Search results for "adventure playground"

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John Johansen

If you are a loyal reader of AN’s Southwest edition, you will know that we have reported multiple times on the sad saga of the destruction of John Johansen’s Mummers Theater (also known as the Stage Center theater). We wrote several stories on the efforts to save the building and the last-resort plans to repurpose its cut-up remains into a children’s adventure playground. The 1970 theater building was built in an era when a municipality like Oklahoma City promoted itself to the outside world by commissioning daring architecture (and theaters) from designers like Johansen. Though the theater was Oklahoma City’s most distinguished work of architecture, the city seemed like it was in a rush to destroy it and replace it with corporate towers designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. We were sent a series of images by architect Alissa Bucher showing a pile of twisted concrete, metal, and steel before the building was carted away to a scrap yard to make way for the towers. But then the office complex was suddenly canceled late last year: a victim of falling oil and gas prices. Now the site—which once had one of this country’s most adventurous buildings—is a vacant, fenced-in lot featuring a large water-catching hole. Have a look and weep.

John Johansen's Mummers Theater in rubble before it was carted off to the landfill.
Alissa Bucher

A year and a half after demolition, the site remains empty, collecting water in a hole.
The Oklahoman
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Central Park's Adventure Playground, designed by Richard Dattner, reopens after yearlong renovation
The Richard Dattner–designed Adventure Playground, one of New York City's most beloved recreational spaces, recently reopened after a yearlong renovation by the Central Park Conservancy. A companion Dattner park, Ancient Playground, underwent extensive renovations in 2009. Despite Ancient's ostensible claim to primacy, Adventure Playground opened in May 1967. Though the playground, at Central Park's well-trafficked West 67th Street entrance, has been popular since its unveiling, adventure playgrounds are an old idea. First conceived by modernist landscape architect C.Th. Sørensen, adventure playgrounds are quirky spaces that engender curiosity and encourages a range of passive and active recreation. In sharp contrast to mass-manufactured playsets, the playgrounds feature tree forts, mounds, tunnels, raw dirt, and water. Adventure playgrounds encourage prosocial behavior like cooperation and planning: children are given tools and materials for contributing to, and reshaping, the space. Emphasis is on calculated risk in a loosely controlled environment. The Land, Europe's newest adventure playground, permits children to use sharp tools and start fires under the watchful eyes of trained play facilitators. In Europe, adventure playgrounds incorporate more natural and found elements, while their U.S. counterparts are more designed. For his playground, Dattner was inspired by Isamu Noguchi's landforms, as well as the work of M. Paul Friedberg, one of the first architects to put the idea of "linked play" into practice. Dattner looked to Noguchi's 1933 proposal for Play Mountain, a block-long sculptural installation that could be used for sunbathing, lounging, and sledding in the wintertime. (Over 40 years later, Noguchi did get to build a playground, of a different design and scale, for Piedmont Park in Atlanta.) As part of a plaza design at the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, Friedberg conceived of the playground as an immersive environment, creating mounds, pyramids, and treehouses that would intrigue and engage children. In the 1960s, Central Park was a small forum for the larger fight against encroaching decay that occupied much of the city. Activists and parents, dissatisfied with the quality of the park's play spaces, agitated for the rebuilding of nine of Central Park's 18 playgrounds. With help from a Lauder Foundation grant, Dattner designed five of these. Adventure playgrounds fell out of favor as a growing culture of litigiousness prioritized safety over the risk inherent in the adventure playground's design. Consequently, the renovations align with contemporary standards of safety and accessibility, while restoring features lost over time. The renovation of Adventure Playground is part of the Central Park Conservancy's comprehensive plan to renovate or rebuild all 21 of the park's playgrounds. The grade of the maze will be changed, and railings modified or added. Tunnels that were closed in the 1970s on the conical climber will be reopened, and a new wood climber that aligns closely with the original design will be installed. The water feature will be rebuild, based on its original design. New fences are lower, integrating the playgrounds with the surrounding park. Adventure playground enthusiasts can visit the park's four other adventure playgrounds, as well as the one uptown, in Highbridge Park.
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"Non-artist" collective Assemble wins the 2015 Turner Prize
At a ceremony in Glasgow on Monday, the 18-member, London-based architecture and design collective Assemble was awarded the Turner Prize, for Granby Four Streets, its collaborative, community-engaged renovations of Victorian-era homes in Liverpool. The annual award is Britain's most prestigious honor for contemporary artists under 50. This is the only the second time the Turner Prize has been awarded to more than one artist (Gilbert & George won in 1986). The winner receives a cash prize of £25,000 ($38,000). In a statement, the prize jury praised Assemble's social justice focus: “They draw on long traditions of artistic and collective initiatives that experiment in art, design and architecture. In doing so they offer alternative models to how societies can work.” Assemble doesn't think of itself as a group of artists, per se. Instead, the collective "[works] across the fields of art, architecture and design. Assemble’s working practice seeks to address the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made. Assemble champion a working practice that is interdependent and collaborative, seeking to actively involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the on-going realization of the work." Granby Four Streets builds on the neighborhood's grassroots, but well established preservation work, recruiting and training young people to renovate the homes for resale. Preservation and investment saves the neglected or run-down rowhouses from demolition. At homegoods store Tramway, Assemble sells handmade household items made by Liverpool residents at the Granby Workshop, a parallel project. In addition to their Liverpool projects, the group built the Baltic Street Adventure Playground, in Glasgow, and Yardhouse, a two-story, three-bay workspace with cheap artist's studios for rent. Some in the media questioned whether an art prize could rightfully go to a group of builders who reject the term artist. Others praised the jury's choice as a recognition of the broad definition of art, and the importance of socially responsive projects. Assemble explains their process and their ambivalence around the term "artist" in this video. The three other nominees were Nicole Wermer’s “Infrastruktur,” Janice Kerbel's "DOUG," and Bonnie Camplin's "The Military Industrial Complex." Last year, Duncan Campbell won for "It for Others," a four episode video series that explores the value of art through Marxism, anthropomorphic ketchup dispensers, and the IRA.
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This 400-foot-high hammock in the Moab Desert is a mid-air playground for climbers in Utah
A hammock suspended 400 feet above ground in Utah's Moab Desert has become an aerial playground for the professional base jumpers and highliners who flock to the canyons every year. Satirically named the “Mothership Space Net Penthouse,” the approximately 2,000 square foot hammock was wrought by climber Andy Lewis with the help of 50 base jumpers using basic rope weaving techniques. Airspace being so vast, the climbers used to embark on their respective adventures while rarely rubbing elbows. Lewis’ pentagon-shaped net was hence conceived as a high flyer’s executive club, to borrow his sarcasm, and is now a mid-air hub for socializing, rest, and play. Base jumpers leap daily from the man-sized hole in the center of the hammock, while highliners attempt to tightrope-walk across the five legs of the net, some of which span 262 feet. Overhead, paragliders fly by while dropping wing-suit pilots from high above. In 2012, Lewis created a three-sided “Space Thong” (below) with a similar design but comparatively smaller, to bring together climbers who had come from all over the world to partake in the annual GGBY Highline Gathering (an unofficial gathering of slackliners from all over North America) and the Turkey Boogie, a Thanksgiving get-together for base jumpers.
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72 and Sunny
The offices of this media company are cheerful and connected to the outdoors.
Claudio Santini

72 and Sunny
Playa Vista, California
Lean Arch

The sprawling former offices of the visionary and eccentric businessman Howard Hughes in Playa Vista have undergone an extensive renovation, and are now a major playground for creative offices and academic institutions like Youtube, Earthbound Media, and UCLA’s new Ideas Campus. But only one company got to be in the Hercules Campus’ Building One, home to Hughes’ administrative building and his own office: advertising and media company 72 and Sunny.

They hired LA studio Lean Arch to create a new space that “creates a feeling of awe,” inside the space according to Lean’s principal James Myers. The firm kept most of the two-story space simple, open, and timeless, inserting a few key focal points.


Primary among these are a first floor work pod and second floor executive office, each partially exposed to passersby through timber louvers or slats. Beyond that are a large central floating stair, supported on steel Y-braces and propped on a multi-level wood base for congregating; an adjacent lush green wall and open kitchen; and a large cement board–clad board room on the second floor with angular walls and fish scale–like siding. Meyer likens it to a “starship transporter.” Its conference table is designed to look like a giant surfboard (all of the office’s conference rooms are named after surf breaks).


Around this, employees’ office spaces are arranged in four large quadrants of open seating. Most have easy access to natural light, and, nearby, to large openings onto the lovely tree-lined courtyards, which were brought back to life after years of neglect. The company wanted a clean, uncluttered look, so wires and mechanical systems do not protrude beneath the line of the building’s original steel trusses. The flashiest ornamentation comes from the offices’ many presentation walls, filled with ideas and sketches.

Meanwhile, at the end of a second floor hallway Hughes’ original offices—known as Mahogany Row—have had their elegant wood detailing preserved, albeit with new floating ceilings, floors, and dry wall surrounding it. It is fun to see brainstorming sessions taking place inside Hughes’ own office nearby. Indeed, his spirit of adventure lives on here.

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Jennifer Nitzky
Courtesy Jennifer Nitzky, RLA

2014 marks the 100th anniversary since the founding of the New York Chapter of American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA-NY) and we have much to celebrate.

From the early days of Central Park, to the recent opening of public parks on Governors Island and unveiling of the Rebuild by Design competition winners, the roles of landscape architects have evolved as a new generation of parks and green spaces are redefining the urban environment of the future. Central Park was originally designed as a place where all people can enjoy and escape the busy city life. Our new definition of urban public spaces not only includes equity for all to enjoy them but also the need to address sustainability, stormwater management, and high performance design. Our waterfronts need to be designed to withstand sea level changes and possible flooding. Streets need to be safer for pedestrians while providing more environmentally sound means to collect stormwater. Rooftops need to not only provide added amenity space but also cool buildings and provide much needed green space in a city that is primarily paved. The reduced open space in our city has led to an increase in urban rooftop farming. Our urban environment needs to be more resilient. Fortunately, landscape architects are also resilient—we are able to take these difficult urban challenges we are confronted with and respond with solutions that are not only effective but creative and enduring.


Throughout history in New York City, landscape architects have been directly involved in shaping the city’s most important spaces. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, Central and Prospect Parks have both stood the test of time and continue to thrive as our city’s most valuable amenities and urban park icons. The Bronx River Parkway, opened in 1923 and designed by landscape architects Hermann Merkel and Gilmore Clarke, became the model for the great American parkway that many of us drive on today. In the late 1920s when Robert Moses had grand ideas for expanding our roadways and parks, he looked to Clarke and landscape architect Michael Rapuano to develop the green parkway and park systems and that served as a catalyst for urban parks across our nation. During the Moses era over 650 new playgrounds were built in our city, including 15 playgrounds in Central Park, enabling the park to truly be for all people, including children. The ASLA-NY with founding member and landscape architect, A.F. Brinkerhoff, are responsible for the Great Lawn in Central Park. In 1931, they produced plans which transformed the unused lower reservoir into a verdant oval for recreational activity and leisure walks that today is one of the most popular spots in Central Park, not to mention the best place for a concert venue. In the 1960s, the Adventure Playground movement reinvented how playgrounds were designed. Led by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, these playgrounds aimed to give children more opportunities for exploration and discovery, providing spaces that foster cooperative play and creativity. This model for playground design is still being utilized today as communities want to give children something more than the typical playground.


In more recent years, environmental and quality of life issues in New York have prompted even greater attention to our profession as city agencies turn to landscape architects for expertise in providing more effective and sustainable design solutions. The PlaNYC initiative, spearheaded by then-Mayor Bloomberg, brought a new focus on urban design to improve the quality of life in our city while making green design a much higher priority. Once again, landscape architects were needed to improve and expand our parks, develop new stormwater standards, create green roofs and urban farms on top of buildings, and improve our waterways to restore coastal ecosystems as well as provide recreational opportunities. After Superstorm Sandy devastated our region, it was clear that smarter resiliency strategies for rebuilding were critical. What resulted were bold new high performance designs like those developed through the Rebuild by Design competition, in which landscape architects were at the forefront of the winning design proposals.

Landscape architecture in New York has been receiving more and more publicity and exposure due to cutting edge design and creative new urban spaces that are serving as the model for other municipalities. The High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Governors Island all redefined urban parks and news reports, articles, blog posts, photos, and social media have exposed landscape architecture to an even broader audience, making the profession more well known. Even President Obama used the term “landscape architects” in a recent speech on improving our infrastructure. As more and more people look to New York for design inspiration, landscape architects and designers here are demonstrating that the bounds are endless. As long as our current and future city administration continues to foster all of the abilities that landscape architects bring to the table, New York will continue to thrive as a prime model of green urban design.

A few years ago, Alan G. Brake wrote about landscape architecture’s ascendance and the growing importance of the profession. It is becoming more and more evident that our time is now and New York City is a great place to be a landscape architect.


From the Inside Out

Five new architectural interiors from the East and West coasts and the Midwest.

72 and Sunny
Playa Vista, California | Lean Arch

The sprawling former offices of the visionary and eccentric businessman Howard Hughes in Playa Vista have undergone an extensive renovation, and are now a major playground for creative offices and academic institutions like Youtube, Earthbound Media, and UCLA’s new Ideas Campus. But only one company got to be in the Hercules Campus’ Building One, home to Hughes’ administrative building and his own office: advertising and media company 72 and Sunny.

They hired LA studio Lean Arch to create a new space that “creates a feeling of awe,” inside the space according to Lean’s principal James Myers. The firm kept most of the two-story space simple, open, and timeless, inserting a few key focal points.

Primary among these are a first floor work pod and second floor executive office, each partially exposed to passersby through timber louvers or slats. Beyond that are a large central floating stair, supported on steel Y-braces and propped on a multi-level wood base for congregating; an adjacent lush green wall and open kitchen; and a large cement board–clad board room on the second floor with angular walls and fish scale–like siding. Meyer likens it to a “starship transporter.” Its conference table is designed to look like a giant surfboard (all of the office’s conference rooms are named after surf breaks).

Around this, employees’ office spaces are arranged in four large quadrants of open seating. Most have easy access to natural light, and, nearby, to large openings onto the lovely tree-lined courtyards, which were brought back to life after years of neglect. The company wanted a clean, uncluttered look, so wires and mechanical systems do not protrude beneath the line of the building’s original steel trusses. The flashiest ornamentation comes from the offices’ many presentation walls, filled with ideas and sketches.

Meanwhile, at the end of a second floor hallway Hughes’ original offices—known as Mahogany Row—have had their elegant wood detailing preserved, albeit with new floating ceilings, floors, and dry wall surrounding it. It is fun to see brainstorming sessions taking place inside Hughes’ own office nearby. Indeed, his spirit of adventure lives on here. And it will continue, as Lean Arch’s renovation of Building Two is supposed to be complete by July, doubling 72 and Sunny’s space.

Sam Lubell

The offices of this media company are cheerful and connected to the outdoors.

Vermont Quarries
Hardwood Realty
Stone Source
Lighting: Restoration Hardware
Carl Hansen & Son

West Side Town House
NEW YORK | O’Neill Rose Architects

Located behind a landmarked Victorian facade on the Upper West Side, this modern home is a careful study in line and proportion, which subtly transitions from an abstracted traditional language to sleek contemporary as you move from the parlor to the penthouse. Designed by Brooklyn-based O’Neill Rose Architects, this townhouse was completely reconstructed from several apartments into a large five-floor house, with a garden rental apartment below.

The architects looked at historic townhouses for inspiration for details and materials, including herringbone floors, and handsome marble mantels for the working fireplaces. They worked closely with the builders and craftsmen to make sure every detail was well made and respectful of the house’s proportions.

The hand plastered ceiling and the underside of the staircase exemplify this bespoke approach. “I worked with [the contractors] for three or four weeks drawing the line of the staircase on the wall, they would build it up, and then we’d make adjustments,” said firm principal Devin O’Neill. “It was satisfying to work at that level and make it just right.” The result is a sinuous staircase that winds through the space like a piece of sculpture.

Above the parlor floor, the design language is slightly more abstract. The focal point of that level is a roomy open kitchen, which extends out to a spacious terrace. Large ceramic tiles made to look like limestone extend out onto the terrace. “The terrace and the kitchen are meant to be a continuous living space,” said O’Neill. Custom white cabinets and textured cream-colored ceramic backsplashes from Heath Ceramics create an inviting but serene environment, which encourages views out through the expansive windows. Midcentury furnishings from Carl Hansen are mixed with contemporary pieces for a spare but fresh look.

The following two floors are private family quarters, with a master suite on the third level, and four kids rooms on the fourth. Tucked behind the mansard roof is a sleek penthouse family room with a monumental, 14-foot-wide-by-7½-foot-wide glass wall from Rochester Glass that opens onto another small terrace. “We really wanted to open the house out, to connect with views of the city,” said O’Neill.

Alan G. Brake

The lower floors of this renovated townhouse are more traditional, while the upper floors are more contemporary, culminating in a sleek penthouse family room.

Fall House
Big Sur, California | Fougeron Architecture


B&B Italia


Valli & Valli


B-K Lighting


Delta Light

Lighting Controls


Solid Surfacing


Perched 250 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Fall House, designed by Fougeron Architecture, could easily have been overwhelmed by its dramatic setting. Yet the house’s interior, in particular, counterposes a sense of security against the wildness of the site. The casual modernity of the design, which emphasizes warmth, comfort, and simplicity, stands in contrast to both its natural surroundings and the log-cabin architecture of the region. “On the inside, too, these clients specifically didn’t want a sort of ramshackle Big Sur house,” said principal Anne Fougeron. “They wanted something that was comfortable and easy to use.”

Fall House’s exterior and interior are seamlessly integrated, particularly in terms of materials. Aiming for a continuous floor plane, the architects selected a French limestone that is hard enough for both outdoor and indoor use. The stained mahogany ceilings and wall panels similarly create a dialogue with the building’s copper facade. The mahogany “wraps
the building in the same fashion” as the copper and “gives a real warmth,” said Fougeron. The windows are also framed in mahogany, both a practical and aesthetic choice.

Furnishing the house, said Fougeron, “was about finding fairly plush but classic pieces that [the clients] wouldn’t get sick of.” Most of the pieces, including the sectional in the open plan living/dining/kitchen area, are from B&B Italia. The bookshelves in the den, which Fougeron calls “the hearth and home of the house,” were custom-designed by the firm for their former office. “You can tell it’s not brand new, which is sort of great. I love the idea of repurposing it.”

Fougeron Architecture custom-designed the kitchen cabinets in white and dark wood. “We like the contrast,” said Fougeron. “The whiteness provides that sort of minimalist modernity. At the same time, the wood grounds it a little bit more. An all-white kitchen would have been garish.” The fixtures are primarily sand-blasted chrome, with Corian surfaces in the bathrooms. Downlights by Delta Lights and track lighting by Halo are integrated into the ceilings.

Fougeron Architecture’s interior design strategy reaches its peak in the den, the literal and metaphorical center of Fall House. The only room enclosed entirely in glass, the den could feel exposed. Instead, the warm wood window frames, cushioned chairs, and gas fireplace create a pocket of intimacy. It, like the rest of the house, is a refuge, a safe place both within and apart from its spectacular site.

Anna Bergen Miller

In contrast to the typical ramshackle Big Sur house, Fougeron turned out a modern, easy-to-use living space.

Black Ocean Headquarters
New York CITY | Rafael de Cardenas/Architecture at Large

“I don’t really like the dot com look,” explained Rafael de Cardenas, principal at Architecture at Large. For the digital media company Black Ocean, de Cardenas created a space that is industrial but sleek, infused with a bold graphic style that is his firm’s signature.

Located in a former firehouse with narrow floor plates, the building had serious constraints. Rather than hide those limitations, de Cardenas embraced them and celebrated the building’s fabric, like the Romanesque arched windows on the top floor. Florescent lighting in a zigzag arrangement snake down hallways and into open areas, providing a unifying element between narrow and more spacious zones.

On the ground floor a lobby and a casual stadium style seating area lead to a rear carriage house outfitted with conference rooms. Above are two floors of open offices and collaborative work areas. A strict color palette of white, black, and gray is punctuated by more luxurious materials, such as the copper accents seen, among other places, in the stair stepped pendant lights that illuminate open areas. Partner offices, one with a striking, multi-globe chandelier, and conference rooms fill the forth floor.

“I like graphic things, I respond to sharpness. We often use abstracted patterns to create visually buzzing elements,” said de Cardenas. In graduating from the childish, slacker aesthetics of early new media offices, Architecture at Large helped build buzz around its client.

Alan G. Brake

Architecture at Large gave this digital media company a boldly graphic, but grown-up identity.


Barn Light Electric


Rich Brilliant Willing for Matter


Roll & Hill

Lounge Seating


Side Tables

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Grady Clay, 1916-2013
Grady Clay looks out over the Ohio Riverfront in downtown Louisville.
Courtesy Estate of Grady Clay

Behind the wheel of an old dark green Porsche, in lace-up boots and tweed jackets, with a gentle drawl and impish smile, he hardly seemed radical, but neither did his look-alike, William Faulkner. Actually, like his friend Jane Jacobs, he was both radical and wise—and well stocked with ideas, because he always had a little reporter’s notebook or tape recorder in his pocket to jot down observations.

These later turned up in his articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal or in the numerous books and magazine articles he wrote, even while editing Landscape Architecture Magazine from his home base in Louisville, Kentucky, for 25 years (1959-85).

Under his leadership, the magazine published the work of Ian McHarg, A. E. Bye, Lawrence Halprin, Darrel Morrison, Martha Schwartz, and James van Sweden. It emphasized ecology and covered new earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, native plantings, and adventure playgrounds. It ran articles by J. B. Jackson, Ada Louise Huxtable, Robert Moses, and William “Holly” Whyte. Unsurprisingly, its readership and influence increased exponentially during his tenure.

Grady Clay was the author of the influential books Closeup: How to Read the American City (1974), Water in the Landscape (1979), Right Before Your Eyes: Penetrating the Urban Environment and Landscapes for Living (both 1987). Between 1991 and 2005, he was also a weekly commentator on Louisville’s NPR affiliate.

He was also the chairman of the jury for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design competition in 1980 that selected Maya Lin’s radically abstract scheme. (Other jurors were Harry Weese, Richard Hunt, Garrett Eckbo, Constantino Nivola, James Rosati, Hideo Sasaki, and Pietro Belluschi.) Paul Spreiregen, who organized the competition, remembered that, “during the jurors’ deliberations, Grady noted any cogent comment. When the jury had come to a decision, after three-and-a-half days intensely reviewing some 1,432 designs, Grady and I sat down to write a brief report describing the jury’s recommendation to the sponsor, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. He had extracted the most cogent juror’s remarks. The next day, speaking for the jury, he presented the report along with the winning design. It took 25 minutes, and was followed by a short silence. But very soon the members of the sponsor group, about 30 in all, jumped to their feet, cheering and applauding in acceptance. They’d gotten it! Since the winning design was very simply presented graphically, its many subtle implications were unlikely to have been readily grasped. There is no doubt in my mind that Grady’s old note-taking habit, with his skill in extracting the essence of an idea, was the basis for earning the approval of the memorial sponsor.”

Grady Clay was born in Atlanta, the son of an eye surgeon on the Emory University faculty, and grew up at Walnut Grove, the family’s farm in Ashland. He graduated from Emory in 1938, earned a Master’s in Journalism at Columbia in 1939, and became a police beat reporter at the Louisville Times the next year.

During World War II, as a member of the Armed Forces, he served as assistant officer in charge of the European edition of YANK, the Army weekly in Italy and France. During this time, he developed an interest in geography.

After the War, he joined the staff of the well-regarded Louisville Courier-Journal where he covered national trends in urban renewal, suburban development, land use, and the growth of the interstate highway system.

In 1948, he received a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied urban geography and met Ian McHarg, David Wallace, and Jackie Tyrwhitt. In 1973, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Over the years, he served on various presidential task forces, taught at the University of Kentucky and Northwestern University, and received an honorary doctorate from Emory.

He was also a prescient proponent of what came to be called “the New Urbanism.” In 2009, the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) acknowledged as much, awarding him the Athena Medal and citing an article he had written for Horizon magazine in 1959, “Metropolis Regained.” The CNU explained, “In words described as ‘eerily similar’ to the Charter of the New Urbanism, which followed more than 35 years later, Clay defined the principles of a group he identified as New Urbanists.” Clay wrote: “We believe in the city, they would say, not in tearing it down. We like open space, but hold that too much of it is just as bad as too little. We want that multiplicity of choice that the city has always offered, but is now in danger of losing.” He added, “I can only say that all great movements start in murmurs and that I can hear murmurs.”

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Child's Power Play
Personification of Childhood Misdeeds, 1930, by Minka Podhajska.
Courtesy MoMA

The Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York
Through November 5

“Czech children obviously had the most fun,” noted a viewer of Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900–2000. Many of that country’s mid-century toys would look as good on a mantle as they would in a nursery. MoMA’s latest design exhibition, put on by architecture and design curator Juliet Kinchin with curatorial associate Aidan O’Connor, takes a sweeping view of 20th-century design through the lens of childhood. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” Nelson Mandela remarked in 1995. Book-ended by the publication in 1900 of Century of the Child, a manifesto positing the universal rights and well-being of children as the defining mission for the century, and the first child-themed Aspen International Design Conference, Growing by Design, in 1990, the ambitious survey charts the confluence of modern design thinking and childhood into seven nodes. Underpinning all of these, notes Kinchin, “is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life.” Above all, Century of the Child reveals that our attempts to shape the world for children speak volumes about how we want to see it ourselves.

First there was Froebel. “New Century, New Child, New Art,” the exhibition’s first section, begins with a soft landing. Amidst films of dancing children and cases of colorful objects, educational theorists Friedrich Froebel, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori emerge as the architects of a significant shift from a world of straight lines, sharp corners, and stiff yardsticks to a free-form embrace of intuitive exploration and a distinctly tactile approach to education. While Montessori promoted child-directed, activity-based learning, the “gifts” and “occupations,” of Froebel’s kindergarten foregrounded creativity and fostered an appreciation of natural harmony.

Froebel block gift set, 1890 (left). Il bimbo cattivo ("The Bad Child") bedroom panel, c.1924 by antonio Rubino (right).

As the room entitled “Avant-Garde Playtime” reveals, the child’s viewpoint, valued and encouraged by artists and educators in the first decade of the century, became actively sought out following World War I. “Making the simple complicated is commonplace,” American Jazz giant Charles Mingus once remarked, concluding, “making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Longing to recapture the “innocent eye” of the child in the postwar years, artists and designers such as Giacamo Balla, Bruno Taut, Gerrit Rietveld, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, and Antonio Rubino, turned to childhood as a way to both access the purest forms of expression and recapture an unmediated attitude towards the world. With the Czech childhood-envy-inducing toys of Ladislav Sutnar, as well as those of Uruguay’s Joaquín Torres García, and Lotte Reiniger’s exquisitely sophisticated animated feature of 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, this room alone is worth the price of admission.

While the majority of Sutnar’s so-called “mental vitamins” with which avant-garde design has nourished youth is commendable, the exhibition’s sections “Light, Air, Health” and “Children of the Body Politic” expose a darker side to design’s persuasive power. Here utopian and dystopian models reveal how closely designers have danced with socio-political agendas. Just as the interwar period’s determination to transform society into a beacon of light and health freed young bodies to move unencumbered by the prior confines of apparel and architecture, the onset of World War II also saw pliable young minds willfully molded to the propaganda of place. From Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan to Britain, Austria, and the United States, one cannot help but acknowledge that the story of modern design is not entirely a benevolent one.

Ladislav Sutnar’s Prototype for Build the Town Building Blocks, 1940-43.

In “Regeneration,” the viewer steps into the more familiar territory of the Baby Boom era. Once again a postwar exuberance and optimism is expressed through more color and a seemingly more carefree approach. Child-centered design, informed by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, the Dutch playground pioneer Aldo Van Eyck, LEGO, Tinker Toys, and the Slinky, increasingly celebrated objects that embodied timelessness and simple discovery. Noticeably absent, however, is any discussion of gender-specific play and the ways in which toy design may have reinforced associated stereotypes.

The pressure of the challenge to neatly box a century into a tidy progression of objects and attitudes is most clearly felt within the final two sections, where the exhibition’s lid suddenly seems to pop open with Jack-in-the-Box force. In “Power Play,” Andreas Gursky’s monumental color print Toys “R” Us compellingly conveys the extent to which childhood is now circumscribed by commercialism. However, this section’s curation seems more noteworthy for its exclusions than for the objects on display. Pee-wee’s Playhouse—whose video projection and original set props dominate the room—draws attention to the absence of Sesame Street, a noteworthy presage to the now multi-million dollar “edutainment” industry. Similarly, the absence of postmodern giants like Barbie and McDonald’s, the second of which thankfully receives attention in the catalog, seem oddly conspicuous oversights.

Gerrit Rietveld’s Child’s Wheelbarrow, 1923 (left). Chica modular children’s chairs, 1971 (right).

The ultimate section, “Designing Better Worlds,” uncharacteristically abandons the exhibition’s heretofore chronological progression. As with “Power Play,” this exploration is fraught by its exclusions, often displaying the utopic visions of social design without any apparent discussion of their dystopic dangers. To wit, the featured One Laptop per Child, Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop project of 2005, projected to serve two billion children around the world and change education as we know it, is now widely acknowledged as a failure, though no mention of this is made within the gallery. The complexities of the impact of technological toys also receives short shrift, given the implications that it has on the ways in which children play, interact, and imagine. Indeed it could be presented as a much more thought-provoking endnote than the seemingly misplaced playground examination. If the century of the child began with a newly active exploration of the world through objects and a hands-on approach to education, it can be seen to have ended with a shift from a manual involvement with objects to a symbolic relationship with information, images, and amusement.

In July of 2010 a Newsweek feature story entitled “The Creativity Crisis” revealed that American creativity scores have been in steady decline since 1990, with the trend most pronounced for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. “The development of the child,” reads the manifesto The Century of the Child, from which the exhibition draws its name, “answers in miniature to the development of mankind as a whole.” MoMA’s exhibition, a monumental and—by and large—masterful undertaking, raises fundamental questions about how we are designing our present and defining our future.

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Lisbon 2010> Portugal Talks Housing at 2nd Triennale
Under the banner Let’s Talk About Houses, the second Lisbon Architecture Triennale opened last night in three different venues around the Portuguese capital. A beautifully renovated electric generating plant featured the results of two competitions: one for the low-income immigrant Portuguese community Cova da Moura, and a second for a house in Luanda, Angola. Meanwhile, a second exhibit on artists working in the realm of architecture is being staged at the contemporary Museo do Chiado (I’ll have more on these two shows in a subsequent post). The most ambitious of the three exhibitions, however, is on view at the Museu Coleção Berardo along the city’s architecturally fascinating waterfront in a district called Belem. Between North and South, as the title of that show suggests, is an exhibition that wants to highlight “housing conditions and new solutions found in various regions of the world.” But it is heavily weighted toward architectural movements and designs in the northern hemisphere, with only a general analysis of urban planning and living conditions in Portugal’s former colonial cities of Recife (Brazil), Luanda (Angola), and Maputo (Mozambique). The northern hemisphere, as conceived by triennale curator Delfim Sardo, begins with a display—or really recreated installation—of housing proposals by Alison and Peter Smithson regarding the House of the Future, their Valley Section Diagram, and best of all, a document of their Patio and Pavilion project created for the This Is Tomorrow exhibition with photographer Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi. I enjoyed these installations, but they seem a slightly arbitrary place to begin a show on northern and southern housing in 2010. Many Portuguese architects, however, claim the Smithsons are little known in the country, and the focus on their “patio and pavilion” concept certainly has a resonance in this Mediterranean-like climate. In any event, rather than focusing on architectural ideas, Sardo smartly preferred to highlight their “inhabitation” by residents. Thus, even in the section on Portuguese housing solutions by Alvaro Siza and Soute de Moura, we are given images of views out of the houses, non-architect designed furniture (the type rarely seen in architectural renderings), and taped conversations by residents of the apartments. But the show really comes alive when one walks into the section titled The Nordic Connection. Curated by Peter Cook, who predictably goes against the grain of the show, the section features no houses but the most colorful and odd (not a glass box anywhere) collection of wonderfully quirky buildings that capture a new young Scandinavian attitude. Cook’s selection includes a playful, flat-packed, and redeployable adventure playground and a magical children’s camp built into rocks and trees, both by Norway’s Helen & Hard Architects. Snøhetta’s Peter Dass Museum and a bright orange exhibition space in Malmo by Tham & Videgard add to the fun of this exhibition. Unfortunately, the show continues with a deadly boring one-room display of Vittorio Lampugnani’s glass-box Novartis campus in Basel. The one revelation for a non-Portuguese viewer was the section on SAAL (Servico de Apoio Ambulatorio Local), a government-supported movement of radical architects in Portugal between 1974 and 1976 that brandished the slogan “Houses Yes? Shacks No!” and fought to create better housing for the impoverished population at the time of the Portuguese revolution. The only problem is that this “utopian” movement really produced very little (none of which was on view in this exhibition) in the way of architecture. Though Alvaro Siza was a participant in SAAL and produced several Porto housing projects credited to the movement, the problem for those who want to deemphasize form in favor of political and cultural analysis and critique is that they often forget architecture. The small part of the exhibition that focused on the southern hemisphere was in fact this type of architectural thinking applied to urban analysis, but while it’s interesting to read on a page and important analytical information, as an exhibition it was barely worth focusing on as a viewer. Had the show started with SAAL as a point of departure to ask all the questions that both formalists and policy analysts in the profession want to focus on today, it would have made a great triennial and Lisbon an important center of architectural thought.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park struggles with being both human scale and monumental.
Courtesy MVVA

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.

A new playrgound at Pier 6, with Red Hook and Governor's Island beyond.

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.

Joggers and bench-sitters enjoying the promenade at sunset.

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.

A cove created by the former pilings of Pier 2 adjacent to Pier 1.

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.

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Adventure Central
Richard Dattner's Ancient Playground was one of two adventure playgrounds recently refurbished by the Central Park Conservancy
Courtesy Central Park Conservancy

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.”

A child plays in a water feature at the Ancient Playground.

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 West 100th Street playground, designed by Ross, Ryan, Jacquette Architects, has also been restored by the conservancy.

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.