Pre-Teen Modernists: THE PLAYGROUND PROJECT

When we imagine Utopia, it often looks like a playground. Yet play is not the end point of idealistic futurism, it is the push towards it. Experimentation is limited to what is physically tangible, whereas play allows things as banal as a tire-swing and monkey bars to become truly infinite in their potential. Playgrounds advocate for adventures in intellectual autonomy that allow us to think of leisure as a creative endeavor. As we see in the world of tech, many innovations start as toys before they end up as tools. This signals the idea that adulthood itself might be subject to its own planned obsolescence.

In The Playground Project, these quixotic playspaces become the focus of a direct architectural study. After the child labor reform of the early 1900s, millions of hours of adolescent energy became emancipated and left without a conduit. This “problem of free time” became a modernist design concern, leading to the proliferation of outdoor brutalist gymnasiums that grew to be more and more elaborate over the course of the 20th century.

Carl Theodor Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect profiled in the book, encouraged play to design itself. He set aside urban debris that became the supplies for children to make their own recreational jungles. These Skrammellegepladsen were originally met with opposition, as many parents did not want their children to get dirty. But Sørensen steadily advocated for the intellectual value of (re)creation, “How is building artwork in a sandbox really any different from doing the same in a studio?” In Japan, Mitsuru Senda’s vertigo-inducing structures asserted the idea of danger as a mode of play, refusing to separate the jungle gym from bona de skyscrapers.

This golden age of the playspace was inevitably brought to an end by the rise of home entertainment culture in the 80s and 90s. And with more advanced forms of media slowly depopulating city streets, The Playground Project urges us to reconsider this “problem of free time” before it turns into a midlife crisis.

The Playground Book is published by JRP|Ringier (Zurich, 2016).

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