Playground innovation in the 1960s and 1970s was driven in part by the availability of new materials that could be used to make new forms…the Lozziwurm, for example, being a play form that was simply impossible before the advent of plastics.

We’re in a similar era now, with a much greater array of new materials than in the mid-century, and I’m a bit disappointed to not see more playground applications for say, high tensile strength carbon fiber composites or thermochromic materials.

So I find Daniel Lymann’s ‘Sway’d’ installation inspirational. It’s a high-tech, urban representation of the way interaction with a field of grass causes a ripple of swaying motion to spread throughout the field ….only in this case the slender blades of a molybdenum-nylon blend are strong enough to support even an adult’s weight.

If you’re one of my many student readers, be thinking creatively about how to use new materials to create new ways of playing…and let me know what you’re working on!

[all photos via daniel lymann]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

There is perhaps no more complete merger of path and play than the riotous waterfront wavedecks in Toronto, also by West8 (below), and I’ll be visiting them again whilst in Toronto this Thursday through Sunday for the 2013 Interior Design Show.  As part of its ‘Modern Kid’ emphasis, Willie Hoffman of Playable Studio and I will be manning a booth we’re calling ‘Playscapes Home’.

In addition to Willie’s furniture, it will feature Alex Gilliam’s Build-it Discs, and will introduce to North America the lovely Flowstones; movable parts for sand and water play produced by Ebb and Flow in the UK.   We hope to enable the move-to-market of beautifully designed play items for the home; if you are a maker of something you feel would fit in ‘Playscapes Home’, get in touch!

My main task for the show has been to make available some of the beautiful artworks you’ve seen here on Playscapes; limited edition prints by  Daniel DoveMeryl Pataky, and Simon and Tom Bloor! I’m thrilled to be able to bring their work to IDS13, and to you.  Following the show, the prints will be available here through the blog, so watch for further announcements.

And if you’re in Toronto do stop by! I’ll be giving an in-booth talk, ‘Modern Kid, Modern Playground’ at 2 pm on Saturday.  But I know these shows are an expensive ticket, so email or leave a comment if you’re an area playscaper; if enough readers are interested I’m happy to work in a playground chat over coffee.  By the boardwalk!

Photos by west8


Posted in Uncategorized

One of the common threads I pulled in both the London and New York events was this idea of merging the playground with the city itself.  This is particularly interesting in thinking about making play space PATH, rather than DESTINATION.   Jenette-Emery Wallis spoke of the edges of the new North Park playground as ‘permeable’.  West 8’s Madrid riverbank project is essentially one enormous path with play opportunities trotting alongside it at intervals; no fences, and no generational divides.  The check-in kiosks Suisman Urban Design (another of the MoMA speakers) used for a walking event were more successful when placed OVER the paths rather than alongside them.  We should know this, really; it’s why the medieval gate wasn’t just an entrance, it was also a shopping mall.

These are no narrow footpaths begrudgingly allowing access through the playscape.  No, they are wide pedestrian walkways that often honor routes already trafficked by residents, like the playground below in London’s EC1, where our intrepid guide Liz Kessler noted that an unanticipated benefit of merging path and playground was having the play space continually supervised by community residents passing through it to and from their shopping.

Merging Path and Playground de-ghettoizes the playspace, so that it is no longer children-only, but a part of the urban fabric that everyone experiences.  And hopefully it reinforces the notion that children and their play are a welcome part of the entire city, not just of fenced-off and name-plated “playgrounds”.

For a long time now we’ve been setting aside spaces in cities and towns for playgrounds.  That has been good and necessary, because at least they don’t get built on.  But it’s time and past time to move beyond that definition, and to make more enlightened decisions about where and how we site spaces for play.

Do you know of more play spaces that merge path and playground?  I’d love to hear about them.

Photos via west8


Posted in Contemporary Design, Design

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

San Francisco’s Rebar Studio–who also bring you the well-known Park(ing) Day and are fond of putting inflatable pillows in urban spaces–answered a brief for public art with a local history-inspired play installation.

Gigantry is an interactive public sculpture in the form of a scaled and stylized model of the 450-ton bridge crane that dominates the southern vistas from the hilltop of the Hunters Point Housing development in San Francisco. By referencing the formal characteristics of the crane, Gigantry samples a dominant visual element of the area’s historic military infrastructure and recasts it as a playful, interactive sculpture.”

Gigantry  was planned for 2011-2012 but doesn’t seem to have been installed yet…any of my S.F. readers know its status?

[all photos via Rebar Studio…see also the playful street furniture they recently self-built for Washington D.C.!]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

In London recently I got the chance to meet Simon and Tom Bloor, contemporary artists/brothers whose body of work derives from play and the playground experience.   You’ll want to visit their website, which features a great array of found images that inspire pieces ranging from a canal boat with a dazzle-paint inspired exterior and a mirrored interior, to gilded maquettes of mid-century play-features and half-tone prints in play themes, to a brilliant, free-form geometry painted on a boring school tarmac that has prompted the schoolchildren to create new games on its lines.

I particularly appreciate that Simon and Tom’s work is deeply historically informed.  They share my passion for vintage playground books, and rather than clamoring to claim first-rights to some form or idea, willingly reference play thinkers and places of the past.  It gives their work a context and depth that playground design (and contemporary art for that matter) too often lacks.

We had a great chat at the Whitechapel Gallery about all things play, some of which is transcribed below.  I was especially heartened to learn that Simon and Tom have now been asked to design actual playground spaces!  (see the final question)  Kudos to the planners who were forward-thinking enough to consult them.

So if you are so lucky as to be specifying a space for play, be willing to look beyond traditional providers to artists and architects whose work you admire. If they’re doing great work, they can make a great playground.

How long have play forms been a part of your artistic focus?  (and to me ‘play forms’ just means shapes, colors, compositions etc. that are related to playground space) What started your interest in play forms?

Our earlier work often looked to history or popular culture for points  of reference, and our interest in the urban landscape, mid 20th century design and architecture and utopian ideas inevitably led us to events and figures that to varying degrees have worked with or influenced ideas of play. We got interested in the idea that learning, creativity and play were all sorts of everyday utopian pursuits.

A lot of the work we have made could be described as ‘playful’ but in 2005 & 2006 we made some artworks specifically with children in mind—one was a sticker book we designed and gave away for free at a Zoo, the other were some sculptural objects we made during a residency in Rotterdam that were based on a design in Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture book. They were painted corrugated cardboard box like objects that could be sat on, stacked and climbed on. Some of the studio artists had kids who made forts & played with them, but other artists and adult visitors played with them too. A couple of years later we made new work for Eastside Projects in Birmingham that included ink drawings of 1950’s and 60’s concrete play sculptures as well as a series of sculptures that we thought of as imaginary proposals for failed play sculptures. These works were placed in the gallery with twenty Silver Birch trees, creating a space that was somewhere between a park and urban wasteland.

I love the New Yorker cartoons, and their satirical edge has made me think about our reflexive honoring of mid-century designs, which were always interesting but not always great for play.   Why did you pick the cartoons?

We initially saw the use of the cartoons as a way to re-appropriate them, in that the first jokes we redrew were really at the expense of mid 20th century artists like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth,
so we wanted to steal the imagery back for ‘Art’. There was a visual relationship to the exaggerated sculptures in the cartoons and some of the objects we’d made for the Eastside Projects show, as well as to some of the mid 20th century play sculptures we’d discovered, and we found other cartoons that made jokes about the playground designs of the same period so we’ve made further works with them.

Obviously you pull from the physical environment of the playground for your work, but I wonder how it might in turn change the way you look back at the physical space of the playgrounds.  What do you think about today’s playgrounds?  Do they continue to inspire you?  Do you have a favorite playground space and why?

Even though we know they’re massively flawed as play spaces (and in some cases, as artworks) we do have a soft spot for the aesthetics of mid 20th Century playgrounds, especially now they have a patina of age and have gained a sort of melancholy through their decay. We’ve recently been looking at Pierre Székely’s concrete play sculptures in France, and in Birmingham there are still some by John Bridgeman and others, and of course we’re big fans of Aldo Van Eyck! Our work of the past few years has tended to look to a similar period in art, architecture, design and play. The mid 20th century was full of optimism for all of these things but ultimately the vision was flawed, and how we are now dealing with what has been left is interesting to us.

In terms of playgrounds as spaces for actual play, the move towards more natural and adventure play and the rejection of the awful ‘springy chicken’ is definitely a good thing, and hopefully the paranoid approach to health and safety is abating—we made a print a few years ago that paraphrased Lady Allen of Hurtwood and said ‘Better a broken arm than a bruised spirit’—kids still need to take risks! For the sake of variety we would hope that playground designers continue to make more interesting land forms and sculptural elements though, and that it’s not all tree stumps and stepping stones!

Where are you going next with play?

We’re currently working on a number of projects that involve play in different ways—we’re in the middle of a residency organised by the Whitechapel Gallery in a London primary school and we’ll be making some new works for a show in the gallery in 2013 as well as designing a new chalkboard artwork for the school.

Over the past year or so we’ve also got the opportunity to do ourselves what many of the artists & designers we’ve been researching did—to make a number of permanent artworks for new developments that focus on ‘Art & Play’. For a site near Battersea in London we’re combining our interest in the history of public art, a take on natural playscape features and an updated version of Victorian artificial rock features (of which there are many!) to create a bronze and concrete climbing sculpture and series of stepping stones.

In Cambridge we’ve been commissioned to make artworks as part of a large new housing development and we’re working across site, liaising with a number of developers, landscape architects and other artists to embed visually interesting playful artworks into the schemes. We’re thinking of Aldo Van Eyck’s ‘inbetweening’ approach of using the left over spaces, alongside considering opportunities for ‘incidental play’—so we’re proposing zigzags in footpaths, bollards at appropriate heights for leapfrogging, slopes for climbing, areas for chalk drawing and so on. We’ve also been invited to input into the design of more ‘traditional’ play areas so we’re proposing more interesting use for the ubiquitous wet-pour surfacing, adding patterns and gradients. Elsewhere we’ve proposed to make some acoustic sound barrier walls also function as climbable structures, and we’re going to be working with fellow artist Nils Norman on a large earthwork. We’re also keen that we consider older groups, from teenagers to the elderly, and how as artists we might make interventions into the development schemes to make spaces more interesting for them too.

After looking at play as part of our wider studio practice it’s proving quite a challenge to now work out how we can re-evaluate some of the past approaches & learn from mistakes, while still drawing influence from play spaces and landscape designs that although often unloved still may have something to offer. As we’ve researched into historic playground design we’ve also read critical opinions about more contemporary approaches, about what makes a good or bad play space and so on, so we’re now challenged with making work that can not only stand up as good artworks but also as good playthings.

[main image: Formula for Living by Simon and Tom Bloor at the Cotham School, Bristol.  Commissioned by the Bristol City Council.  Photographs by Jaimee Woodley]

Posted in Art About Playgrounds, Playgrounds by Artists

One more, one more swing…if you watched the William Whyte Social Life of Small Urban Spaces video below you’ll have noted the pop art, big red swing of Theodore Ceraldi, installed in 1971.  It sways on its cables just enough to be a swing, but not enough to keep it from being a bench, which is brilliant.

Still swinging at 777 Third Avenue, between E. 48th and 49th streets in NYC. [source]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern

“Swing Hall, Swing All” joins a series of temporary urban swing interventions like Caroline Woolard’s Subway Swing (2006), Bruno Taylor’s busstop swing (2008), Didier Faustino’s billboard swing (2009) Jerome Demuth’s Paris swings (2010)  and of course Andrew Too-humble-to-give-his-last-name’s Red Swing Project, whose DIY go-anywhere instructions have been swinging since 2007.

But the real fathers of the urban swing–and here we mean a swing that is inserted randomly within the urban space, not just on a playground, and available for use simply by passersby, not particularly children–were Akay and Peter, also known as the Barsky Brothers, who after a stint as graffiti artists turned to a different sort of street art project in which they thought of Stockholm as their playground and their intervention as ‘an act of re-creation through recreation’, according to the excellent book on their work Urban Recreation (here’s a link to Urban Recreationon Amazon if you wish to use it…essential reading for all urban interventionists).

Their projects included the installation of a holiday cottage and later a communal picnic table on a traffic island,  a silhouette ‘zoo’ in a vacant highway lot, and a tiny wooden trailer for kids used to set up camp in an scary urban corner.  And for several months in 2004, they installed swings, sixty-five of them, around Stockholm.  They made them of found materials:  a milk crate, a bench plank from McDonalds.

“There is something simply charming and disarming about swings.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching crowds of people hurrying along the sidewalks, then suddenly seeing someone break away, take a seat, and start swinging.  It’s like love.  There’s a feeling of instant affection for any individual who would stop everything and just take advantage of the moment, allowing herself to get swept away.”

the city is a playground.
set down your shopping bags,
swing from bridges, swing from busstops.
swing after you crossed the street at a crosswalk.
backwards.  forwards.  look around.
barsky has been to your part of town.
they take a bit of rope, plastic crates,
anything they can find.
carpet scraps, abandoned tires,
wooden boards people leave behind.
they hang the junk from bridges.
tie it tight to traffic signs.
so you can swing into oncoming traffic
and wave to people passing by.
the city is your playground.
do you need to ask them why?
in Urban Recreation

[photo 1: Didier Faustino, via dvice.  photo 2: Bruno Taylor via dvice. photo 3: Caroline Woolard via her website.  photo 4: Red Swing Project, Austin 2012, E. Seventh overpass at Tillery Street © Alberto Martinez/Austin American-Statesman. photo 5: Jerome Demuth via urban prankster]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Play History

Artist Keetra Dean Dixon created a hall of swings in a Minneapolis skywalk for the city’s overnight arts festival, Northern Spark.

“For a full, even swing, all swingers must be in sync. Out of pace swinging results in playful collision.”

a tilt of light from ENESS on Vimeo.

And art & design studio ENESS created a seesaw with 33 rows of lights that respond, not just to the motion of the seesaw, but to a physics stimulator that lets you choose an object (balloon, ping-pong ball) and an atmosphere (air, water, yogurt even?) through which the object is ‘moving’.

It’s available for play at Federation Square in Melbourne just until July 1….hurry!

[found at core77]


Posted in Contemporary Design

As Playscapes approaches 500 posts, I know that the amount of information here is getting unwieldy, especially for new visitors to the blog.  So I’m working with a great creative agency in my hometown to develop a better format, but I also plan to start writing some posts that consolidate past content around a theme, like this one on the topic of adding local context to playgrounds.  It was originally prepared for a guest post at ExternalWorks, and I thank editor Stephen Bird for suggesting the topic.

It is also the first in a series of articles that you may freely repost or republish, as long as you do so without changing the content in any way.  That means including the title and byline at the top of the article, and keeping all links intact. Please note that this is not true of the blog’s content in general, just of these specific posts that are so noted. Thanks in advance for respecting my work as well as that of the playground designers and content originators.  Here goes!


Play Local:  how to add local context to your playground
by Paige Johnson, author of  Playscapes

Playgrounds can be one of the worst offenders in the struggle to make public spaces locally relevant. Following a standard recipe of ‘kit, fence and carpet’ ensures that a play space could be in Milton Keynes or Madagascar, Sydney or South LA. Without context, who’s to tell?

Adding local context to a playground installation increases community commitment to the space, involves local providers, and is just plain more fun. Localised elements can form the basis for new playground installations, or be added to improve existing ones. Here, examples from my four years of writing about playgrounds at Playscapes illustrate strategies for localising the playground.


1.  Consider topography

Whenever possible, playgrounds should make the ground plane itself part of the play, preserving or reflecting local topographies.

Retaining an existing pile of rubble at a reclaimed industrial site in France allowed this playground by Agence TER to fit into a familiar local site AND be more exciting by hanging off its steep side.

Topographies can be simpler constructions as well: this spiral mound in London, made of turf by Mortar and Pestle Studio, recalls similar Elizabethan garden features.

The steep facets of a Parisian playground by BASE landscape architects were inspired by the topography in a photo of a local ‘found’ playscape by Will Ronis.


2.  Use local materials creatively

Everyone has heard about the use of stones and stumps to make a ‘natural playground’. But it takes some additional thoughtfulness to turn ‘natural’ into ‘local’. Robert Tully of Colorado used wood and stone to make a play sculpture modelled on Native American trade beads, and added subtle carving on a sandpit’s cluster of boulders to suggest local turtle species.

Australian artist Fiona Foley used native seed pods for a playground in Sydney designed by Urban Art Projects; not literally but as inspiration for the forms of playground features for the under-7 set.

Vintage playgrounds in Singapore once utilised small mosaic tiles as a unique surface treatment. New Singapore playgrounds should look for modern ways to continue this local tradition.


3.  Look around for history

The pentagonal shape of the continuous playground climber by Annabau reflects the shape of the medieval city of Wiesbaden. Its pole and net construction dips and swoops strategically to provide sightlines to city monuments so that the playscape joins the cityscape.

At the Tower Playground, Danish playground makers Monstrum took the incorporation of local monuments one step further by making a playground entirely composed of roofs from the city of Copenhagen; fulfilling any child’s fantasy of rooftop explorations.

Sometimes looking around for history means retaining beloved features within a new scheme. Spanish firm Urbanarbolismo inexpensively rehabbed an existing playground by painting all of the features from swings to streetlamps in eye-popping orange, coordinated with new safety surfacing.

And then they planted the site by engaging the local community in a ‘Green Battle’ in which 200 people threw seed-containing mud balls at each other until the battlefield/site (and themselves) were completely covered. The seeds included a grass to green the space quickly and native species such as thyme and heather to add permanent color and aroma to the playscape.

It doesn’t get more local than residents throwing mud on each other to make a great new playground!

No public space should be so generic that it can be duplicated half a world away. Combining topography, local materials, and a sense of history help make any playground a unique site for community pride; deeply attached to its local context and sure of its place.


Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

As playgrounds like other architectural constructs move toward embedded interactivity, things like the ipavement will host the next generation of playground games.  The goal of its founders is to turn city streets into information platforms; and they sport Bluetooth and Wi-Fi along with their own operating system, apps, and sensors.

Each stone measures 40 x 40 x 7 centimeters (15.75 x 15.75 x 2.76 in), weighs approximately 24 kilograms (53 lbs), and contains a 5 GB microprocessor that communicates with nearby mobile devices via WiFi and Bluetooth. Power and internet access are supplied to each stone via a hard-wired 1,000-watt cable.” [gizmag]

which is cool but it seems obvious to try to combine the idea with that of the electricity generating tiles like those from pavegen rather than using a hard-wired cable.

And in fact the company Powerleap is currently developing just that, a tile that uses footfall energy to power embedded wireless transmitters.

These technologies are especially interesting for the playground because the power in a playground ‘footfall’, say at the bottom of a slide, is much greater than that of a mall-strolling ‘footfall” more like say, the heavy footfalls used to generate energy by sustainabledanceclub.

I’ve felt a little uncomfortable with the playground devices that harvest the motion of a child on a teeter-totter or swing to produce electrical or mechanical power…since they are often advocated for impoverished areas I worry (no evidence of this, just wondering) whether their use could become coercive in some way.   What if a child had to keep swinging to ensure his family’s water supply?

So I like the idea of footfalls (a less controllable event) powering interactivity (a less imperative event) on the playground.  Interested in your thoughts.

[photos via powerleap and sustainabledanceclub]


Posted in Contemporary Design
Also in the spirit of encouraging you to make your own playscapes, I’m pleased to announce the second title in my effort to make vintage playground classics available again…Paul Friedberg’s Handcrafted Playgrounds from 1975.  Its best description is contained in the book’s own foreword:

“Handcrafted Playgrounds is a sketchbook of designs based on two very simple premises: anyone can build a playground, and the actual process of building it can be as important as the finished product. 

It gives the builders (who should certainly include the children for whom it is planned) a chance to shape their environment, to create something to answer their specific needs. 

All settings, urban, suburban, and rural, are rich in natural and man-made materials suitable for play.  Every child, wherever he or she lives and whatever space is available, can have an exciting playground. All it takes is a little imagination.”

Paul (see an online bio at the Cultural Landscape Foundation) is best known in playgrounds for his innovative 1970s installations in New York City, in which he utilized what were then completely new forms for play:   massive timber constructs, concrete forts that resembled ancient pyramids, and vest-pocket play spaces in trash-strewn vacant lots before temporary parklets were cool.    (See a 2007 article by Deborah Bishop in dwell magazine for photos of Friedberg’s 1970s work, from which the three photos below are taken.)  UPDATE:  Paul has let me know that the last two images are actually the work of Richard Dattner…apologies for the misidentification, but don’t worry,  Dattner’s own book Design for Play will be released on Playscapes soon!

Friedberg was one of first to realize the ideas embodied in the new word ‘playscape’ as discrete from ‘playground’:  a fully three-dimensional landscape space in which purpose-designed components worked together to provide an integrated play experience.

This book reflects that, offering build-it-yourself plans for everything from bridges to benches, spring toys to sprinklers, that can be put together to create a comprehensive play area.   Most are  made from timber, some from tires or other recycled materials like spools and water tanks.

Handcrafted Playgrounds is currently selling for over $100 on amazon, but now you can get a digital copy through playscapes for just $6!

Please remember that this book is still under copyright protection.  Once you’ve downloaded the file it is yours, just like a physical book is, to print or loan if you wish but not to copy and hand out.

I’ve purchased publication rights and must also pay royalties; your respect for the time and expense of the original copyright holder as well as my own is very much appreciated. (If you need to convert the pdf to other ebook formats like epub or mobi, try Calibre, which is a free download).

Purchase Handcrafted Playgrounds digital download for $6 USD via Paypal


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play DIY, Resources

Charlottesville Virginia based  Siteworks won a competition for a First Amendment memorial with their low-tech public forum:  a 54 feet long by 7.5 feet high double-sided wall of local slate on which members of the public may express their views, in chalk, on any subject they choose.

“Located directly in front of Charlottesville’s City Hall and beside the city’s amphitheater, the monument consists primarily of a two-sided wall of Buckingham slate, approximately 54 feet long (108’ of writing space) by 7.5 feet high, on which members of the public may express their views, in chalk, on any subject they choose. Permanently inscribed on one segment of the wall is the text of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. On the immediate opposite side is the following quote by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall:

“Above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. To permit the continued building of our politics and culture, and to assure self-fulfillment for each individual, our people are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship.”

In addition, the monument’s design includes a podium intended to serve as a contemporary soapbox from which individuals may address both planned and impromptu public gatherings. Inscribed on the face of the podium is the following quote by poet John Milton:

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

With the completion of the monument in April 2006, the entire area outside City Hall became a First Amendment plaza unique among the cities of the United States — the “chalkboard” for written and artistic expression, the platform for verbal expression, and the amphitheater for musical expression.

The monument’s greatest strength lies in the fact it is both a fixed symbol of the right of free expression and a venue for the exercise of that right. Individuals use the chalkboard to express ideas both political and whimsical, to respond to ideas already on the wall, to convey messages to members of city government, and to create temporary works of art.” 

Text from the thomas jefferson center, images from Siteworks,

See also an  in-depth evaluation of the Community Chalkboard, including usage patterns by the Bruner Foundation, which gave it an award for urban excellence in 2006, specifically citing its ability to be replicated by other cities.

And, I think, playgrounds.


Posted in Contemporary Design

This idea of social sculpture–works of art that take place in the social realm and require social engagement for their realization–originated with artist and sculptor Josef Beuys in the 1960s and 1970s and has real relevance for how playgrounds were conceived in that time period.   The revitalization of his ideas in the virtual realm of social media means they are also trending to influence the physical environment of the playground again.

Beuys’ definition of social sculpture was more philosophical than, say, Superblue’s Giant Knitting Nancy (below), which is nonetheless its intellectual descendent.  Beuys was thinking grandly, about society itself as a giant work of art in which any one person’s action changes–‘sculpts’–the whole.  He famously insisted that “everyone is an artist” (I often wonder whether those who incessantly refer to themselves as ‘creatives’ were asleep the day they covered Beuys in design school or if they just don’t agree!) and social media has now made his concept self-evident beyond his wildest dreams.

I thought of Beuys this week, during my first experience with jury duty, when a fellow panelist was removed from the courtroom for trying to surreptitiously use her cellphone to photograph herself.  In the jury box.  So she could post it on Facebook.

It reminded me of Beuys because his ideas have taken on a new relevance within social media, with those who ponder how individuals craft their virtual space:  the ‘museum of me’, if you will, to which my fellow juror was apparently trying to contribute.  Beuys did create tangible, physical works of art, but in spite of the utopianism of his ideals it was deeply introverted; as insulating and insular as the felt he often used as a medium.  And not at all playful.

But around the same time period artist Allan Kaprow tied the idea of social art creation explicitly to play. His Happenings of the late 1950s to early 1970s, though inherently temporary, were defined as “A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing”  and some of these, in vintage photos, can still be read as playgrounds or something like. 

You may be wondering where I’m going with this.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the adventure playground–the fullest realization before or since of social sculpture in space for play–had its heyday at the same time that these ideas did.

Historians are tempted to make too much of the linear transmission of ideas, to seek to draw orderly lines from one thought-leader to the next, to show ideas building neatly one on another like blocks.

But it is always messier than that, and what is more difficult to trace (and therefore write scholarly articles about) is the effect of concepts that are percolating in the wider culture in a variety of places and with a variety of people; part of the bloodstream, the zeitgeist, the idea ecosystem, but no less powerful for being less definable.

So I went back through my old posts and my personal archives of play spaces looking for elements of social sculpting, and they were nearly always from the 1960s and 1970s….or from today. I think today’s playground environment, in keeping with wider cultural trends, is going to move once again towards social, but this time as well towards self-construction.

So, you proponents of adventure playgrounds fondly reminiscing about the seventies (hello, Greenwich conference attendees!) have reason to hope.

Do you know of more examples of social sculpture on the playground, readers?  I’m interested in how you think the playgrounds of the future could be socially, or self-constructed in new ways.

[photos from the Children’s Play Information service archive]

Purchase Planning for Play (1968) digital download for $6 USD via Paypal

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playable Sculpture

For those of you who loved the post about Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s crochet playground  here is a Giant Knitting Nancy constructed by Superblue Design in collaboration with Dan Preston (Sculptor) and Holly Packer (Jewelery Designer) for the London Festival of Architecture in 2010.

Inspired by the knitting toy of the same name, Superblue’s vision was to allow visitors to participate in the making of the installation and over the weeks of the festival more than one hundred people added dozens of meters to the structure.

My one disappointment is that this was viewed more as a piece for sitting than for playing, though I suppose that’s up to the visitors, who seem to be generally above the target age of playgrounds. But I’d love to see this in a children’s play space; it was, in fact, subsequently installed on the beach at Margate, where it was popular for picnics.

There are also some great additional pictures of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s Woods of Net playsculpture here, for more textile-art-on-the-playground inspiration.


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY, Playable Sculpture