Mid-Century Modern on the Playground

written by:
August 1, 2011

In honor of our family themed July/August issue, we've invited guest writer Paige Johnson, who spearheads the blog Playscapes, to share her perspective on some of the most innovative contemporary design targeted to kids. Week 4: Mid-Century Modern on the Playground.

 

The mid-century was an exciting time in playground design. In fact, the word "playscape" was first coined in 1959 to define a new type of playground that evolved from metal swings and slides to become modernistic play sculptures designed to relate to the user to the site in new ways. While the 1950s and 1960s focused on blending art and play, the 1970s emphasized self-built sites and adventure. Then, as now, there was discontent with manufactured solutions and two conflicting goals surrounding playgrounds: incorporating innovative design objects and encouraging self-building and interaction with natural materials. I hope that when historians look back on the play landscape of the early 21st century, it will look just as innovative and exciting as mid-century playscapes do to us now. Click through for a look at my favorite historic playground designs.

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  Modernist design principles came to the playground through the work of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck. When he began his work in 1947 there were few public playgrounds in Amsterdam.  When he finished thirty years later, he had constructed over 700 serene, minimalist play environments. Sometimes, as in these photos, he simply carved out a section of the street, giving children as much legitimacy in the city fabric as vehicles.Images from Aldo van Eyck, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, NAi Publishers, 2002.
    Modernist design principles came to the playground through the work of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck. When he began his work in 1947 there were few public playgrounds in Amsterdam. When he finished thirty years later, he had constructed over 700 serene, minimalist play environments. Sometimes, as in these photos, he simply carved out a section of the street, giving children as much legitimacy in the city fabric as vehicles.Images from Aldo van Eyck, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, NAi Publishers, 2002.
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  One of the fascinations of mid-century playgrounds is that so many eminent sculptors, artists, architects, and designers involved themselves in play. Foremost among them was Isamu Noguchi, whose 1952 design for a United Nations Playground in New York pinched and pulled the landscape to create new play forms. It was alas rejected, as was his collaborative project with Louis Kahn for another New York site.Image via Pruned.
    One of the fascinations of mid-century playgrounds is that so many eminent sculptors, artists, architects, and designers involved themselves in play. Foremost among them was Isamu Noguchi, whose 1952 design for a United Nations Playground in New York pinched and pulled the landscape to create new play forms. It was alas rejected, as was his collaborative project with Louis Kahn for another New York site.Image via Pruned.
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  Noguchi's designs overlap with the work of sculptor Robert Winston, who exhibited this thirty-foot long work at the California Garden Show in 1952.Image by Sandi Vincent via the blog Aqua-Velvet.
    Noguchi's designs overlap with the work of sculptor Robert Winston, who exhibited this thirty-foot long work at the California Garden Show in 1952.Image by Sandi Vincent via the blog Aqua-Velvet.
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  Around the same time in Europe, sculptor Egøn Möller-Nielsen was also creating biomorphic concrete structures for play. His Ägget (egg) is still a popular spot in Tessin Park in Stockholm.Image via Wikimedia Commons.
    Around the same time in Europe, sculptor Egøn Möller-Nielsen was also creating biomorphic concrete structures for play. His Ägget (egg) is still a popular spot in Tessin Park in Stockholm.Image via Wikimedia Commons.
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  The toy company Creative Playthings, Inc. brought Möller-Nielsen's work to the United States and included more concrete structures, like these 1954 installations in Philadelphia. In the same year they co-sponsored a play sculpture competition with the Museum of Modern Art. The turtle is one of the more common mid-century play designs, once found in playgrounds around the country.
    The toy company Creative Playthings, Inc. brought Möller-Nielsen's work to the United States and included more concrete structures, like these 1954 installations in Philadelphia. In the same year they co-sponsored a play sculpture competition with the Museum of Modern Art. The turtle is one of the more common mid-century play designs, once found in playgrounds around the country.
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  Joseph Brown wanted to re-establish play as "a preparation for the responsibilities of maturity", in which one child's motions affected others. Brown was a sculptor and a boxing professor at Princeton University. His boxing ring-inspired structures are the forerunners of today's tensile climbers.
    Joseph Brown wanted to re-establish play as "a preparation for the responsibilities of maturity", in which one child's motions affected others. Brown was a sculptor and a boxing professor at Princeton University. His boxing ring-inspired structures are the forerunners of today's tensile climbers.
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  While sculptors focused on designing better playground "parts," landscape architects began to emphasize the complete play landscape: a playscape. Robert Royston's California parks included pedal car freeways and "gopher holes." The freeways are gone, but you can still visit the gopher holes at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto.
    While sculptors focused on designing better playground "parts," landscape architects began to emphasize the complete play landscape: a playscape. Robert Royston's California parks included pedal car freeways and "gopher holes." The freeways are gone, but you can still visit the gopher holes at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto.
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  In France, François-Xavier Lalanne—known for designing a desk that looked like a rhinoceros—created a dreamlike playscape for a public housing project.Image by Jean François Noël.
    In France, François-Xavier Lalanne—known for designing a desk that looked like a rhinoceros—created a dreamlike playscape for a public housing project.Image by Jean François Noël.
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  Like Noguchi, filmmaker and graphic designer Saul Bass designed a never-built playscape. But its details, including both concrete forms and a timber climbing mount, show the desire to use both avant-garde forms and natural materials.Image by Sandi Vincent via the Aqua-Velvet.
    Like Noguchi, filmmaker and graphic designer Saul Bass designed a never-built playscape. But its details, including both concrete forms and a timber climbing mount, show the desire to use both avant-garde forms and natural materials.Image by Sandi Vincent via the Aqua-Velvet.
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  The most successful combination of the designed and the natural in the mid-century is the work of Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.Image from the archives of the Canadian Center for Architecture.
    The most successful combination of the designed and the natural in the mid-century is the work of Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.Image from the archives of the Canadian Center for Architecture.
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  Oberlander's playscape for the Canadian Pavilion at the 1967 Expo in Montreal included both indoor and outdoor classrooms, Op-Art manipulatives, screens made of musical instruments, loose building parts, a hill, tunnel, stream and rowboat! In three years of writing about playscapes, it stands out to me as one of the best ever.Image from the archives of the Canadian Center for Architecture.
    Oberlander's playscape for the Canadian Pavilion at the 1967 Expo in Montreal included both indoor and outdoor classrooms, Op-Art manipulatives, screens made of musical instruments, loose building parts, a hill, tunnel, stream and rowboat! In three years of writing about playscapes, it stands out to me as one of the best ever.Image from the archives of the Canadian Center for Architecture.
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  Over the decades, most mid-century playgrounds were destroyed due to overzealous interpretations of safety guidelines. An advocacy campaign saved the so-called "monsters" constructed by craftsman Benjamin Dominguez at La Laguna Park in San Gabriel, California, in 1965. Dominguez's playground design earned a spot on the California Register of Historic Places and a preservation grant. Demolition shouldn't be the only option for playgrounds that were built before current safety standards were written. If you have mid-century playground features in your community, save them before it's too late!  
For more information, visit friendsorlalaguna.org.
    Over the decades, most mid-century playgrounds were destroyed due to overzealous interpretations of safety guidelines. An advocacy campaign saved the so-called "monsters" constructed by craftsman Benjamin Dominguez at La Laguna Park in San Gabriel, California, in 1965. Dominguez's playground design earned a spot on the California Register of Historic Places and a preservation grant. Demolition shouldn't be the only option for playgrounds that were built before current safety standards were written. If you have mid-century playground features in your community, save them before it's too late! For more information, visit friendsorlalaguna.org.

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