To the curious eye, forms and shapes are everywhere. From turrets and lampshades to clock gears and armadillos, the world is alive with architecture. And it’s reasonable to presume most landscape architects and designers think of playgrounds this way: built or organic works, with a coherent form and structure, and a function designed for those who engage them. One wonders, though, how much time lay parents and caregivers spend debating, or even considering, the formal aspects of a playground’s design. Here’s a basic primer of some of the distinctive styles that have emerged in recent years, or are making a comeback after fading from prominence.
This fun-looking Brutalist climbable pastel playspace by the collective Assemble and British artist Simon Terrill was installed at the London Festival of Architecture in 2015. Built to reference concrete playground elements situated near mid-20th century British Brutalist housing units, the cushy reconstituted foam landscape shows many of the hallmarks of Brutalism – it’s rugged, repetitive, and volumetrically balanced. But the color palate and function call into question the safe way children are encouraged to play. As Joe Halligan, one of the members of the Assemble collective, told Dezeen in a recent profile of the project, the “translation is trying to question whether or not risk in play is a totally bad thing,” said Halligan.
Fabulist playgrounds have taken hold across the country in a new class of large and highly programmed urban parks. Playa Vista Park by the Office of James Burnett and Michael Maltzan, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Tongva Park in San Diego by James Corner Field Operations, are illustrative. Each use hills and mounds to recreate the imagined worlds of children’s fairy tales. With a blend of artificial turf and EPDM rubber-surfacing to follow the grade of hills and valleys, the elaborate playgrounds at these parks have a way of concealing what lies behind the next corner, creating suspense and intrigue, while ensuring children land safely if they fall. Across the country, Goric is helping to make such topographical designs possible with Euroflex(R) poured-in-place rubber surfacing and crafted accessories, including EUROFLEX® Balls and Half Balls, Steppers, and Palisades. In the Playa Vista Park playground, several of Goric’s curved stainless steel structures, the Turning Point, Spaghetti 3, Waterfall, and Rainbow, are installed in harmony with the hills and mounds to create an otherworldly moonscape, all of which is playable space.
What is seen by many Americans as the classic playground– a simple arrangement of parallel bars, climbable slides, and hemispheric jungle gyms – owes a debt to the structuralist designs of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck. Between 1947 and 1978, Van Eyck designed some 700 playgrounds in the Netherlands, many rehabilitating formerly unused plots of land in interstitial spatial arrangements that gave low-income children of the post-war period a free place to play. The structures are regarded for their ability to be selected and combined to fit the needs of virtually any environment. A terrific essay by Dutch writer Merijn Oudenampsen, “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground,” captures the humanistic philosophy at the heart of Van Eyck’s approach: “Van Eyck consciously designed the equipment in a very minimalist way to stimulate the imagination of the users (children), the idea being that they could appreciate the space by its openness to interpretation.”
Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid,” in The Atlantic vividly chronicles her visit to “The Land,” an adventure playground occupying nearly an acre in North Wales, where elementary-aged children can be found climbing piles of tires, bounding off dirty mattresses, or lighting small fires in tin drums. Adventure playgrounds arose in the U.K. in the 1940s as a result of the efforts of Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood, a landscape architect and children’s advocate. Due to more stringent safety guidelines and a generally more litigious culture in the United States, translating the ideas of adventure playgrounds to the states has been a challenge. Still, the irregular shape of many of Goric’s surfacing accessories — half-moon shaped balls, steps that resemble tree stumps, and palisades that define a border — and their arrangement on pitched surfaces, embodies many of the same instincts, offering room for open-ended play and healthy risk-taking.
When it comes to form, nature is the unqualified master. With their unique shapes and properties, tree stumps, timber slabs, boulders, and sand and water can be integrated in a play environment in countless ways to add shape and definition to a playground. In a recent designer profile, we showed how Michelle Mathis, the principal designer of Oregon-based firm Learning Landscapes Design, is using natural materials to enhance play and reflect the landscape features and cultural communities of her home state. Another standout in this area is Holly D. Ben-Joseph, founder and principal of the eponymous Massachusetts firm whose recent renovation of Beacon Hill Nursery School’s front play yard includes a timber pole tee pee, wooden stump climbers at the edge of graded rubber path, and a sand play area that works as a boundary to separate infants and toddlers.