Category Archives: extraordinary playground

Chilean Miners Playground – Industrial Ingenuity

Otherworldly with a touch of the surreal describes some unique play structures that sit quietly in Chuquicamata, a former mining town in northern Chile. Located in the Atacama desert, the most arid on the planet, Chuqui is encircled by foothills of slag and tailings from nearly 100 years of mineral exploitation. The small town was an oasis of humanity surrounded by industrial waste on a massive scale. The community was shut down in 2007 because of significant environmental degradation. The people of Chuqui were relocated to Calamar although mining continues at what is the world’s largest open pit copper operation.

Hats off again to flickr and its contributing photographers. A search for ‘juegos infantiles’ pulled up a few thousand photos from South America, Spain and Portugal. These are the jewels – heavy gauge playground equipment from an abandoned town. Many thanks to Carlos Borlone Leuquén aka Mi otra carne in flickrville for sharing these photos.

We’ll never see equipment like this coming out of the Little Tikes design labs. This industrial folklore speaks to beauty through transforming a harsh landscape, to ingenuity through using materials at hand, to love through creating a space like no other to dream and play. This is innovative design infused with poetic vision.

There were other playgrounds in Chuqui with the standard swings and slides and roundabouts but nothing else as imaginative as these pieces.

Check here for more Chuqui playground structures.

Chile’s Nobel Laureate poet, Pablo Neruda writes starkly of Chuqui and the political struggles associated with mining in a poem included in the Canto General collection written decades prior to the nationalization of the mine by the Allende government.

Anaconda Mining Co.

Name of a coiled snake,
insatiable gullet, green monster,
in the clustered heights,
in my country’s rarefied
saddle, beneath the moon
of hardness–excavator–
you open the mineral’s
lunar craters, the galleries
of virgin copper, sheathed
in its granite sands.

In Chuquicamata’s eternal
night, in the heights,
I’ve seen the sacrificial fire burn,
the profuse crackling
of the cyclops that devoured the Chileans’ hands, weight
and waist, coiling them
beneath its copper vertebrae,
draining their warm blood,
crushing their skeletons
and spitting them out in the
desolate desert wastelands.

Air resounds in the heights
of starry Chuquicamata.
The galleries annihilate
the planet’s resistance
with man’s little hands,
the gorges’ sulphuric bird
trembles, the metal’s
iron cold mutinies
with its sullen scars,
and when the horns blast
the earth swallows a procession
of minuscule men who descend
to the crater’s mandibles.

They’re tiny captains,
my nephews, my children,
and when they pour the ingots
toward the seas, wipe
their brows and return shuddering
to the uttermost chill,
the great serpent eats them up,
reduces them, crushes them,
covers them with malignant spittle,
casts them out to the roads,
murders them with police,
sets them to rot in Pisagua,
imprisons them, spits on them,
buys a trecherous president
who insults and persecutes them,
kills them with hunger on the plains
of the sandy immensity.

And on the infernal slopes
there’s cross after twisted cross,
the only kindling scattered
by the tree of mining.

As Chuqui was being shut down, Jay Heinz shot a documentary Chuqui: The Life and Death of Mining Town.

Now world attention is focused on another Chilean mine and the well being of 33 miners trapped 700 metres underground at the San José mine in Copiapo. Their rescue is still weeks if not months away. May all go well for these brave men and their families.

All photos by C. Leuquén aka Mi otra carne.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Go Tell it on the Mountain – Montréal’s Salamander Playground

There’s shade on the mountain and sometimes a soft silky breeze blows a refreshing kiss. These are welcome blessings in one of North America’s finest festival cities where summer’s sticky drip calls out for relief and release. If the kids are not already hot enough, they can work up some steam and then cool down at a new playground opened in 2009 in Montréal’s Mount Royal Park.

In the splash, paddle and run zone, timed jets of water arc into the air from embedded nozzles and a watery film gently bathes a stationary orb. The playground flows through a dip in a small glade in an unhurried meander. Bordered on one side by a sweep of trees, it then opens onto a modest plain lush with grass and shade.

A bird’s eye view shows that the playground’s outline takes the form of a stylized salamander. Two black climbing rocks serve as the amphibian’s eyes and four play zones are housed in the front and rear footprints. This representation pays tribute to the blue spotted salamander a native species that finds some respite in this green urban oasis where it is on a protected list.

The equipment here is atypical. If it isn’t flash-of-fun, kid powered motion, then the kids have to scrabble over, through, or around it. The architecture, landscape and urban design firm CHA (Cardinal Hardy) did their homework sourcing the material for this playscape. Some pieces like the tilted spinning platter originate in Germany. Others, like the orbular fountain, were created by CHA’s Bao-Chau Nguyen who also designed the rustic log benches. The black shine meteoric rocks were tracked down in California. The result is a unique play experience, a blend of climbing, whirling, balancing and spinning far from the city’s madding crowds and traffic.

Click for slide show

Aside from the exquisite location, it is the equipment and its thoughtful placement that really sets this playground apart. Getting just the right mix was an important objective.

“We wanted things that kids could say, ‘oh, that’s different, what can I do with this?’ It wasn’t the regular slides, or swings that we were looking for. We were really after pieces that could be used in multiple ways encouraging discovery and a little experimentation. The spinning platter is a good example. You can sit on it, walk on it, lay flat on your belly.” – Isabelle Giasson, CHA Project Manager

As with all new development in the Park, this project had to be sensitive to the already existing landscapes as envisioned in the 19th century by the granddaddy of urban green space designers, Frederic Olmsted. In comparison with the riotous colours of the 1960s era playspace that preceded it, Salamander playground is a study in muted, minimalist tones of silver, blue and black and softly curving contemporary shapings.

In addition to high performance equipment and a design that mimics the natural flow of vertical and horizontal axes, Salamander Playground features another distinguishing element. Embedded in the pathways and benches throughout the playground are images and excerpts of text that tell the story of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child as elaborated and promoted by UNICEF.

Article 6 (Survival and development): Children have the right to live. Governments should ensure that children survive and develop healthily. The Convention on the Rights of the Child

This is the first public space in the world where images and text have been used side by side to tell the story of children’s rights. The images by artist Gérard Dansereau temper the seriousness of the message with a breath of lightness, splashes of colour and an invitation to play. Montréal now joins Massongex, Switzerland and Luxembourg as cities with Rights of the Child commemorative paths.

The Salamander Playground and the Path for Children’s Rights were officially opened on May 25, 2009 at a combined cost of $2.2 million. In 2010, CHA were presented with a Regional Merit Award for this project by the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.

This playscape has rapidly become a destination for Montréalers. Two visits were not enough for me. I’m looking forward to my next trek up the mountain perhaps in the summer of 2011. Maybe this time I’ll get up enough nerve to dash through the fountains and try out some of the equipment myself – a little adult playground therapy. What are we grown-ups to do, is it just vicarious fun for us?

If you visit on a Sunday from May through September check out the free drumming fest from noon to dusk. This is truly tam-tam a go-go.

All photos by A. Smith with the exception of aerial Salamander Playground shot by Marc Cramer.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

So, you want to go play in a lagoon with monsters? Have I got the place for you. It’s not on the bayou, no endangered mangrove swamps at risk and no flora or fauna about to die off though the playground itself was threatened with extinction in the very recent past.

As for the ‘monsters’, well they’re of the friendliest aquatic variety – whales, dolphins, sea serpents and an octopus are amongst the cast of starring anthropomorphic beauties. They’ve been lapping up adoring caresses from kids for over 45 years.

The idea of historic playgrounds isn’t something that’s discussed much at all. It’s really interesting in the preservation community to try and talk about protecting a resource that’s so heavily used by children and is being climbed all over. You still have to make sure it’s safe and that nobody is coming in harm’s way. By seeking a historic designation for La Laguna, we are trying to find a way for playgrounds that are inherently non-compliant, because they were built before the current standards existed, to be as safe as they can be.

Senya Lubisich, President, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

Back in the mid-1960s Frank Carpenter knew how to pick a winner. As San Gabriel, California’s Parks and Recreation Director, Carpenter took the road less traveled by. In doing so, he likely assumed a little professional risk, a risk that continues to bring joy a couple of generations down the road.

On Carpenter’s recommendation, the City of San Gabriel contracted Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez to create a playscape for the city’s children in a new municipal park. Carpenter was familiar with Dominguez’s work in two other California locations and believed the distinctiveness of a sculptured public play space would become a valuable community asset.

The rest is history. La Laguna, aka Monster Park, aka Dinosaur Park officially opened for play on May 16, 1965. The kids haven’t looked back. Late boomers, gen Xers and gen Ys all had a chance to graze knees and elbows while learning to climb and balance on the creamy, pastel coloured sculptures. The magic of play lives on through today’s kids. Their imaginations animate La Laguna paying tribute to Dominguez’s artistic vision.

I do not have a memory of my childhood without La Laguna. I’ve been going there since I was one, all my life. This place is amazing, it’s an experience that transcends. People just stand in awe. I always try to explain to adults okay you’re 30, or you’re 40, or 50. Now, just imagine for a moment that you are five and you’re here in the middle of all this.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, FoLL

All was well in this sculptured paradise until the City decided in 2006 that La Laguna had outlived its best before date. Plans were made to replace it with a more modern playground to be built to current safety code specifications. Enter the dynamic husband and wife duo of Eloy Zarate and Senya Lubisich, two local history professors, who made it their mission to rally public opinion, build a team of concerned citizens and lead the charge to save and preserve this playground as a unique cultural landscape.


The Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) was formed in the fall of 2006. In January 2007, the City and FoLL agreed to work together through a Memorandum of Understanding entitled “Assessment and Conservation Proposal for La Laguna de San Gabriel”. This MOU was the cornerstone of ongoing collaboration to ensure the preservation and protection of the existing La Laguna play area for continued use.

We learned that Monster Park was going to be removed so we decided to make some noise. We gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition. It was really heartening to see how the community responded.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Senya and Eloy are passionate about their commitment to protecting this living history. Their excitement about the cause is infectious. They are so familiar with the subject matter, so immersed in the strategies to present a winning case that speaking with them is like having a tag team conversation – where one leaves off, the other picks up.

The city was looking at the playground and its viability and thought it would be easier to just demolish it and build something new that was compliant. It never occurred to them that it was anything other than a playground – that it could be art, or that it was unique, or rare in terms of the experience it afforded. So there was a lot of different battles that we had to fight.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Four years and thousands of volunteer hours later, the Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) have championed their cause with the City of San Gabriel and the State of California. There has been a stay of execution and a renaissance of community spirit.

Both Senya and Eloy see their commitment to La Laguna as part of the broader civic engagement and service that college professors are encouraged to bring to their communities. Eloy’s students now have an internship possibility to work at the park and to help the community do things it doesn’t have the funds, or resources to do itself.

Lots of help has been offered along the way – students who participated in door-to-door awareness campaigns, contractors who have helped unravel the mysteries of safety codes, conservation and preservation professionals who examined historic playgrounds as a new concept, public sector officials who opened doors, sponsors and of course kids who wanted to play.

FoLL succeeded in reversing the demolition plans through a combination of research, community engagement and advocacy. Senya has written an article outlining their approach that will appear in an upcoming issue of Forum, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Key elements of the strategy include:

1. Be prepared – do your homework, do your research, understand the subject matter. Leave no stone unturned;

2. Mobilize public opinion and demonstrate that community support can make a difference;

3. Build a strong and duly constituted organization with board members who possess a broad range of skill sets;

4. Define the key challenges and offer solutions. Frame the solutions, not the challenges, as the reference points for discussion and debate;

5. Identify your allies and seek their support, draw on their knowledge and strengths.

The Historic Structures Report and Preservation Plan and Appendices are FoLL’s key research pieces. This is ground zero in the ‘be prepared’ category and they’re really worth a read for anyone interested in playground conservation. The report and appendices cover a lot of territory – historical overview, architectural evaluation, conditions assessment and project objectives along with photos of all Dominguez’s pieces. They are the reference documents for FoLL’s ongoing La Laguna campaign.

When the fight to save La Laguna got out of the starting blocks, it pitted a small non-profit organization going head to head with the local government. Hard work, creativity and community support brought city hall on side.

Once we were able to figure out what their arguments were, we were able to offer solutions. We would hold them accountable so that they had to answer to the solution not to whatever barrier they had thrown out. They can’t sit there and say safety when we’ve provided all these alternate ways to mitigate the safety issue. They have to respond to what we’ve proposed. That keeps the dialogue going and it really holds them accountable to work with their community.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Safety, safety standards and liability are recurring issues that FoLL continues to address. These issues make legislators and elected representatives nervous. Part of FoLL’s strategy has been to distinguish between safety and liability. FoLL’s assessment and the safety record indicate that the pieces are safe. They were built for children with safety in mind and are not inherent hazards.The fact that they don’t comply to modern standards is what increases liability.

This is the most difficult argument that we’ve had to make and it’s still comes up in every talk that we have. We always have to say that something being unsafe by code doesn’t make it dangerous or hazardous. Then eyes glaze over because people don’t make the distinction between those things. But they are legal distinctions between something being unsafe, being hazardous and being risky. We have to say wait a second – nobody has been hurt here for 40 years.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

There are no records of injuries at any of the playgrounds created by Benjamin Dominguez. From FoLL’s perspective, it’s critical to separate out what is a hazard and what is a risk. FoLL is committed to eliminating hazards. There are skills that children have to master to be able to play on some of the equipment and sometimes that requires supervision. In the absence of supervision risk may increase but it is a parental responsibility to be there to help children test and learn their limits. That should be part of every park experience.

FoLL and the citizens of San Gabriel have plenty to smile about these days. In 2009, La Laguna was entered in the California Register of Historic Places – a first for a playground. In early May of this year, FoLL hosted a picnic as part of the L.A. Conservancy’s The Sixties Turn 50 series of events. It was the perfect opportunity to celebrate their $250,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE). Prospects are also looking good for Bill AB 2701 to be adopted into State law over the coming year. The intent of the bill is to place playgrounds that are designated to be culturally, or historically significant under the jurisdiction of the State Historical Building Code. This would provide for greater flexibility while still addressing safety concerns.

La Laguna was the last playground Benjamin Dominguez created. Through concerted community action it will now be a going concern for years to come. The preservation of this asset has struck a chord across the nation. Other communities are consulting FoLL for direction on saving their own ageing playgrounds. Bravo to FoLL and San Gabriel for leading the way. Hopefully more playscapes will be saved from the wrecking ball.

Saving, and now restoring, La Laguna has become a real family affair for Senya, Eloy and their four children. The project has touched many lives and the family just keeps on getting bigger. Witness the growing Friends of La Laguna Facebook page.

Dinosaur Park is a creative experience without rival for our children. It’s a whole different type of play. You really do feel like you’ve crossed into another world, you’ve sort of left a park and gone into a fantasy lagoon. It’s really evident in the way that they play.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

The Friends of La Laguna are in the midst of a $1.2 million capital campaign for their ongoing restoration and preservation work. Information on donating is available here.

If you can’t get their yourself – I’m looking forward to the day that I can – you can get an idea of what FoLL has been fighting for in the two videos that follow.

The first is a community perspective -

The second is a TV report -

Photo credits

1. Stella the Starfish and Sammy the Snail Slide, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

2. Sea Serpent, Friends of La Laguna

3. Minnie the Whale, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

4. Dolphin Family, Friends of La Laguna

5. Lighthouse Dragon Slide, Friends of La Laguna

6. Ozzie the Octupus, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

7. Lookout Mountain, circa 1966, photo by Ron Brown, City of San Gabriel Archives

8. Friends of La Laguna Facebook photo album

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

The Young Kids and the Sea

“Lobster,” cries out Noah enthusiastically.

“I’ve got another one,” Nellie shouts into a gust of wind.

They are a crew of two, 50 metres from the shoreline, scrabbling across the grass and scooping up lobsters in their tiny hands. Dressed for the occasion, they are well bundled in rain slicks to protect them from buffeting northwesters.

Noah and Nellie continue with their imaginary harvest as a cloud of screeling gulls hovers over L’étoile du nord chugging through the passage in the breakwater. We watch the crew bring in a catch of fresh lobster after hauling traps for most of the morning from the cold waters of the gulf. Just behind us is a fish factory. We are in the thick of it.

Play imitating life.

We are in a playground adjacent to the fishing harbour of L’Étang-du-nord in Les Îles de la Madeleine - Magdalen Islands – a small archipelago of dunes, dips and hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Canada’s east coast. Not everyone here is a fisherman but with $50 million (Cdn.) in annual revenues, it’s the most important sector of the local economy.

During our short stay, we come across two lovingly crafted fishing boat playspaces. One trumpets the bright colours of Acadie – blue, red and yellow. She’s built to scale and could hold plenty of stacked traps on her aft deck.

The kids run stem to stern. It’s a perpetual movement show with dollops of laughter and snatches of conversation sailing on the wind. Stomping through the wheelhouse and leaning over the bow they look out on their ocean of pretend.

This is a popular spot with the two newest crew members of the Étang-du-nord fishing fleet and we return for a second visit of imaginative play. The chilly weather is not a deterrent. The life size prop for make believe is a powerful magnet.

It’s much the same excitement at another boat 15 kms. to the south in Havre-Aubert. This is a fishing vessel too situated at the end of the historic La Grave stretch, a short swath of street modestly festooned with eateries, purveyors of art and a variety of artisanal fare. The boat borders a boardwalk on the protected harbour side. Across the road behind the storefronts we hear roiling high tide breakers hitting a ribbon of beach.

This vessel has more accessories – two slides, a tire swing and an orange buoy suspended from a rope that can be a bouncy ride, or an over-sized tether ball. The kids are in fine fettle – climbing, swinging, slip, sliding away. They flow between the three levels of play each taking turns as captain in the wheelhouse.

Up on the lookout level, I overhear talk of pirates and a whispered shiver me timbers. The mateys are a popular play theme since the recent purchase of a second hand toy pirate ship. Fortunately there’s no re-enactment of walking the plank. Below decks we find shelter for baby Lila from the rushing wind. She sits quietly, oblivious to the hurly burly circling around her.

Both communities have chosen playgrounds that are reflections of themselves. The real world ‘equipment’ leaves full rein for the imagination. The boats are a wonderful gift for us come-from-awayers as they help us connect with the place and learn through play.

They are not of the mass production mould. Their look and character are intrinsically their own. The world of play would be a much better place with more of these vernacular playgrounds that celebrate local culture and history. PlayGroundology is on the lookout for these kind of playspaces to share with readers. Drop us a line if you know of a place that fits the bill.

We have to leave the wind and waves behind and take the five hour ferry crossing back to Prince Edward Island. We didn’t come to les Îles for the playgrounds and it’s not these two wonderful boat spaces that will pull us back. When we do return though, we know there will be two playspaces inviting the kids to come sail away on blustery day, high sea adventures.


All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis

Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace isn’t really dead. That lovable imp’s mischievous adventures are immortalized in syndicated comic strips around the world.

There’s a Facebook paean to a Monterey, California playground that bears his name – I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived! Nearly 7,000 members extoll the heart pounding excitement and traces of terror they associate with this unique and creative play space that opened in 1956. Through photos, discussion groups and the wall, they share their memories of fun, fear and folly.

Daniel Annereau created the Facebook group after some some childhood reminiscing at the playground during a visit home over Christmas 2008. He was in mourning at the passing of virtually all of the playground’s original, read ‘fun’ play structures. They had been removed and replaced with more anodyne fare.

After asking his mother and a quick Google failed to turn up much in the way of visual images of the playground’s heyday, he put the Facebook group together with a call to action:

Does your mother have a shoebox in the attic with pictures of those terrible contraptions that have been removed and are probably now in some Monterey City Official’s backyard?

Yes? Then this group is for you!

Find those photos! Scan them! Post them! Show the world how EXTREME your childhood was!

The playground has inspired a loyal and devoted fan base that spans three generations. For the kids of Monterey and envrions, this was the playground. It was synonymous with derring-do, high jinks and a dash of danger. “It was a scene,” recalls Daniel who grew up in nearby Pacific Grove . “It was kind of like a theme park. Right next to it there was a ball field and there was a snack shack with things like hot dogs, nachos and snow cones. It was the place to be all summer long.”

It was a playscape like no other. What set it apart was the customized equipment and Arch Garner’s design. Like its namesake it had a bit of an edge – let’s call it that Dennis je ne sais quoi factor. If someone were looking for a blueprint for an extreme playground, this one, in its original state, would have been a good model.

“My parents took me all the time,” remembers Daniel. “We’d have birthdays there. It was a treat, like a personal amusement park. There were quite a few places where you really could hurt yourself too. There was an element of danger. I kind of respect my parents just for taking me and letting me figure out the physics of it all.”


The adrenalin charged ‘helicopter’ ride gets frequent mentions on the Facebook page. From all accounts it was not for the faint of heart. The pulse quickening ride that fueled narrow brushes with bodily injury was a favourite for many of Dennis’ acolytes.

“…the one that spun around on an axis as fast as the big kids could make it go, & to catch a ride you had to be able to jump up way high & grab a metal bar of some kind while ducking the numerous arms, legs, heads, & various other body parts (mostly still attached) of successful riders holding on for dear life– that was sposed to be a helicopter ?? ….Whatever it was, god it was irresistible; I know I left more’n a drop or two of my own blood at its feet, & couldn’t wait to go back for more punishment….”

Marie Dubois

There were other pieces of equipment – like the roller slide – that might look more at home on a factory production line. Whether they were hair raising, or just a little tamer, this is the kind of stuff that most kids can only dream of playing on.

In addition to uncovering some photos of the playground with its original play structures, Daniel was interested in making some social commentary on the changing nature of play. “There’s an element of learning for kids to understand their limits and a responsibility for parents to make sure the kids are okay while still giving them that freedom to learn. It seems now that there is a lot of litigiousness in our society with parents suing over things that are just life,” says Daniel. “I’m sure that one of the driving forces for taking out all the equipment was for the city to feel protected, so they can’t be sued.”

Daniel, is one of tens of thousands who have fond and vibrant memories of the Dennis the Menace playground that was. He laments the fact that kids today don’t have the same kind of opportunities for play. “I learned so much about my limits from that park. I was just as scared of getting hurt as anyone. I didn’t feel invincible or anything. It’s great for kids to play like that. I thank my parents for taking me.”

Winding up our conversation, Daniel asks if there are any movements afoot to provide kids with more creative opportunities for play, He’s happy to hear about Adventure Playgrounds and Imagination Playgrounds and recalls hearing about an Adventure Playground in the San Franciso Bay Area where he currently lives.

As I’m writing this post it dawns on me that I’ve forgotten to ask Daniel about his favourite play structure and his most terrifying moment in the old playground. So Daniel, how about it, were you another ride of death aficionado? Post a comment and let us know.

Thanks to Daniel, Dennis, Hank Ketcham and Arch, I now know that there’s been a lot more happening in Monterey than John Steinbeck.

Check out the Facebook group for more on this interesting piece of pop culture Americana play.

The Dennis the Menace Playground is still a going concern run and operated by the City of Monterey. According to those who lived and breathed the excitement of the original play structures, the current version is a pale comparison. For kids who never knew the original, they’re sure to have a lot of fun even if it’s less edgy. A .pdf map and brief history of the playground are available on the city’s website.

Image sources

    Top image – The official website for Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace
    Bottom image – City of Monterey website
    All other images – I Played at the Dennis the Menace Park and Lived Facebook

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

Playground, a Tom Otterness sculpture cum anthropomorphic architecture, cum dreamy play area is a reclining behemoth. The gentle giant is a whirl of fun and fancy, an open invitation for children to play and for adults to rekindle a spark of childlike wonderment. The New York City iteration of the limited edition series is nestled between One River Place and Silver Towers on West 42nd St. between 11th and 12th Avenues, not too far from the Hudson River in Manhattan. The park where it is located is scheduled to open in the spring of 2010 as reported in this New York Times article where a photo shows it in situ.

For scale, think of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Otterness’ creation is of such gargantuan proportions that kids can slide down its lower legs and one of its arms. A swing hangs from its flexed knees and the figure’s head is hollow allowing for a pint-sized observation deck looking out on the world below from an elevation of nearly 20 feet. There are also numerous tiny size people interspersed throughout the installation that will endear themselves to the toddler set.

For imaginative élan, dream if you will of a fourth adventurer for Dorothy and Toto on their way to Oz. The Bronze Guy, heart bursting with the echoing laughter of children, could be The Tin Man’s long lost cousin. I can see him rising up and imparting his gentle, rough and tumble wisdom, a boon companion as they progress along the yellow brick road.

Manhattan developer Larry Silverstein purchased the sculpture as a unique signature piece for his West 42nd St. properties. He stumbled across an image through a Marlborough Gallery catalogue. He made some inquiries and discovered that the installation was conceived as a series of six editions. Three are owned by private collectors. One collector has two, one each for houses in Florida and Cape Cod. The third calls Aspen, Colorado home. Silverstein travelled to Cape Cod to view that edition up close and personal. He loved it and wasted no time in purchasing the fourth edition of Playground for a Manhattan installation.

I loved it too when I first saw a photo of the sculpture in The New York Times in early January. Being a man of much more modest means than Mr. Silverstein, acquisition of the 5th or 6th editions is not an option. I have no doubt though that it would spice up the backyard and make our kids giddy with disbelief, overcome with excitement.

I settled for contacting Otterness’ studio and asked if an image of the sculpture could be used for the masthead of PlayGroundology. I also requested an interview for PlayGroundology’s inaugural post. I got an affirmative on both.

Tom’s voice was immediately warm and inviting as he explained that Playground’s origins could be traced back to a public art competition sponsored by the City of Milwaukee. He didn’t get the nod for the commission but kept the computer boards because he liked the project and a significant amount of work had already been completed in the concept, design and modelling stages.

A private collector came through Otterness’ studio accompanied by his pregnant wife. He saw the drawings for the project and looking over at the mother-to-be said, “Well, we’ve got to buy a swing set anyway.” As Otterness explains, this got the ball rolling again. “Having the collectors come in all of a sudden brought this back to life. Now with Silverstein it’s kind of a dream come true. It’s come back through this private commission, what was meant to be a public commission and made the full circle to a park that’s open to the public. I still have a couple more to do and I hope they find public homes. I’d like that a lot.”

Playground creator Tom Otterness comments on -

Playground’s scale

“As is my way I typically like to mess with the scale especially to the way the kids would think. You know a lot of it is not just physical play but it’s sort of mental play too. I wanted to do this kind of Alice In Wonderland kind of approach to how does the scale of the sculpture effect the kids’ perception of their own size. They come to this huge figure and then feel really small and then go to the little tiny figures that are all over it and feel really enormous. You can climb up inside of the head and look out of the eyes. All of a sudden you’ve got a 35 ft. body in front of you. It’s like Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”

“I make these enormous things and for a work like ‘Playground’ I can imagine little kids running up to it and locking in on a little tiny figure and kind of ignoring the whole big thing you know. Sometimes you get surprised. At different installations, I find kids talking to the little figures, or running back and forth and pouring water into the ear of a figure on the ground. They just get really engaged in the little tiny guys and sometimes the bigger thing doesn’t matter to them as much.”

Sculpture as play

“Almost all my sculptures are meant to be play pieces. The first really major public one was down in Battery Park, down by Stuyvesant High School. It’s been 15 almost 20 years and it’s getting much used down there. There’s maybe a 100 small figures – a very complicated project an kind of a Wall St. thing. In another playground down south from that in the same park I’ve got a dodo bird. A world that’s a dodo bird and a fountain. Kids climb and play on that all the time. The idea is that the work’s off the pedestal that it’s sitting by a bench next to you. It’s meant to be climbed on and handled.”

Kids’ reactions

“I haven’t got to see them on this piece. I’ll get to watch that in the spring. But close to my house on East Houston and Essex Streets is Public School PS 20. I donated a big frog there that the kids climb on all the time. I often go to the school to give lectures. When ‘Playground’ flashed up during a slide show you should’ve heard them. There was a loud WHOAAAH that moved through the auditorium. I wish I had a recording.”

Coqui, the big frog, is PS 20′s mascot. She looks like a great addition to the standard playground equipment.

On childhood playgrounds

“I’ll tell you the truth I didn’t spend much time in playgrounds. I went to the creek you know. We had a creek behind our house. I caught frogs and snakes, crawdads, whatever we could get our hands on back there and that was the adventure. Sometimes I try to bring that feeling, it’s like a little tiny world. You know kids get into that. You’re looking really carefully for really small things and I try and bring that experience into my pieces for the kids growing up in New York City. We did have playgrounds where I grew up in Kansas and I spent some time at them. I remember really hot slides. We cranked around on the swings and stuff. The playgrounds were pretty basic.”

Note – Safety experts were consulted during Playground’s design phase. Their recommendations were incorporated into the final work.

As we wrapped our conversation, Tom invited my family to visit his Brooklyn studio whenever we’re in New York City. I’m looking forward to taking him up on this and to seeing the West 42nd St. edition of Playground. I can just imagine Noah (4) and Nellie (2) discovering Playground – pure pandemonium, followed by entrancement, total engagement.

Putting this post together, I thought the West 42nd St. installation would make an excellent location for a TV show or film shoot. Playground’s structural and design ingenuity in combination with its visual magnetism are such that it’s probably only a matter of time before it’s on a small, or big screen somehwere near you. The Seinfeld gang could have had some fun with it. Imagine Kramer’s careening slapstick antics on the apparatus and George’s scheming for some kind of personal benefit. Below is the opening to a Seinfeld show that never was.

Costanza – Jerry, I’d really like you to meet this bronze guy. He’s made a real impression on me.

Seinfeld -Yeah, yeah George. You’re easily impressed. What’s this guy got that’s got you going on like his agent?

Costanza – Jerry, you wouldn’t believe the size of this guy. I’ve never seen anything like it, a colossus. And the job he’s got, it’s like a dream. Outdoors all day not moving around too much, relaxed, unbelievable.

Seinfeld – George, George, George. Don’t get carried away.

Costanza – I’m telling you, you’re going to love this guy. Let’s get Kramer and Elaine and go on up to West 42nd St. You won’t regret it…….

Not sure where it would have gone from there but this Playground has got something that the show about nothing could have woven into a modern urban parable.

So, can an inanimate object have charisma? Watch the kids on West 42nd St. this spring to get an answer.

Playgroundology will bring occasional updates of Tom’s work as it links to the world of playgrounds. Coming up in the spring is a San José installation at Happy Hollow Park.

Photo Credits in order of appearance

  1. Dick Jackson
  2. Kat Sterck
  3. Kat Sterck
  4. Vogon Poet

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

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