read article by James Trainor in Cabinet magazine, who remembers “what the kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood fondly nicknamed “the dangerous playground” just up the hill—the one that called out with its siren song of massive timbered ziggurats and stepped pyramids with wide undulating slides, the vertiginous fire-pole plunging though tiered treehouses, the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge, the zip line, the Brutalist-Aztec watercourses, and tunnel networks…these so-called adventure playgrounds were sprouting up everywhere, siphoning off, Pied-Piper-like, any kid with a scrap of derring-do suddenly bored to death with the old playgrounds, places that now had all the grim appeal of a municipal parking lot.”
But one of Dattner’s greatest achievements was to legitimize the involvement of architects in play. The strength of his constructions helped make it appropriate and even cool for ‘serious’ designers to spend their time on spaces for children. And for one brief shining moment before the playground-industrial complex took over, “after generations of neglect, the public playground is suddenly in the midst of a renascence as designers, sculptors, painters and architects strive to create a new world of color, texture and form” [Jay Jacobs, 1967, as quoted in Trainor].
Playgrounds had long been the purview of activists. But Richard Dattner made them safe for architects.