Sculpted in France – Concrete Art Playgrounds

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for France so I’m always on the lookout for interesting play stories from that part of the world. Our family lived there in the early 70s. I was 12 when we arrived and 15 when we left. It was my gawky early adolescent phase which I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Playgrounds were not a big attraction for me back then – a good thing probably as I don’t recall seeing many of them in the towns or cities where we lived. I was more consumed with soccer, rugby and girls. Who knew you got to give and receive des bises at almost each encounter with girls? One little kiss on each cheek… What a revelation for a wee anglo lad from Toronto. Initially I was a little hesitant but it wasn’t long before I reveled in that custom.

But back to play for the younger set. Even though I did’t see much evidence of them, there were indeed playgrounds in France. Perhaps they were just not as prevalent as they were in North America during the same period. I did come across some actual evidence of original playground design dating back to the late 50s and early 60s just the other day on a couple of French blogs. The designer in question is Pierre Székely who created playful forms out of industrial concrete.

Photo credit: J. Bruchet. Source: Architectures de cartes postales. Designer: Pierre Székely. Cité des Jeux – L’Haÿ-les-Roses, France

Székely was born in Budapest and made his way to France in the post war years. A sculptor, architect, graphic artist and playground designer, his work and play can be found in public spaces and museums throughout France and numerous other countries.

Stockholm’s public art for children inspired Székely’s approach to playgrounds. In the late 1950s he wrote:

It’s in this city (Stockholm) that children for the first time found sculptures installed for them. Even better – there is no one forbidding them to touch. Quite the opposite – all the sculptures were designed so children could climb, slide and run around. The Nordic experience is conclusive – kids are happy exercising outside – Székely

Fifty years later the L’Haÿ-les-Roses slide has lost its original sheen and sports an urban dusting of graffitti. Click through for more historical and present day L’Haÿ-les-Roses images from the As-tu déjà oublié? blog.

I haven’t been able to track down how many playgrounds Székely designed but as you can see in the slideshow there’s certainly a handful scattered about the Paris suburbs that were springing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In the late 60s, Székely made a submission to a playground design competition to create a playscape for the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. His cavernous, earthy design was the winner (slides 12 and 13). The piece could blend right in on the set of the BBC kids’ show In The Night Garden, a perfect home for the rock obsessed Makka Pakka.

Székely made magic with concrete and simple forms – art with a utilitarian purpose. But what a purpose – play, smile, dream. Looking back from our 50 year vantage point, I think his playgrounds had the ability to unleash wonder, imagination and worlds of make believe. Perhaps they still do…

His designs certainly made an impression on Carsten Höller, he of the giant slide installations and mega international venue vernissages fame. Höller made a scale model of the 1958 Cité des Jeux playground in L’Hay-les-Roses and turned it over to two mice.

I’m not sure what statement Höller is making – note the slide in the foreground of the video. Perhaps he’s asking if we’re going to play like mice, or men. From 2010, Mauseplatz was part of the solo show Animals Works.

Primary sources for this post:

As-tu déjà oublié?
Architectures de cartes postales
Catalogue Raisonné des oeuvres du sculpteur

4 responses to “Sculpted in France – Concrete Art Playgrounds

  1. I loved this post, Alex. Reminds me of a photo of me on holiday in France when I was prob about 2. I remember really enjoying playing in it, and liking the free shape. Maybe you went there too as a child?! Link to the photo

    • Nadia – thanks for sharing the family photo. Looks like it was a fine day on the playground. We stayed for a few summer weeks between Chambéry and Grenoble. It was great – they had outdoor table tennis, a little tricky in the wind but plenty of fun. Glad you enjoyed the post. Cheers

  2. Pingback: Bonne fête, Feliz navidad, Happy Birthday, Barka da sabon shekera, Rā Whānau ki a Koe! | PlayGroundology

  3. Pingback: Going, Going, Gone | PlayGroundology

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