The playground is a bit like the bastard child of architecture, art and city planning: no one wants to pay for them, they’re rarely properly looked after, and when they’re bulldozed, they’re forgotten and never properly memorialized. While playgrounds are sites for both architectural and artistic experimentation, few urban planners, architects or artists make a career out of designing them. Yet, the history of the playground – a social project born out of industrialization – cannot be downplayed, despite the lack of significant research on these sites as cultural phenomena.
The exhibition ‘Playground Project’, curated by Gabriele Burkhalter, offers a compact, albeit self-admittedly incomplete history of the playground throughout Europe and the US. The exhibition comprises mostly blown-up documentation printed onto the wall with edifying texts as well as recreated landmark playground projects, with which children are invited to play. This makes for a rather strange viewing experience, as most of the exhibition exists as wall text, which the viewer reads while children play in the background. (Have you ever tried to read a book on a playground? It’s not very conducive to concentration.) Kunsthalle Zurich director Daniel Baumann first showed a smaller version, also curated by Burkhalter, at his 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh after being inspired by Burkhalter’s research website architekturfuerkinder.ch.
Burkhalter’s playground history begins in the turn of the 19th century as immigration and industrialization wreaked havoc on living conditions in urban populations, and most acutely affected unsupervised children of the working class. Playgrounds became more commonplace in the 1930s, emblematizing the social reforms of that era, such as the New Deal. The playgrounds that started popping up in urban centres throughout America were both sorely needed and bare-bones in their construction: New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses built a plethora of playgrounds, but with unsightly and dangerous materials such as asphalt and steel pipes. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen conceived the idea for Skrammellegeplads, essentially construction site-playground hybrids that fostered children’s play by giving them old cars and bricks.
Later, advancements in child psychology promoted the concept of free play and creative learning. The mid-20th century saw artists collaborate with urban planners to -create playgrounds, their designs even being shown in museums such as MoMA. Between 1933 and 1966, Isamu Noguchi designed play landscapes for New York City parks. While none were constructed, their design documentation remains in the MoMA collection. In the 1960s and beyond, particularly in Europe, ‘Kunst am Bau’ or ‘percent for art’ programs brought artists into urban planning, commissioning them to develop atriums, courtyards and playgrounds for housing developments. In 1972, the giant, serpentine Lozziwurm, a plastic tube dotted with holes for children to crawl within and poke out of, was created by Zurich artist Yvan Pestalozzi, and subsequently mass-produced for over 100 playgrounds. The Lozziwurm was shown in the gallery to much fanfare from family visitors.
After the 1980s, playgrounds fell prey to that era’s commercialization and aversion to risk. Today, the playground is also a site, at least in the West, that emblematizes the paradoxical notion of protected play. We see historical developments embedded in the very materials making up playgrounds – wood and steel pipes being replaced by fall-breaking foam to prevent injuries. Further, as today’s children are stacked with tasks like learning Mandarin and toddler yoga, they have less time to play. When they do play, they are supervised in playground environments that are accident-prone – no fall hurts, there’s no ability to trip. It has come to the fore that an essential aspect of growing up is actually getting dirty, stumbling and taking risks in order to assess our surroundings and gain confidence. Burkhalter posits that our newest challenge seems to be to balance safety with creative license and freedom for kids. While Burkhalter’s exhibition presents a straightforward history of playgrounds as an experimental intertwining of architecture, art, and urban planning, the takeaway from this exhibition is that a child’s playtime, probably the most free state of being any of us can recall, is today highly mediated and regulated – a sad augury since, for adults, play is increasingly transmogrified into work.