In our March 2017 issue, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviews designs for three major New York parks and how they reconfigure the experience of city life in the twenty-first century. She has high praise for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, especially the 1.6 Children’s Playground. There she finds “the very democratic social condenser that only a great urban park can provide.” Fifty years ago, artists and architects reenvisioned the potential for playground design through the National Playground Sculpture Competition. Partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the competition was organized by the Corcoran Gallery’s School of Art, with editors and critics from Art in America sitting on the jury. We published the winning designs in our November-December 1967 issue, in a four-part survey in which Jay Jacobs examined “the new ploys in play.” We present the article in full below. —Eds.
After generations of neglect, the public playground is suddenly in the midst of a renascence as designers, sculptors, painters, and architects strive to create a new world of color, texture and form for toddlers.
“We know what works,” declared Robert Moses, the then New York City parks commissioner, in flatly rejecting designs for a children’s playground submitted to the United Nations by Isamu Noguchi in late 1951.
Of course, any New York parent or nursemaid could have told the commissioner that neither he nor his colleagues had the foggiest notion of what worked, and many of them did. They might as well have saved their breath. For another decade and a half, under the irresponsible stewardship of Mr. Moses and his equally medieval successor, the late Newbold Morris, the public playgrounds of New York City continued to “work” as they had for half a century. That is to say, to the discomfort, boredom and outright peril of generations of small children.
At least insofar as design was concerned, that decade and a half was the most revolutionary period this country has ever seen. The development of new materials, new techniques and new methods of production wrought radical changes in the appearance of nearly all our artifacts and radically altered our total environment. Fresh shapes, colors and textures met the eye everywhere. Technology outstripped art as the great innovator of form, and any latter-day Rip van Winkle emerging from a fifteen-year siesta would have recognized only—the city’s playgrounds.
In early 1966—in a world where most of the buildings were sheathed in glass and most women in vinyl, when athletes cavorted on synthetic turf and the shipping tanks of heavy industry resembled gigantic pop sculptures—the traditional design of playground equipment prevailed in all its timeless banality. The alliterative swing, seesaw, slide and sandbox were still gaily bedecked in the candy-box hues of a Federal penitentiary, were still rooted in dreary expanses of concrete or asphalt, were still introducing toddlers to the myriad delights of free-fall onto adamant surfaces, and were still stifling the natural desire of the child for imaginative play. Even the drinking fountains in the public recreation areas seemed designed to frustrate most children of playground age. Thus did the constipated program of Mr. Moses and his successor concern itself with “what works.”
For years irate mothers’ groups had demanded playground reform, while child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists suggested means whereby that reform could be effected. The demands and suggestions invariably were rebuffed. Softer, more resilient surfaces (sand, gravel, tanbark, rubber, etc.) were rejected as being too costly, too unsanitary or too vulnerable to vandalism (the protection of city property, it seems, took precedence over protection of young citizens). Safer, more imaginative play structures were dismissed as the crackpot schemes of impractical visionaries. Any recognition of the need of small children to burrow, hide or curl up in cozy surroundings was interrupted as the encouragement of teen-age sex (as if any encouragement were needed). And designs that even remotely resembled any art of this century were anathematized.
Then, with the appointment of Thomas P. F. Hoving (now director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) as parks commissioner, the situation abruptly changed. Hoving lost no time in letting it be known that he harbored a number of dangerous illusions. For openers, he seemed to find nothing immoral in the idea of a child’s having fun—and even having it in a public recreation area. Furthermore, he was determined to reduce casualty statistics in the city’s playgrounds by installing safer equipment and protective surfaces. Finally, he extended a hospitable welcome to contemporary artists and architects who might want to avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in the rejuvenation of the parks.
Hoving’s impact on the nation’s playground design cannot be evaluated with any accuracy, but obviously it has been enormous. Within months of his appointment, men and women—even the children themselves—were imbued with a sense of participation that has never been possible under previous administrations. Suddenly everyone seemed to be getting into the act-not only in New York City, but in urban areas across the nation.
THE CORCORAN COMPETITION
During the last few years an increasing number of artists have been exploring the latent possibilities of sculpture for children. This exploration, at least in part, has been abetted by a variety of entrepreneurs. Such shows, for example, as Art in America’s 1965 toys-by-artists project exhibited at the American Greetings showroom, Pepsi-Cola’s annual Yuletide conversion of its lobby into a funhouse, and the exhibition “Sculptor’s Toys,” held at the Royal Marks Gallery a couple of seasons back, produced several pieces that would have been standouts in any public playground. Recently, the Corcoran Gallery’s School of Art got onto the bandwagon in a big way by sponsoring a National Playground Sculpture Competition. Financed by the National Endowment for the Arts (with matching funds provided by private patrons), the competition attracted several hundred entries. (The Corcoran and Art in America jointly invited the artists and acted as jury.) Eventually, five artists were asked to submit quarter-scale models, reproduced in these pages. The jury then chose Colin Greenly’s Wishbone House (see cover and below) for installation in a Washington playground.
Colin Greenly: “The piece was executed specially for the competition inasmuch as the work I have shown previously would in no way be appropriate for the location contemplated. I considered the problem in this order: playground; sculpture; climb on; climb in; sit on; shade essential; minimum upkeep; maximum shape; minimum cost; reproducibility.”
Mark di Suvero conceived his Soft Space Probe as “a rotating balanced toy for an interpersonal kinesthetic relationship which is capable of gyrating circularly, elliptically up and down. The basic structural components are bent tubes, and the under-lying principle is to keep the toy’s center of gravity below the point of suspension. Color has been chosen to match contact, which is physical, violent and joyous, and has training potential for nausea-conditioning (vertigo)—the prime condition of an esthetic to modern life.”
Tony Berlant: “The interior of this structure presents a maze of close-fitting towers that a child can explore by carefully maneuvering through the narrow passages. In moving slowly through the piece he is involved with the visual experience of reflections of himself and the exterior landscape, and…[has] a sudden awareness of his own scale. The size of the passage creates a world in which his own body size becomes crucial and uniquely appropriate.”
Lyman Kipp: “The challenge of creating a piece of sculpture for a playground brings into focus ever-present sculptural problems which need not be as clearly defined under non-functional conditions… When you work specifically for children, the exploration of spatial relations becomes a primary consideration. This piece was the result of a series of studies using closed masses as the terrain for action as well as open interior spaces as a means of encouraging active participation in the physicality of the sculpture.”
Roger Bolomey: “Phoebe is an outgrowth of new sculptural form with which I have been working for over a year. I had only to transpose some of my concepts to the child’s world—from blocks and angular columns to the in-and-out environment so conducive to a child’s fantasy. Boxes and crates are always rich sources of play to a child; he transforms them into nests, houses, castles, cars, trucks, trains, ships. Blocks and angular columns, gutted out, make boxes with no bottoms. Boxes with no bottoms assembled together open up all kinds of possibilities.”
PROPHET WITHOUT HONOR
One major sculptor who did not participate in the Corcoran competition was Isamu Noguchi, who as long ago as 1934 tried to convince an obdurate Robert Moses of the necessity for playground reform, and who has been fighting City Hall ever since. With many of his pioneering ideas now being brought to fruition by latecomers, Noguchi is understandably bitter about his experiences as a would-be designer of American playgrounds. In reply to the Corcoran’s invitation, Noguchi had this to say:
“I am flattered by your invitation to enter the competition for Playground sculpture. However, if I may briefly review the history of my interest in playgrounds, you will understand that it is difficult for me to do so. I first exhibited a model for ‘Play Mountain’ in 1934, at which time I consulted with Mr. Robert Moses about it. To be constantly opposed by him over the years was at least psychologically bearable, although he did succeed in preventing anything from being done, such as the ‘Contoured Playground’ in 1940 and the ‘U.N. Playground’ in 1952.
“With the change of park commissioner I was prevailed upon to try again, this time with [the Parks Department’s] full cooperation. Five years with the collaboration of Mr. Louis Kahn [the architect] ensued, with all problems met. We were about to proceed [with a playground on Riverside Drive] when the new Lindsay administration went back to the same opposition I have endured for so long. [Actually, the opposition was not in this case to Noguchi’s designs, but was the result of a purely political issue involving the right of private patrons to set up a monument to an individual on public property.] You will understand, I hope, that the spirit can eventually be broken.
“I do not doubt that the cause will now bloom. It almost seems as though they had to get rid of me in order to give others the creative conceptions which were mine. For me start all over again in entering a competition is more than I can bear…I have many models of…play sculptures…conceived as part of a play landscape. To enter these for recognition at this late date does me no honor.”
Noguchi, who has won international distinction not only as a sculptor, but also as an architect and industrial designer as well, was among the first to recognize the need for playground facilities that would make possible a continuum of play experience in an ambience of total design—an approach that contrasted sharply with the conventional notion of isolated pieces of equipment (each geared to a single, specific, imagination-restriction function) spotted aimlessly about a nonscape. (Earlier, the visionary Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi had explored similar possibilities, but in a somewhat more tentative fashion.) In the last year or two, the ideas that Noguchi put forward three decades ago have become the commonplace of advanced playground architecture, most notably in the award-winning designs of M. Paul Friedberg Associates (Jacob Riis Park, Bedford-Stuyvesant Vest Pocket Park) and in Richard Dattner’s Estee and Joseph Lauder Foundation playground in Central Park. As a playground designer, Noguchi is still a prophet without honor in his own country. A Noguchi playground, Kodomo No Kuni (“Children’s Land”), was installed recently in a more sympathetic Japan, however—although its design is not as radical as were earlier models for playgrounds Noguchi attempted without success to build in New York City.
THE PLAYGROUND EXPLOSION
With new concepts in playground design in sudden demand, new forms, textures, colors and materials are appearing in parks everywhere. In place of the conventional unpainted steel devices that have for so long disfigured urban play areas (and their users), cast concrete, timber, plastics, anodized aluminum—and water—are now in extensive use. One of the more imaginative design programs has been the Pepsi-Cola Company’s commissioning of Jerry Lieberman Associates to construct a playground entirely of exiting industrial equipment. The resultant “Playscape” (which was installed last spring at Riverside Park and Eighty-third Streeet in New York) is made up of fiberglass and polyethylene containers, fiberglass vaulting poles, chemical storage tanks (left) and industrial conveyor slides.
Imagination of another sort went into “Play Sculpture Garden” built in the summer of 1966 by the Henry Street Settlement. Here, neighborhood youngsters were encouraged to participate in the design and construction of their own playground equipment. This sense of participation is also encouraged wherever practicable by M. Paul Friedberg, one of the best of the rapidly proliferating erop of young playground architects. By employing neighborhood labor, Friedberg’s projects not only assist the local economy, but help to instill a sense of pride and achievement that, incidentally, tends to inhibit the vandalism so feared by reactionary playground administrators.
Although sculptors are being increasingly encouraged to experiment with playground design, the mere participation of a noted sculptor is no guarantee of good results. Jose de Creeft’s Alice in Wonderland group in Central Park, for example, is from every standpoint one of the most atrociously misconceived devices in existence. In a piece that almost screams for color, children are treated to the anachronistic patination of the nineteenth-century pigeon perch. The climbing surfaces are dangerously slippery, sizzle like short-order griddles in summer, and are cold enough to freeze the ears off a bronze rabbit in winter. The spiky protuberances at the upper left are ideal for the snagging of clothes and the poking out of wide young eyes, and the whole lamentable enterprise is at once too literal to stimulate the imagination and too “undreadable” for a literal piece.
The main trouble with Costantino Nivola’s horses is their specificity. Decent enough as sculptural horses, they remain sculptural horses, immutable and eternal, and have little appeal for the kid who wants to play astronaut, race driver or fireman.
Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Playground designed by Charles Forberg, is at once an effective recreation area and an “object” of considerable esthetic integrity. The project, one of three experimental playgrounds sponsored by the Museum of Modern art and its junior Council, in collaboration with New York City’s Housing Authority and Park Association, was completed last May. At night, the playground is illuminated radially from the center, and serves as a decorative centerpiece for the surrounding houses.
Richard Dattner’s Estee and Joseph Lauder Foundation playground in Central Park, also opened last May, provides toddlers with a variety of thrills while minimizing the risk of injury. One of the best examples of intelligent design around, its single conceivable flaw is a paucity of color—a lack that none of the thousands of laughing youngsters who use it has been heard to remark upon.
THE ARTIST AS DESIGNER
Despite a somewhat dim view taken of their activities by professional playground architects, the number of unaffiliated sculptors and painters who dabble in the design of play equipment increases space. The complaint of most architects is that the artist has little concept of the playground as an environment, but simply sees it as space in which to exhibit individual pieces. Their views were borne out to some extent by the installation of William Accorsi’s play equipment in New York’s Union Square (above, with new Parks Commissioner August Heckscher in the saddle)—an installation that leaves the visitor wondering whether he’s come to a playground or a one-man show of junk sculpture. (Incidentally, if Accorsi’s sculpture wasn’t junk when it was installed, it soon became definable as such; three weeks after they were deposited on the site, most of the pieces were hors de combat.) The sculptor Paul von Ringelheim, on the other hand, designs playgrounds not just play equipment. Robert Howard’s Wobble Joust is an outstanding example of isolated sculpture that is admirable from both functional and esthetic standpoints. Francois Dallegret’s electronically operated Mimisonic, in which music is produced by body movements, is a more sophisticated treatment of the Pepsi-Cola tank theme.
THE DESIGNER AS ARTIST
M. Paul Friedberg’s Bedford-Stuyvesant playgrounds are a vociferous exponent of the playground-as-continuous-environment concept. Of late, Friedberg has worked increasingly with low-cost prefabricated modular units that can be arranged in limitlessly varied compositions. He has also devoted a good deal of thought to the “movable” playground—the playground that can be set up on a site available only for a limited time, and then be dismantled and reerected somewhere else. While he welcomes the collaboration of painters and sculptors, Friedberg believes they should subordinate their ambitions to the overall concept of the architect.