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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.
Lower Manhattan boasts some of the city’s oldest parks, Bowling Green and the Historic Battery, as well as one of the borough’s leafiest neighborhoods, Battery Park City, but the area is best known for its warren of narrow, winding streets, corridors darkened by the blackening crowns from New York’s first skyscraper boom. This wonderfully eclectic area retains a sense of mystery while also evoking the quintessential Gotham City.
As the neighborhood diversifies to become increasingly residential, more places to stretch your legs, walk the dog, or play with the kids are needed. In the granite canyons of Lower Manhattan and along its eastern waterfront, new public spaces are being carved out or spruced up. The first phase of the East River Esplanade, from Wall Street to Maiden Lane, is taking shape under the shadow of the FDR. Designed by SHoP and Ken Smith, the stretch includes a dog run with a giant squirrel and tree, both of bronze. Several street furniture mockups, including a handsome High Line–like lounge/bench, have been installed near Pier 11. Phase One is scheduled to open by the fall, and the rest of the Esplanade should be complete by 2012. According to the Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the project is being rolled out in much the same form as the original design. The number of kiosks, however, which will house cafes, restrooms, and storage facilities, has been reduced to four.
Along Fulton Street, a new string of pocket parks is meant to suggest a greater connection from West to East, connecting the World Trade Center site to the Fulton Transit Center to the Seaport to the East River Esplanade. The most notable of these is Burling Slip, designed by the Rockwell Group with the Parks Department, which features a so-called Imagination Playground with blue foam pieces that can be arranged and manipulated by children. Burling Slip is to open at the end of July.
A less well-known part of Lower Manhattan’s evolution is the complete reworking of the area’s street infrastructure, including all of the data, utility, water, and sewer lines, funded through a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant following 9/11. According to officials at the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, more than a third of the 100 miles of streets have been excavated and completely rebuilt. One of the last of those streets to be rebuilt will be Water Street, the focus of a new plan by the Alliance for Downtown New York.
Water Street: A New Approach calls for extensive tree planting and landscaped medians running up Water Street, one of the widest in Lower Manhattan. Created by landscape architects Starr Whitehouse working with FXFowle, the plan is conceived as a way of boosting the value of the street’s midcentury office buildings and retaining its commercial tenants by making what is currently a fairly barren nine-to-five streetscape into a more active and attractive place. “Bill Rudin came to us and said it was time for a new vision for Water Street,” said Nicole LaRusso, senior vice president for planning and economic development for the Alliance. “So we began a collaborative process involving building owners, residents, and city agencies.”
Robert Moses widened the street in the early 1960s, and it became the model for POPs, the new zoning allowance wherein developers were granted extra height as long as they included privately maintained publicly accessible plazas and arcades in their projects. One of the more complex issues addressed in the plan is what to do now with these under-performing POPS that dot the street. The plan calls for greater commercial activity, including restaurants and retail space to be built on the plazas, something that would necessitate zoning changes. In the short term, the Department of Transportation is planning an 8,000-square-foot temporary plaza at Water and Whitehall streets that will act as a gateway to the corridor. “There is a long history of Lower Manhattan being recognized as a special case,” LaRusso said. “We think unique zoning for Water Street could be a fine outcome.”
Being a kid—or at least a playground designer—was a lot more fun in the 1970s, before the advent of telephone-book-thick ASTM standards, not to mention things like critical fall heights, head-entrapment guidelines, and the virtual outlawing of sand. “It’s almost like a police state, what you can and cannot do in a playground,” said Paul Friedberg, the landscape architect who created some of New York’s most innovative play spaces. “The freedom that we once had is just completely gone.”
But vestiges of that freewheeling age can be found in Central Park, where the spirit of adventure thrives thanks to restorations this summer of two pioneering playgrounds. In overhauling these spaces to meet modern safety and accessibility needs, the Central Park Conservancy has shown that safety and rambunctiousness can still coexist.
Designed by Richard Dattner in 1972, Ancient Playground was one of 21 Robert Moses–era playgrounds installed around the park’s perimeter. In the late 1960s, these spaces began to be remade in the style of postwar Europe’s adventure playgrounds, where children molded their environments out of bricks, timber, and tires. Dattner themed his space on the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just across a transverse road at West 84th Street. “I thought it would be wonderful to teach kids something of ancient construction—the pyramids, obelisks, mastabas, and so forth—and relate in a kids’ scale to what was across the street,” Dattner said.
The central challenge of the renovation—the fourth of Dattner’s playgrounds to be reconstructed in the park—was to create a required clear space around the main playground elements. Among other changes, the conservancy’s designers created a regulation tire swing that mimics the original design, while increasing the size of Dattner’s tunnels for better visibility. Since sand is not considered an accessible surface material, designers used safety surfacing that matched the spirit of the original.
The second playground, at West 100th Street, took its adventure-style form in 1972 to designs by Ross, Ryan, Jacquette Architects. The curving bridge, climbing cone, and water-spray feature have been restored, with the addition of complementary new equipment and resilient carpeting. A tree house was built around several mature trees, which were sadly removed after suffering damage during the August 18 storm. (The tree house remains.)
These respectful restorations are the latest sign that, 40 years later, adventure play is back. “In the 1970s, adventure playgrounds pushed the limits of demanding, physical play,” said Christopher Nolan, the conservancy’s vice president for capital projects. “We’ve been able to preserve the innovations that those playgrounds represented.” The two spaces join other playgrounds of this style, like the Rockwell Group’s Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan, due to open next year, with a kit of loose parts that kids can use under the supervision of “play associates.”
Dattner, who consulted pro bono on his playground’s redesign, regards this latest generation of play spaces with a certain bemusement. “Much of my knowledge of the value of play has really been from the observation of kids playing with junk in the gutter,” he said. “The two major materials are sand and water. The rest is extra.”
A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.