Sometimes allegory writes itself. Here, it’s the removal of the futuristic stainless-steel playground climbing domes at the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates– designed Brooklyn Bridge Park. Following the opening of the park’s Pier 1 first phase in April 2010, the domes scorchingly overheated in early summer sunshine. Their replacement by a direly anodyne but liability-proof dollhouse structure could stand for the sensible return of quasi- traditional designs after modernist overreach, or for a failure of imagination and ambition, in which the optimistically risk-taking formal and functional intelligence that is modernism’s timeless legacy is abandoned in favor of the complacently picturesque.
The design of parks and playgrounds in New York City seems currently torn between these two impulses. On the one hand, there are projects like David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, a Constructivist Legoland just opened at the Burling Slip near the South Street Seaport. On the other, there are developments like the recent renovation inflicted on Washington Square Park, in which the once superbly sensitive prospect-and-refuge modulations of the park’s multi-level ground plane, and the once lively handling of its historically off-kilter plan (developed by polymath designer Robert Nichols in a community-driven 1971 project) have been flattened by a tightly-wound ersatz-historical pastiche of windswept symmetry, bench-shaped benches and fence-shaped fences, from which tiny tidy bits of lawn can be surveilled, but not much else.
Brooklyn Bridge Park would appear to be safely in the first camp. To be arrayed when complete across some 65 acres of Brooklyn’s former shipping piers, it continues for the outer boroughs such large-scale waterfront reclamations as Manhattan’s Hudson River Park and Harlem Piers Park—in this case financially initiated and sustained, not without controversy, by the residential and hotel development of six adjacent parcels with priceless skyline and river views.
Much of Pier 1 is unimpeachable. A robust vocabulary of galvanized steel, maritime wood, asphalt paving, cable fencing, and other no-nonsense materials hold their own against a tough urban setting in the shadow of the BQE. Behind the shoulder of a steep hill, a cascade of granite steps, salvaged from nearby Roosevelt Island, forms an amphitheater and climactic overlook high above the East River. Thirty-five-foot telephone poles become totemic tree trunks and laconic lighting uprights. A sinuously sloping ridgeline provides ramped tree-lined pathways that delay and reveal views of city and water. A broad waterfront promenade recalls the one far above in Brooklyn Heights.
A complex three-dimensional problem of physical and visual occupation has been methodically and successfully solved, with crisp detailing pleasingly combining industrial manufacture and contemporary élan. Still to come are a rainwater runoff pond, a reconstructed salt marsh, and a boat slip. On a recent Friday afternoon, the park was densely and delightedly occupied by diverse constituencies—including an intrepid group of soccer players who had miniaturized and adapted their game to fit into the mostly concave hollow of the main north-facing lawn.
That miniaturization speaks to one challenge facing the Pier 1 park, which is scale: Mediating its 9.5 acres between the scale of the human body and the scale of nearby infrastructural icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, Pier 1 has chosen to be a little-big park, rather than a big-little one. What this means is that in the cumulative effect of its many small hills and valleys, switchbacks, and meadows, it can feel slightly like a three-quarters-scale model of itself: packed with beautiful and effective features, and almost continually delightful, but without a lot of room to breathe or improvise. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, that room will, of course, eventually arrive with the continuing development of the adjacent five piers, which will provide full-size indoor and outdoor sports fields, event spaces, and miles of trails and lawns.
And yet this tendency toward dense specificity of activity can risk suppressing the imaginative improvisation, drift, opportunism, serendipity, and loosely counter-programmatical use of space that are the greatest gifts of playgrounds and parks to their users. The new Washington Square Park fails so profoundly because, unlike the old, it encourages the narrowest one-to-one mapping between object and event: a hospitably curving edge calibrated along a shift in ground level can be a bench, a bed, a stage, a gameboard, a skate ramp, a soap box. A faux-Victorian bench is a bench is a bench.
A sign at the Pier 1 playground outlaws, along with amplified sound and smoking, “using playground equipment in an unsafe or unintended fashion.” Safety matters. It’s that “unintended” that worries. And yet somewhere there’s a tipping point in which the regulation of space required by a density of narrowly single-use features starts to betray the magnificent liberties of unintended consequences, that, ever since Richard Dattner brought the Adventure Playground to Central Park in the 1960s, has been the city’s contribution to play and to public space.