The setting is magical and enchanted, a page right out of children’s literature. Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince would find a welcome refuge in this playscape, another station on his voyage of discovery. I can see the golden haired boy exploring in the midst of the ruins. There he is meditating on the slipperiness of time while his sheep grazes on the surrounding grass.
This imaginative structure would also be right at home in the child-build-it world of Saint Denys Garneau’s poem, Le Jeu. This is a place to make believe, to create, to discover.
In the here and now, a remarkable playscape gradually emerges from the shadows in Sandy Hill’s Strathcona Park. The first fingers of morning are skittering across the Rideau River shallows in Ottawa’s east end. The waking light lends a softness to forms and a timelessness to place. This could be antiquity. Pillars, arches, great blocks of stone, walls in faux disrepair and sand strewn in glorious abandon create a delightful home for play.
At day break, the ruins are quiet. The playgrounder kids are still at home. In solitude, I can unhurriedly explore this space I’ve touched and breathed before. Strathcona’s Folly, as it’s called, is a place I came to with my daughter Alexa on a few occasions nearly 15 years ago. Even with the intervening years, I still recall a sense of marvelous wonderment from those visits – a sense that is instantly refired on this particular fall morning.
Canadian artist Stephen Brathwaite designed this playable art as a commission for the City of Ottawa. It is a distinctive playscape, as unusual as it is unorthodox. Only two elements are of the standard playground ilk. A bronze dipped body of a springrider rooster perches atop a column where only the most adventurous would attempt to saddle up. At ground level sand fills the space. These grains of time are constantly rearranged by wind, little hands and feet, permeating everything, drifting into the cracks, crannies and crevices.
Brathwaite’s commission is a time capsule of sorts. “The concept was that parents would sit on the hillside reliving their own youth,” said Brathwaite in a recent interview with PlayGroundology. “They would be watching their children who would be playing amidst artefacts of the parents’ childhood. We did a sundial on the back too to make a more obvious reference to time.”
Range Road borders Strathcona Park’s western boundary. Large stately homes, some of them now embassies, look across the green sward to the rippling Rideau River and to Vanier beyond.
Brathwaite’s idea was to make a piece that would appear to be the ruins of a neighbourhood home. The artist was inspired by his own memories of childhood play with his brother. They loved putting together structures with their Canadian Logs building set, laying out roads in the sandbox and cruising their Dinky toys around the towns and landscapes they created.
Strathcona’s Folly is a grander scale of their imaginings as kids. Brathwaite reclaimed and recycled building ‘blocks’ from a variety of sources. The blocks adorned with youthful art deco faces were originally features of a branch of the Bank of Montreal. Now three chiseled portraits peer out from the playscape at everyone arriving from the western and eastern approaches.
Other architectural hand me downs include off cuts from the pillars that were used in the restoration of the Rideau Canal, balustrades from the Chateau Laurier hotel, as well as miscellaneous discarded treasures from Canada’s Parliament Buildings, the Royal Canadian Mint, a local convent and the Capitol Theatre.
This is a project completed with passion, care and attention to detail. Surveying the finished product, it all looks so easy and effortless. However, some unanticipated problems were encountered during the initial construction phase. A high water table resulted in trench walls falling in during excavation. This required an alternative approach to the conventional footings and foundation. Forming tubes, surface beams and injected cement resolved the difficulties.
When concrete was injected into the forming tubes it displaced water that shot out like a geyser mixed with cement and rained down on the workers – not the most desirable effect in chilly autumn weather. This may have been one of the contributing factors that had City of Ottawa workers calling the new playscape Brathwaite’s Folly.
Neighbourhood children had their curiosity honed to a fine point during the following summer’s build. Doug Bamford who collaborated with Brathwaite on the installation and construction remembers a young Russian boy from the embassy across the street. He was a daily visitor to the site, watching the pieces take shape.
“He was 5 or 6 years old. He and I had long philosophical discussions about the world – in broken English. We had a great time talking with each other. He just loved what we were doing. He helped, he mixed cement. We were probably being watched the whole time by people over in the embassy.”
Bamford, an artist and educator at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, also remembers scaffolding discussions during the work day with members of the public. “I had a great time that summer being a sort of cultural spokesperson. Being involved in the educational business it was fun and challenging to be positively engaged in cultural diplomacy and to have an opportunity to explain my views on the validity of artistic expression.”
Some parents were concerned about possible safety hazards and the potential dangers of falling off walls. Brathwaite recalls the context. “At the time it was such a worry, playgrounds were such a minefield for safety. The constraints were getting narrower and narrower. There was a group in the community that had a lot of concerns about the potential for kids to climb on this and fall down and hurt themselves. We tried to make sure that any elevation change was abrupt enough that climbing would be more difficult. Ultimately after it was there and people had adopted it, they told me how much they loved it, how comfortable it was.”
The pillars, blocks and arches are massive from a child’s perspective but there are surprises for tiny hands to touch and discover recessed in the inside walls. Miniature animals posed in groups of two or three stare out from their frames. The bronze menagerie was cast from real toys and is placed at the eye level of a small child.
After all these years exposed to the elements and the inquisitive hands of little boys and girls, there is still some lustre left in the figurines though speckles of green are starting to show. Two pairs of shoes tucked away in a corner at ground level have also received the bronzed artefact treatment. They are the artist’s own shoes stepping through time from the boy builder to the man artist.
Over the years, Strathcona’s Folly has been recognized by local media in ‘people’s choice’ campaigns as the best playground in the city. The local Shakespeare in the Park theatre group sometimes uses it as part of its set. It is a mainstay of the public art landscape – a play place that encourages creativity, curiosity and wonder.
Brathwaite is pleased with how it has all turned out. “One day I opened up the Saturday paper to the fashion section. There was a whole fashion shoot in and around Strathcona’s Folly. There was no reference to who made it. Fabulous I thought, it has now become a part of the vernacular of the city, part of the landscape. It’s been totally embraced.”
Brathwaite and Bamford continue to work with one another on public art projects and commissions. With any luck, perhaps we’ll see them turn their hands and imaginations again to the world of child’s play.