In 1947, when the structuralist architect Aldo van Eyck built his first playground in Amsterdam, Dutch cities were in a state of crisis. The city’s infrastructure lay ravaged by World War II, the birth rate was accelerating, and there was little available housing stock. At the time, most existing playgrounds were privately owned and accessible only to the wealthy.
Jacob Mulder, second in charge at Amsterdam’s Public Works Department, gave Van Eyck the opportunity to change that, when she commissioned him to design the city’s first public playground, on the Bertelmanplain. What Van Eyck created was simple but striking —a sandpit bordered by a wide rim, four round stones, and a set of tumbling bars. The playground formed the blueprint for some 700 others that followed, many rehabilitating formerly unused plots of land in minimalist spatial arrangements, which left their imprint on the minds of a generation.
Today, Van Eyck’s modular steel designs are so instantly recognizable they look almost generic. In elementary school, I swung from a very similar hemispheric jungle gym, known to us as the spider web. Similar derivations can be found in aging city parks in Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere. But the ubiquity of these American facsimiles, nor the fact that many now appear sadly neglected and forlorn, should not diminish the Dutch architect’s significance.
On a micro level, Van Eyck’s playgrounds were a revolt against the modernist movement of the CIAM (Congress International d’Architecture Moderne), led by his mentor, Cornelis van Eesteren, who was also the head of Amsterdam’s urban development department until 1959. The modernists favored a postwar urban development framework that divided the city by function: housing, work, transportation, and recreation, each occupying its own strict domain.
For Van Eyck, this approach was too centralized, hierarchical and rigid. “Functionalism has killed creativity,” Van Eyck once said in an article in the Dutch magazine Forum. “It leads to a cold technocracy, in which the human aspect is forgotten. A building is more than the sum of its functions; architecture has to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction.”
More broadly, Van Eyck’s playgrounds have come to exemplify how vacant, defunct spaces can be reclaimed and revitalized though play equipment. The prolific spread of his work across Amsterdam defined an egalitarian, neighborhood-by-neighborhood ethos for public spaces, where children of every class, not just a privileged few, had a place to play.
An excellent essay, “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground,” summarizes three design features of Van Eyck’s playgrounds, which are worth noting here in full, particularly as many contemporary playgrounds, in the way of Legos and Play-Doh play sets, strive to be more colorful, branded, and prescriptive in their “rules for play.”
- “First and foremost, the playgrounds proposed a different conception of space. Van Eyck consciously designed the equipment in a very minimalist way to stimulate the imagination of the users (children), the idea begin that they could appreciate the space by its openness to interpretation.”
- “The second aspect is the modular character of the playgrounds. The basic elements— sandpits, tumbling bars, stepping stones, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms – could endlessly be recombined in differing polycentric compositions depending on the requirements of the local environment.”
- “The third aspect is the relationship with the urban environment, the “in-between” or “interstitial” nature of the playgrounds. The design of the playgrounds was aimed at interaction with the surrounding urban tissue. The temporary character of the intervention was part of this ‘in between’ nature, recreating space through incremental adaptation instead of the tabula rasa approach of modernism, in which the designs had an autonomy of their own, based on abstract data and statistics.”
Though Van Eyck’s playgrounds in Amsterdam are rapidly disappearing, a handful of surviving play spaces and in-tact climbing remnants are preserved in a new book, Seventeen Playgrounds, by Denisa Kollarova and Anna van Linger, which unfolds as a tour guide through these remaining playgrounds in central Amsterdam; it is also a manifesto and call to action:
“It is of great importance that we—citizens, parents, designers, architects, city decision makers—realize the necessity of high quality playgrounds. Aldo van Eyck’s work should be preserved so that it can function as an inspiration. Not only do we plead for the preservation of his playgrounds, but we hope that with this example of how to properly design for children, we can stimulate others to follow in his footsteps,” the authors write.
The book is, of course, not the only way Van Eyck’s contributions to the Dutch landscape are preserved. The block-by-block, place-making spirit embodied in his playgrounds, antagonistic to the era’s modernist ideals, rose to a boil in a 1975 uprising, in Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt neighborhood. As city planners and politicians attempted to develop a metroline and four-lane inner city highway above it, a violent revolt ensued. The metroline progressed to completion, but, after years of resistance among activists, artists, and students, the highway was scuttled. In its place: a small-scale neighborhood redevelopment project, for which Van Eyck was the architect.
Sometimes we think of playgrounds as fun diversions, a way to escape the hustle of city life. But, for Van Eyck, playgrounds were the very thing that tied cities together; the connective tissue that made them human.