Some Thoughts on Preserving Modern Playgrounds

By Susan Solomon
 
Looking at most of today’s American playgrounds-  a single hulk of plastic and metal equipment that directs the way kids play and that sits on an inert surface in a caged setting - it is hard to recall how distinguished this building type was decades ago. In the late 1960s, there was an overlap of two vital traditions for play: product design and unique environments. The achievements of the former were winding down and the possibilities of the latter were just emerging.
 
Figure 1 (left): Richard Dattner, Adventure Playground in Central Park (1966, renovated in 1997). Photograph by Susan G. Solomon, 2009.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Playground equipment for kids became a specialized consumer good in the 1920s and 1930s when play areas for kids became a discreet zone. [Earlier Reform Era equipment, ”apparatus,” in urban public spaces was for exercise for the entire population]. The new pieces induced thrills: kids could swing fast and high or raise each other up (or dump down!) on intimidating see–saws   As Brenda Biondo forcefully shows in her wonderfully evocative (and informative) photo essay, Once Upon a Playground: a Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1925-1970, decorative themes arrived after World War II and often reflected the popular culture of the times. Playground equipment began to resemble fairy tale figures, fantastical animals and, eventually, airplanes, space ships, and radar screens. Biondo has written that all of these are disappearing so quickly that she has sometimes identified a site and then found that the equipment was removed before she returned to make a photographic record.[1]
 
Designers in the 1960s sought a different type of experience for kids. Factors that led them to new conclusions included post war economic expansion, the growth of schools and other amenities for the “boomers” who were no longer toddlers, research into creativity, and the emergence of America as the leader in the art world. [2] Evidence can be seen in the Adele R. Levy playground that architect Louis Kahn and sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed for Riverside Park in New York City (1961-1966). Noguchi used this plan, which was never executed, to consolidate his previous ideas about integrating functions and Kahn acknowledged his interest in the spontaneity of play. The design, an abstract concrete hardscape of interconnected slides, truncated pyramids, steep steps, and ramps, became a force in the proposals of younger designers and ushered in a time when architects, landscape architects, and sculptors began to create unique examples for outdoor play.
 
Architect Richard Dattner and landscape architect Paul Friedberg, who worked independently, interpreted the Noguchi and Kahn scheme. Their iconic designs have met varied fates in New York City where they first worked. It is ironic and sad that these artists, whose playgrounds were an interwoven ensemble of abstract pieces that linked play horizontally and vertically, have seen their originality devolve into the simplistic off the shelf equipment that has dominated American playgrounds since the 1980s. Today’s lurid colors and cheap materials are a long way from Dattner and Friedberg’s use of a muted palate and natural materials.
 
Many of Friedberg’s creations have been obliterated. One of his most revered was for the New York Housing Authority’s Riis Houses (Pomerance and Breines, 1949). The play area, part of an enlightened program that included fountains and an amphitheater, was an interconnected collection of stone mounds and pyramids, wood stumps, metal climbers all of which were joined together and sat on a bed of sand. It was altered dramatically in the 1980s and is no longer recognizable. Both Friedberg and the Housing Authority cite the urban crack epidemic as a reason for the demise since the intimate spaces became handy for drug dealers and there may not have been enough oversight to change the situation. (M. Paul Friedberg, e-mail to author, 4 December 2013; Len Hopper, former project administrator New York City Housing Authority, e-mail to author, 5 December 2013). Other Friedberg work- including a vest pocket park for 29th Street in New York City that had multiple wood and metal frames for climbing- has been removed because we have become a society overly dedicated to safety (the term “surplus safety”, meaning more than is necessary, has become common).
 
Figure 2 (right): Richard Dattner, Heckscher Playground in Central Park (1969, renovated in 2006). Photograph by Susan G. Solomon, 2011.
 
Richard Dattner’s work, especially the five remaining playgrounds of the seven he designed for Central Park, have fared somewhat better.[3] His Adventure Playground (named to honor the post war movement of letting kids play with leftover scrap materials) has stayed intact, having survived a demolition threat in the 1990s.[Fig.1] There is still a low serpentine concrete wall, perfect for climbing and sitting, that outlines the perimeter of the play area. The interior still has sand surfacing, countering a trend by many parks departments to forgo it. A truncated steeped wood pyramid used to have room for storage, “loose parts”, that children could manipulate.  Dattner designed most of them.  His creations no longer exist although his interlocking panels have been recreated and are currently in the exhibition, The Playground Project at the Carnegie Museum of Art and incorporated into the 2013 Carnegie International (until March 16, 2014; Gabriela Burkhalter, e-mail to author, 6 December 2013).
 
Figure 3 (left): Richard Dattner, Ancient Playground adjacent to Central Park (1972, renovated 2009). Photograph by Robert S. Solomon, 2011.
 
It is telling to compare Dattner’s Adventure Playground, which is largely intact, with two of his other Central Park play sites, the Heckscher and Ancient playgrounds. While it is remarkable that Heckscher (1969, renovated 2006) still has easy access to the enormous rock outcropping of the surrounding park (Fig 2), it is unsettling that the Ancient Playground has undergone major changes. The sand surface is now relegated to a small section at the rear (Fig.3).  Perhaps the most troubling comparison is among the stone mounds of each project. At the Adventure Playground, stone mounds for climbing are a bit lower than they used to be (with the addition of a railing at the top) but still rough and irregular and require climbers to pay careful attention as they scamper to the top; at the Heckscher playground, they are flatter and not as uneven; at the Ancient playground, the mounds have a flat surface with just a few regularized protrusions; these are almost a cartoonish version of what Dattner had first designed. Dattner noted: “As urban life becomes a more crowded, contested, and often litigious experience, the consequences for playgrounds have been lower, possibly safer, certainly more –risk-adverse designs.” (Dattner, e-mail to author, 6 December 2013). 
 
Figure 4 (right): PlayCubes (Richard Dattner) and Timberform structure (M. Paul Friedberg) at South Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Robert S. Solomon, 2009.
 
It will be revealing to see how Dattner’s keen assessment unfolds at South Park in San Francisco. Plans are underway for a $3 million reconstruction, initiated to remedy a drainage problem. The bad news is that the manufactured modular  pieces- continuation of product design- that Dattner and Friedberg designed (PlayCubes cubo-octahedrons and Timberform wood climbers) are either no longer there or will soon be gone (Figs. 4, 5); the good news is that the landscape architect David Fletcher (Fletcher Studio) is committed to providing a playground with pieces that he will design and that will continue the innovation of PlayCubes (which were removed before he was hired) which he admires (Fletcher, phone conversation with author, 8 December 2013). He is also dedicated to creating custom pieces that will appeal to adults as well as children in ways that had characterized the old equipment.
 
Figure 5 (left): Timberform structure at South Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Robert S. Solomon, 2009.
 
There is one unconditional long-lived success on the west coast. The concrete embankment slides in Golden Gate Park (Michael Painter, 1970s) and in other parks in the Bay Area remain viable and are the synthesis of good design and challenging play. (Fig. 6) Kids need to have the sensation of doing something dangerous and embankment slides offer thrills with little chance of actual danger. In spite of numerous signs asking parents and kids to forgo cardboard, both age groups carry sheets of it to the top and use them to slide down. The important lesson to take away is that it is possible to retain older pieces, that they offer encounters that help bring families to play areas, and they can be quite safe. It is disheartening that many of today’s versions of embankment slides are slight reflections of the past; these are short plastic chutes which are embedded into the ground at very shallow angles.
 
Figure 6 (right): Michael Painter, embankment slide (1970s) at Golden Gate Park. Photograph by Robert S. Solomon, 2011.
 
We have to look to the past and be aware that so many groundbreaking pieces have been altered or lost. These were cultural markers that portrayed thinking of their time. We also should consider what is worth saving in the future from today’s manufactured sites. The present off the shelf equipment does not have aesthetic appeal and it is very limited as to what it offers kids for their development. In a bizarre way, it captures our over attention to safety and our collective lack of faith in how kids can make wise choices. Too bad for us, on both counts.
 
Susan G. Solomon is author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space and the forthcoming The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds that Enhance Children’s Development (both from University Press of New England).
 


[1]  Biondo, Brenda (forthcoming 2014). Once Upon a Playground
a Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1925-1970.
Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. Susan Solomon wrote the foreword to this book.
[2] Ogata, Amy F. (2013). Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
[3] Trainor, James (2012). Reimaging Recreation. Cabinet 45 (Spring)

 

 

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