Category Archives: art playgrounds

Preserving Play in Guadalajara

Public playspaces are joyful places. They’re filled with laughter, adventure and the promise of discovery. When these spaces are removed they leave a void. Where there was once breathless wonder, the adult world ushers in a pall of ordinariness.

Source – Mónica Del Arenal

The pall is at risk of descending on Morelos Park in Guadalajara, Mexico. Fifty years ago, the Mexican architect Fabián Medina Ramos, designed this playscape. Now the local government plans to destroy it.

I would rather a park that gives sanctuary to an elephant, a hippo, a camel, an untamed zone of wildful imagination. Surely these attract a greater quotient of magic than lawns, gardens, or auditoriums could ever hope to do.

Sometimes when spaces like these are threatened, civic-minded individuals mobilize public opinion to try and save them. This social action can be resoundingly successful. San Gabriel, California and L’Haÿ-les-Roses, France are examples of two sculptured playscapes from the same time period that have been saved from the wrecker’s ball.

Source – Pablo Mateos

Pablo Mateos an associate professor in social anthropology has taken up the charge. He’s trying to save this children’s playscape in Guadalajara. You can sign the petition at change.org to help save these endangered animals and protect a children’s space that has intrinsic historical and cultural value.

“What playgrounds have survived without maintenance for 50 years?” – Pablo Mateos

Source – Equipo Aristoteles

Well there seems to have been a coat of paint from time to time. The vibrant colours are in keeping with the imaginative play kids have experienced here for generations.

Help ensure that the kids of Guadalajara can continue to play in this space – drop in on change.org and add your signature to the petition.

Ed’s note -Thanks to PlayGroundology friend Suzanne McDougall for sharing information about this endangered Guadalajara playscape.

Ann Hamilton’s Park Avenue Armory Playground

Just as food group giant Danone starts its evian ‘live young’ branding swing through London (see previous post), New York City is getting ready to wrap its own art swing happening that’s been pulling in the crowds at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory for the last month.

GlassSwingingComposer Philip Glass coursing through the air at Ann Hamilton’s ‘the event of a thread’. Photo credit – Ellen Knuti. Source – Park Avenue Armory

This weekend is the last chance to have your toes kiss the sky at Ann Hamilton’s ‘the event of a thread’ which closes Sunday, January 6. From the New York Times to twitterville’s vox populi reviews are soaring on this participatory installation that fills the cavernous armory space with billowing motion.

A field of swings, a film of suspended fabric, pigeons, manuscripts and readers, a writer, broadcasts and song all come together to recreate at each instant a new thread similar to but unlike its previous or future iteration. In the opening paragraph of the artist statement for the show Hamilton says:

I can remember the feeling of swinging—how hard we would work for those split seconds, flung at furthest extension, just before the inevitable downward and backward pull, when we felt momentarily free of gravity, a little hiccup of suspension when our hands loosened on the chain and our torsos raised off the seat. We were sailing, so inside the motion—time stopped—and then suddenly rushed again toward us. We would line up on the playground and try to touch the sky, alone together.

Many SwingsPhoto credit – James Ewing. Source – Park Avenue Armory

Art, play, wonder, mindfulness. I wish I could swing, hear, be at Park Avenue Armory this weekend. Ann, we have an Armory here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Do you want to take the show on the road? Maybe next Christmas season in Canada’s far east hugging the Atlantic’s wintry shores. What a wonderful gift that would be.

tumblr_mfjk1wYkBg1rlnyido1_1280Photo credit – Da Ping Luo. Source – Park Avenue Armory

The Electric Art of Swinging

I’m a sucker for swings. They can be a gentle relaxing glide, or a drop thrill sweeping ride.

In Portugal this past week, as part of the European Capital of Culture in Guimarães, a pop-up swing installation greeted visitors to the International Centre for the Arts Jose de Guimarães.

Source: moradavaga 2012

Constructed on a foundation of donated pallets, the wooden block swings generated electricity by rigging up bicycle chains and wheels to capture the energy of arcing motion.

See how it works here in this short video produced by the Moradavaga Collective for their playable public art, SWING.

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SWING is art, play and a tribute to the city’s industrial heritage.

If you love swings check these earlier PlayGroundology posts: In Montreal the Swings Are Alive With The Sound of Music; The Unbearable Lightness of Swinging.

Drop in on PlayGroundology’s FB page for a video posted earlier today of a wild rope swing ride shot in Utah.

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

In Toronto, A Kids’ Eye View

Triumphal arches of play bridge the toddlers’ and big kids’ play areas at the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in Toronto’s High Park. Vertical columns and cross beams are alive with kid’s eye view watercolours.

Click for slideshow of playground watercolours and imagine yourself nestled in the small dell encircled by woods. This is the best open air permanent exhibit I’ve seen in sometime. Enjoy.

Stay tuned for more on the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in upcoming PlayGroundology posts.

Himmelhøj – Sky High – Copenhagen, Denmark

Since he was a young boy growing up in his adopted Australia, Alfio Bonanno knew he wanted to be an artist. At the age of 14, with the full support of his Italian family, he embarked on his apprenticeship in art. From the outset, he was drawn to the materials and the look of the natural world. He’s been on a global walkabout ever since.

I’ve been working with nature installations and natural materials all my life. I grew up in the tropical rainforest of Queensland, Australia. The relationship with nature has always been very important to me. – Alfio Bonanno

From his home base on Denmark’s Langeland Island, he has conceived a distinctive body of site specific work, a prolonged love affair with landscapes and natural materials. His signature installations are peppered across the planet in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.

In Copenhagen, tucked away on Amager Island’s southwestern reaches, is a landlocked boat. It seems to have materialized from some distant time and place. The Amager Ark is one component of Bonanno’s Himmelhøj (Sky High), a four piece installation commissioned by the Danish Ministry of the Environment.

There is a touch of wildness here. Occasionally, deer can be found grazing in the overgrown grass. Sometimes large puddles collect on the ground’s surface. They act as mirrors reflecting earth and sky until the water is slowly absorbed by the clay strata beneath. We can almost believe that the 60 metre oaken vessel might be floated away with a crew of children at the helm. In reality, civilization is encroaching on this playful enclave. Himmelhøj is just over a 10 minute walk from the West Amager metro station.


Additional Photos

Bonanno’s art is not exclusively focused on children (see his CO2 cube) but he does draw on over 30 years of work creating multimedia projects with school age kids. He has hit the right note with Himmelhøj. Since opening in 2004, it has become a popular destination for families and school groups. It has also been in the running for the most popular playground in Copenhagen.

People are very positive about the installation because they can use it. It’s not complicated, it’s integrated into the landscape and it opens people up to the beauty of the materials. – Alfio Bonanno

For Bonanno, Himmelhøj goes far beyond the traditional concept of playgrounds. It is an installation where young and old alike can get involved visually, physically and mentally. It’s an area to experience, a space to stimulate the imagination.

Himmelhøj is a tactile wonderland of wood, stone and earth on the edge of the city’s steel, concrete and glass. Activities here are rooted in the natural world. Kids scrabble over the mound of rocks inside the Ark, explore the interior of the oh so tall Insect Forest’s circular thicket and warm themselves in the glow of the giant hearth. And what of the nest perched in a tree large enough for a giant weaver bird, large enough to welcome kids attracted to the challenge of a good climb?


Insect Forest – Planning Stages
Click for slideshow.

When you create interesting forms and put them in the landscape, they get used and inspire people to play around them. I also hope that maybe we can get parents and grown ups to get back to how they were earlier as kids, get inspired and loosen up a little bit. – Alfio Bonanno

The intallation is helping the area take on a new identity. The structures provide a base that kids can build on. Imaginations are set free to create stories, games and adventures. You can read some of the artist’s thoughts on Himmelhøj here.

There is no admittance fee to Himmelhøj and it’s open 24 hours a day. Under the cover of darkness there have been problems with vandalism. Planks have been ripped off the Amager Ark and burned and other pieces of the installation broken. Fortunately this activity has been isolated and has not had a serious impact.

Although he works almost exclusively with organic materials in natural surroundings, Bonanno is not a purist when it comes to play. He has seen some of the new computerized playgrounds and understands their potential in terms of encouraging kids to get active using a technology that is frequently a defining cause of their physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour.

He also believes that even playgrounds at the top of their game – those that are incredible in concept and design and are challenging for kids – will only have a negligible impact unless Denmark’s schools undergo significant reform. From his perspective, the schools are not stimulating at all and kids are losing their lives inside them.

I refuse to even so much as talk about doing an exciting playground beside a school when the school itself needs to be lifted up into another dimension. It’s like putting a plaster on the sore but not really coping with the problem. – Alfio Bonanno

So for now, if you’re lucky enough to be in Copenhagen, Himmelhøj is really the place to go if you’re interested in tracking down an original play experience. I know that I will be adding Bonanno’s installation to the growing list of playscapes that I hope to get to play at one day with my kids.

Thanks so much to flickr’s seier + seier where I saw my first image of the Amager Ark. Thanks too to Alfio who took my call in the midst of putting together a new project and preparing for a big trip off the continent.


seier + seier
Creative Commons – Attribution 2.0 Generic

I hope we’ll hear and see more from Bonanno in the future. Who knows maybe he’ll be coming to a city, or a country near you. In the meantime, here’s an interview that will give you a greater appreciation for his outlook – In Nature’s Eyes.

Enjoy Google’s bird’s eye view.

Strathcona’s Folly – Fit for a Prince

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.”


Click for Strathcona’s Folly slide show on flickr

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.