I had an amazing weekend amongst the playgrounds of New York City, and was pleased to meet many of you readers!  Detailed posts about the MoMA symposium and assorted playground visits are in preparation, but in the meantime, enjoy these ‘Recraforms’.

That’s what Mary Preminger–artist, sculptor, designer and wife of filmmaker Otto Preminger–called her mid-century play constructs, at least two of which were installed (below, pictured in San Diego) though many more were planned and not executed.  I’m excited that what we know about mid-century play sculpture–of which the best documented points are the works of Noguchi and the contests held by MoMA and the Corcoran gallery–keeps broadening to include things like the Czechoslovakian play contest and these beautiful pieces.

Mary’s work was in danger of being forgotten;  she believed that Otto had her blacklisted in the art world after their divorce, and many of these photos were in storage and narrowly escaped being discarded.  Her  legacy is now being preserved online, and you can see more drawings, sculptures and recraforms at marypreminger.com, where her art ‘bubbles to the surface’.

[Thanks to Mike for letting me know about these, and watch for more of Mary’s play work in future posts, thanks to her web archivist!  If you know have additional information about these lovely pieces, please get in touch. ]


There’s an article, only partially tongue-in-cheek, in today’s Slate magazine on ‘the danger of monkey bars’.   An interesting counterpoint is the Play Yard of St. George’s Episcopal Church, on East 16th Street in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park area.  Its 1967 design by David Aaron is an unusual relic from a time when hard edges and sharp angles weren’t verboten.   I’m assuming its survival is an indication that no injuries have been recorded in spite of its steely exterior, though I don’t have any data on that.

But I’m interested in how this edgy, interesting playground space has managed to survive a risk-averse environment in which monkey bars can be used only with adult spotters (though note that it has bowed to the demand for rubber safety surfacing).  It’s in a private location of course, but at least one point in its favor I think, is that it is a fully realized space for play…an artist designed landscape, albeit of steel.  Strong design statements inspire attachment and even–over time–affection, and that can help preserve them through changing fashions.   Your thoughts?

And this is a good time to add some perspective to the playground risk conversation with a reminder that  Tim Gill’s book “No Fear:  Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society” is available online for free from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

(first found at archidose; see also images of children at play on the St. George’s playground  that I didn’t get permission to use in time for this post…scroll down through the other playground sets ’til you get there thanks to captainkidder at flickr for his great photos of the St. George’s Church playground!)

Posted in Mid-Century Modern

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, don’t miss the chance to join my friend Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop TOMORROW, Saturday October 13, from 10 to 2 to build a pop-up adventure playground in a vacant lot.

It already has a mountain, and yes, a volcano.

The project is part of Tiny WPA, a program initiated by Public Workshop that “places young adults at the forefront of stimulating community engagement and civic innovation in Philadelphia by empowering them to design and build improvements to the City’s public spaces, schools, and micro infrastructure”.

Don’t fail to stop by this weekend for “tinkering, collaboration, and adventure, and conversations about the state of play in Philadelphia and the essential role young adults can play in the design of a city.”

You too can learn to use sharp, spinning power tools…don’t miss it!


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY

During London Open for Play, I photographed (again!)  the wooden blocks for construction play at the Kate Greenaway Nursery playscape.

They reminded me of the Alexander Kemp playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It was given a complete redesign in 2009, converting a staid equipment-based playground to a playscape including “a dragon boat, water games, a group swing, gardens,  natural woods, covered areas, its own hill,  a fantasy area, and  sand everywhere”, according to the New Cambridge Observer.  But a mom from Cambridge who wrote to me said that actually the blocks were the most popular thing there.

And finally, this charming photo of  blocks used for construction at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown Massachusetts, c. 1940 (see the other lovely playground photos on their flickr account, too!).  I love the larger size of these blocks.

A reminder, if you needed one, that loose parts play is essential, but it needn’t be be expensive!


Posted in 1900-1950

I’ve talked before on the blog about making provisions for den-building, which can be as simple as providing a three-point frame or a pole that the kids can lean branches against and attach tent materials to.

I also like the slightly more complex approach of Copper Beech Landscaping in the UK, who suspend forked branches between uprights to make a structure that can be climbed on or bounded with sticks for long tunnel-like dens.

Oftentimes natural playscape builders are looking for a large felled tree to lay in a sandpit; this is a great way to utilize smaller treeforms in a structure that is just as visually appealing and has, I think, even more play value.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

I’ll post a full summary of the interesting conversations from London Open for Play soon (including tales of those hardy souls who braved a tour of Islington’s regenerated play spaces in the driving rain), but in the meantime it’s back to our regular programming!

In searching for more information on the intriguing satellite-inspired play structure by Zdeněk Němeček featured at the MoMA Century of the Child exhibition I found some fascinating references to a play design contest  “Děti ve městě“, organized in Czechoslavakia in  1960.  Was this the Eastern bloc’s answer to MoMA’s 1954 playground sculpture competition?

The results of the contest, full of space-race references and biomorphic forms taking advantage of new plastic materials, were published in the Czech magazine Tvar a Domov, and are reproduced at the blog expo58, from which all the images and captions in this post are sourced.

I’m particularly intrigued by the one playground that doesn’t fit in either the sputnik-y or  plastic-y modes, a design kit for a modular playground by Viktor Fixl.  It proposes a kit of loose parts well ahead of its time.

And were any of these designs ever realized for Czech playgrounds?  According to the author of expo58, the Nemecek sculpture was not only installed but was restored in 2009, and the sculpture by Olbram Zoubek and Eve Kmentová is intact at experimental housing complex Invalides in Prague.

If any readers have more information on these designs, or copies of the relevant source material, please get in touch!

[image 1: Viktor Fixl: Design kit for multipurpose playground, 1960

image 2: Zdenek Nemecek: functional sculpture Model for playground, 1960.

image 3: Jirí Novák: Functional sculpture for playground, 1960, a special prize in the competition “The kids in town.”

image 4: E. Rebmann: Laminate sculpture for playground, 1959-1960

image 5: Josef Soucek: Carousel, part functional sculptures for a children’s playground, 1960, a special prize in the competition “The kids in town.”

image 6: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 7: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 8: Unknown author: functional sculpture Model for playground, 1960

image 9: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 10: Olbram Zoubek and Eva Kmentová: Functional sculpture for playground, experimental housing Invalides, 1960]

The MoMA playground symposium is now sold out, but if you can’t be with us take a look at the tumblr for the Century of the Child exhibit.  An object from the exhibit is posted each day, including plans by our hero Aldo van Eyck for sandpits and playground climbers (above) and the Sputnik inspired play sculpture by Zdeněk Němeček, originally installed in Stromovka Park, in Prague in 1959 (below).

Posted in 1900-1950, Mid-Century Modern, Resources

Wishing for that moment again, when “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) I’ve been pleased, just over the last year or so, to see an increasing number of artists involved in playground design.  Enough for me to declare a mini-trend:  of quirky hiccups here and there startling the dull steady drone of generic playground installations.  Cause for hope!

When Frieze Projects East commissioned six new public art projects for the Olympic Host Boroughs in East London, the only permanent installation among them was, wisely, a combination of art and play.

Gary Webb’s ‘Squeaky Clean’ combines his characteristic jelly-bean like colors and shapes (particularly effective against the gray London sky, don’t you think?) with frames and nets, making them perches for contemplation as well as climbing.  I think young children would find the reflective resin shapes particularly attractive to touch and experience.

The comic sensibility of Webb’s artwork makes it well-suited for the playground.   I keep a running list in my head of other artists-I-would-like-to-see-design-playgrounds…which I’ll try to make a blog category at some point, but of course if you’re a fabulously wealthy playground collector in need of curation advice do get in touch.

If we let more artists make playgrounds, will there be some that don’t work out, that the community doesn’t accept or the children won’t play on?  Sure.  But that happens with manufactured playgrounds already, more than most communities are willing to acknowledge.  Involving an artist in your project might seem like a risk, but the upside is the creation of a truly memorable space whose value to the community goes far beyond just physical play.

[all photos from Frieze Projects East]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playgrounds by Artists

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.

Purchase Design for Play digital download for $USD via Paypal

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play Heroes

If you ever thought you didn’t have space for both a garden AND a climbing net think again…

Most natural playscapes seek to combine elements of the garden with elements of the traditional playground, but I don’t think I’ve seen one that did so on two levels quite like the ‘Dymaxion Sleep’ installations by Jane Hutton and Adrian Blackwell for the International Garden Festival at Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens.  Inspired by both the geometries and the wacky sleep regimen of Buckminster Fuller, they installed triangular circus nets in frames over plantings of aromatic, relaxing plants like lemon geraniums, lavenders, peppermints and catmints.

The garden was so popular that it remained for the 2010 and 2011 festivals, and for 2012 they added a portion of the structure that rolls up to provide a shaded nook.

I really love this playscape–such a simple combination of elements, and yet it’s far more visually appealing (and frankly looks way more fun) than many ‘traditional’ playgrounds.  It accommodates both group or individual play, across a range of ages, and the more vertical triangles add a nice element of risk to be approached as you wish (see the boy in the final photo) or not!  It would be great adapted with say, ticklish grasses interspersed with crawling paths underneath the nets.

[The first three photos are by the project’s designers,  Jane Hutton and Adrian Blackwell; final three by Louis Tanguay.  First found at the landscape blog Pruned]


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Playable Sculpture

Designer Sehwan Oh morphed the classic geodesic dome climber into this new construction for a playground in Korea.  Giving the triangular components a doubled, rather than a shared edge like in traditional geodesics allows for much more flexibility of form because the structure can bend in and out.  I also really like the way he made a second, smaller piece (visible in the last photo), which makes the installation into a composition.

Posted in Contemporary Design

When work is done for developing communities in developing countries, the projects are often laudable in many ways but the word ‘refined’ rarely springs to mind.  That’s why I am continually impressed by the built environments created by TYIN tegnestue.

After consulting with the local community for over a year, it took them just three weeks to erect this playful two-story frame atop a deep concrete block platform in an empty slot of a dense residential area of Bankgkok. It provides the residents with basketball hoops, space for football, a stage for performances and public meetings, walls for climbing, swings, and seating both inside and on the edges.  “Bright lights, recycled wood panels and patterned orange metal frames create a scaffold-like intervention with graffiti and other dwellings as the backdrop.”  

The precise slatted construction is intentionally designed so that children can climb up and down the walls, reaching small platforms on the second level, a wonderful application of structural playability.   “The main construction´s simplicity, repetitive logic and durability enables the local inhabitants to make adaptations that fit with their changing needs without endangering the projects structural strength or the general useability of the playground.”

All photos from TYIN tegnestue,  project found at dezeen
Also see a previous post on TYIN tegnestue’s Soe Ker Tie House play elements here.


Posted in Contemporary Design

If you don’t know the play sculpture of Hungarian Pierre Szekely (one of Simon and Tom Bloor’s inspirations below), the definitive source is the comprehensive online catalogue assembled and maintained by Pierre Karinthy.  

It can difficult to navigate as it includes all of Szekely’s work (and he was prolific), but I have extracted the play constructs that I know of–all are located in France–and arranged them in chronological order to show the progression of his playground thoughts. It is particularly interesting to observe how he moves back and forth between round biomorphic forms and sharp, angular geometries…ending up with the monumental Lady of the Lake, the first permanent climbing wall in France, opened in 1975 but now quarantined as ‘unsafe’.

Karinthy lists, but has no photos of, play sculptures Pierre designed for disabled children at centers in Brest and Cambrai.  I’d love to see these; if you have any information on them, or indeed on any of Szekely’s other play works do get in touch; it’s a shame there has been no monograph of such interesting ideas.  All photos are from Karinthy’s site except where otherwise noted.

  • 1957 – Playground; model Petit-Clamart, Hauts de Seine; View of the Petit-Clamart playground via the charming blog archipostcard, which celebrates modern architecture as shown in vintage postcards
  • 1958 – City of Games; L’Hay les Roses, Val de Marne; source: archipostcard
  • 1958 – City of Games; L’Hay les Roses, Val de Marne; source: archipostcard
  • Contemporary view of L’Hay-les-Roses from the great astudejaoublie blog
  • Contemporary view of L’Hay-les-Roses from the great astudejaoublie blog
  • 1960 – Circus; Residence Manera, Vaucresson, Hauts de Seine
  • 1960 – Circus; Residence Manera, Vaucresson, Hauts de Seine
  • 1961 – Great form of games; Champagne sur Oise Oise (now destroyed)
  • 1961 – Well the birds; Champagne sur Oise Oise (now destroyed)
  • 1962 – Castle games; Verneuil sur Seine
  • 1962 – Castle games; Verneuil sur Seine
  • 1967 – Universe Games; Grenoble, Isere – restored in 2008
  • 1967 – Universe Games; Grenoble, Isere – restored in 2008
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1975 – The Lady of the Lake; Evry, Essonne
  • 1975 – The Lady of the Lake; Evry, Essonne [source]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playgrounds by Artists

Primary Structure is a playful maze of steel created by artist Jacob Dahlgren set in the serene forest of an estate in northern southern (thanks, alert readers!) Sweden for the contemporary art festival at Wanås, near Knislinge Sweden. 

Happily, now part of their permanent collection, so it will remain available for colorful climbing!

[photo 1 via Wanås. photo 2 via workplace gallery. photo 3 via kristianstadsbladet]


Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

And before we leave the subject of swings…I like this construction from the ideo headquarters in Santa Cruz California which is supported by leaning against a wall and combines the swings with ladders and a loft.  This is intended for grown-ups, so it would may (according to play risk expert Tim Gill!) need some modifications (like a railing and checking the swing arc) for kids, but it’s a great idea;  particularly useful for a small space where there isn’t enough room for a traditional A-frame swing set.  Very DIYable…if you make something similar be sure to let me know!  [source]

Posted in Play DIY