Verticality has been an architectural obsession since the time of the first skyscrapers in the late nineteenth century. But, at playgrounds, the idea of building lofty, multi-story structures on a small footprint is relatively young. Of course, with a higher percentage of the population dwelling in cities than ever before, and land at a premium, it is an idea that may be poised to take hold more broadly.
Urban school districts and city park departments squeezed by tight budgets and operating on properties constrained by their surroundings have been among the first to experiment with vertical playgrounds. Washington D.C., Boston, Cambridge, Clarskburg, Virginia and Richmond Hill in Ontario, Canada are all early testing grounds for the Wallholla, a new kind of vertical play structure designed by the Dutch firm Carve and distributed in North America by Goric. Standing three stories high, its ribbon-like undulating layers are encased in a metal grid cage whose form resembles a human-scaled hamster maze.
One of the most intriguing examples is found at the Emeryville Center of Community Life, a K-12 school and community center near Oakland, California, which opened its doors to a diverse student body in September 2016. During the planning and conceptual design phase for the new school, John Rubio, superintendent of the Emeryville School District, expressed his support for an outdoor playground that would be available to students and the broader public.
“The original thought was that we needed a play structure for a small area where the students would be spending recess time. The structure was cut out of project due to overall budget concerns; I was able to get the school board to stretch the budget to get it back in the budget for the benefit of children,” Rubio says.
As Rubio tells us, the inclusion of the Wallholla—one of only six in North America— has been a worthy investment. On a small triangular land plot, not much larger than a tennis court, a more elaborate playground was not possible. The structure is situated in a landscaped courtyard beside an open grassy plot and several portable basketball hoops. It is the only freestanding playground element for K-8 students, about 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“It’s been really big hit and the unanticipated thing for us is that the kids and parents love it. I’d say one humorous piece of evidence of its appeal is that we often catch parents inside the structure playing with children, and they seem kind of embarrassed. We usually tell them to stay in there and keep playing,” Rubio said.
In addition to being compact and graceful in form, the structure lends itself to active, social play. Kids can walk on the layered ribbons, scale them like hills, or leap across small gaps between the synthetic rubber footings. The vertical grills act as grips, so children can use both hands and feet to navigate the space and conquer obstacles. Openings on the sides of the Wallholla, accessible by hand-holds like those found on rock-climbing walls, let kids get in and out.
In an interview with a local ABC news affiliate, kindergartener Christianna Mihailescu, summed it up as follows: “I love this new play structure; it’s pretty fun and pretty scary at the same time, but mostly it’s just fun.”
It’s also easy on the eyes. One of the reasons San Francisco design firm DSK Architects specified the ECCL Wallholla as part of the school’s broader site plan was its aesthetic appeal. The elaborate structure arrived by shipment in component parts and was installed by a local contractor, a process Rubio says happened smoothly and on schedule. The clean-lined sculptural form blends in well with the eclectic urban landscape surrounding it.
The structure’s history is also enlightening. The first Wallholla was built in the Netherlands when the city council of Purmerend commissioned Carve to design a new outdoor schoolyard that could accommodate sixty students. To conserve space and define a boundary for a soccer field and other recreational zones within the schoolyard, the designers took a typical 80 square meter playground and divided it into 4 meter strips. The strips were then stacked and surrounded by metal mesh. The result is a visually stunning play structure that occupies a small footprint and enhances the architectural landscape of its surroundings.
Goric has been pivotal in bringing the Wallholla to North America, where it is found in a number of U.S. and Canadian cities. Goric distributes the Wallholla in the US. and Canada in compliance with national playground safety standards.
It is suitable for children aged 5 to 12, and large enough to hold as many as 60 children at once in the large unit. Standard sizes for the American version are 26’3″, 37’6’, and 52’6″ in length, by 4’ in width, by 16’ in height—and the modular design includes component options, such as slides, climbing walls, firefighter poles, and climbing nets and ropes.