Stephen Wise Towers Playground, Constantino Nivola, New York City, 1965

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Artist Constantino Nivola sand-cast enormous sculptures for the likes of Olivetti and Yale.  And, he made a playground…

“The sculptural face of a modern city playground rarely gets more monumental than a jungle gym. Its rectilinear ziggurat of steel lattice is a joy toy for kids, and a spatial bore. But then, who considers a playground worthy of a sculptor’s talents? At least, New York city’s housing authority did, and let Costantino Nivola, 53, see how he could improve on the blight of monkey bars, slides, and swings that make play grounds across the nation look like a titanic display of naked plumbing.

A sinewy Sardinian immigrant, Nivola loves outdoor public sculpture. He has sand-cast a 100-ton bas-relief for a Hartford, Conn., insurance company, carved out abstract fountains and reliefs in raw concrete for the late Eero Saarinen’s brace of new colleges at Yale.

The playground, he felt, “was more challenging.” Wandering recently through the results of his commission, on a 100-ft. by 200-ft. lot between Manhattan’s West 90th and 91st Streets, bordered by a new, mediocre low-income housing project and a high-income boys’ school, Nivola said, “There is a desolation and barrenness to these buildings. I wanted to relieve that, to introduce a friendly atmosphere in plastic form.”

Nivola cut costs to $30,000 by using cast concrete, sometimes in a giant sandbox. A huge slab relief dominates the playground entrance. Two 8-ft.-tall diamond-shaped fountains gurgle water through faceted gutters, and an 80-ft.-long stucco mural wall borders the childrens’ plaza. The principal delight is a circus of 18 cast-stone horsies, mixed with marble dust to sparkle in three colors. They are indestructible mounts for the most tantrumy tot. A final touch is a hulking, 7-ft.-high abstract human figure, a sort of guardian nanny to children romping there.

Nivola’s playground has been open long enough to gauge its success. Grownups are negative. A neighborhood priest deplores the possibility of a child tumbling off a fountain. A nearby housewife thinks it may all be obscene. A local clergyman says frankly: “This art escapes me.” The kids? They all seem to love it. “Swings are for babies,” says one seven-year-old lad. “I’m not a baby any more.” (Sculpture: The Horsy Set – TIME , February 12, 1965)

You can still visit his fat, lovely sand cast horses (I  love that they originate from the sandbox!).  Enter on 90th or 91st St. between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.  They remind me of the Bulgarian playground animals I posted long ago, which I’ve never been able to attribute..get in touch if you can help.

Also see images of Nivola’s own house at mondoblogo; the round, somewhat fruit like forms in his garden were intended to be in a playground (where?) but never made it (reference).  They seem a more organic form of van Eyck’s jumping stones.

[Thanks to Mike for the tip on Nivola!  Images are from the American Craft Council (also here) where you can download their original 1959 feature on Nivola’s work.  The vintage photo is by Pete Mikoleski/New York City Housing Authority]

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