Category Archives: France

We’re Goin’ on a Playground Hunt – We’re Gonna Catch a Big One (in Paris)



Papa and I are up early to make the most of our last full day in the City of Heat. We’re getting prepared for a day of urban trekking. First order of business – sustenance. We head to our regular spot at the corner of Voltaire and Charonne after grabbing a couple of croissants each at the boulangerie across the street. The café au lait at l’Ingénu is just the fuel we need before the morning’s expedition to l’Haÿ-les-Roses gets underway.

We’re goin’ on a playground hunt, we’re gonna catch a big one. Yes, three days in Paris and we’re spending half a day on a quest for a 1950s playscape designed by Franco-Hungarian, Pierre Székely. Can you guess whose idea this is? Papa is very good natured about it and curious too. All we’ve got are screen captures of Google satellite and map views to try and find it. Oops, not as well prepared as I could be several thousand kilometres from home.

birds eye view


I guess we aren’t exactly the standard father and son duo off on a play adventure. As often as we’d done this in the past, at 80 and 57 respectively, we are a tad out of practice with the old roles. But it turns out that love and the pursuit of play are ageless.

We grab the Métro at Charonne, our home station in the 11e arrondissement, and slip over to Nation. I pull us up street side here for a few minutes to see the two huge 100′ high doric columns each topped with a king. They made quite an impression on me from the days we lived in Paris nearly 45 years ago.

As we make our way around the square, we encounter three kids in a spontaneous burst of play. Already the temperature is heat waving its way to 40ºC. Partially hidden from their dad’s view, the kids are running, dancing, jumping through a sprinkler. They’re happy as he continues to chat on the sidewalk. Each moment is an extension of freedom – getting soaked one drop at a time in this small patch of green.

From Nation we do the underground zip to the end of the line at Ville Juif. Nobody we ask there is familiar with the street names that encircle the playscape. Why should they be? It’s about 2 kilometres away from the station. But really, can you believe it – Rue de la Reine Blanche runs along the perimeter of our treasure? I was beginning to think it was all Alice in Wonderland. I’m ready to throw in the towel but that’s not in papa’s plans – no playgrounds left behind….

We do get some pointers from staff in a café and transit drivers. They set us out in the right direction to L’Haÿ-les-Roses. Once there it’s a like a game of hot and cold. Seemingly we move quickly in and out of range with people looking at us like we’re aliens or saying yes it sounds familar and is somewhere nearby. Two women, a cashier in the post office and young mom pushing her child in stroller, send us straight to the mother lode.

This is what it looks like nearly 60 years down the road.


What treasures to discover – texture, form, space and Yves Le Thuaut who saved the playground from demolition and is now working with others to restore it. See the more photos right here on Tumblr – 96 degress in the shade: playgroundin’ in tropical Paris. See la gruyère, le labyrinthe, les escaliers, les vagues, les pataugeoires et le corne de brume.


Truly a successful playground hunt though it must be said I couldn’t get over it, under it, through it. In fact I just wanted to be in it.

Check the smooth dismount from this concrete slide – no damage to my legs, or shorts!

Thanks to the as-tu déjà oublié? crew for introducing me to Székely.

Thanks to you for checking in – cheers from Canada’s far east…….

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

A Spot of Time Lapse

I remember those summer playground days when time was gone in a flash. The call to come in for supper seemed like it cut through the sky, the clouds, the blue. Wasn’t it just minutes earlier that we had bolted down our lunches? This sense of compression still happens though not as frequently and with less drama.

There’s nothing like a good playground time lapse. If there’s been pent up energy in the house for a few days, it can seem like the kids really are in this accelerated reality. Thanks to Guillaume Labrie in France for this fine afternoon at the playground. If we could make the Canadian winter melt away with the same magic, post-Olympics of course, it would be a wonderful thing.

Labrie is passionate about time lapse photography. He runs an excellent site – time lapse – that provides tips on techniques, information on equipment, a blog and a brilliant selection of time lapse films. Note the site is in French. No French language knowledge necessary to view the films.

Labrie did mention a great ancillary benefit of his work on Playground Afternoon, “My two girls couldn’t stop laughing when they first saw the video.” He added that while taking photos, “I stayed close to my girls because taking photos of children in playgrounds can be misinterpreted in France. I also had my partner with me.” This is a good cautionary tip that my wife Mé draws to my attention when I’m out taking photos in Halifax for another blogging project, Playground Chronicles.

Adults can get in on the Keystone Cops kinetic activity too as these volunteers demonstrate in Philadelphia. This playground-in-a-day is a 200 person effort in conjunction with KaBOOM! and the Wharton School of Business. It’s the modern, urban equivalent of a barn raising, a community hard at work for its kids. The video was shot between 8h00 and 16h00 with five hours total shooting time resulting in 3600 frames at five second intervals. Thanks to Brian Biggs for the video and the original music.

Brian is a children’s book illustrator. He’s mad about time lapse and loves the creative process. “I’m always looking for an excuse to time lapse. It might be carving pumpkins, decorating a tree. I like doing it. It’s fun. I thought it would be interesting to set up the camera and record what was done in one day. I draw pictures all day long but I’ve always liked film and video. Every chance we get, I like to bring in some creativity into what my kids and I are doing whether we’re cooking dinner or wrapping presents.”

Over 200 volunteers were moving and grooving all day in a keystone builders style. As the day was getting underway, Brian set up on the roof. One of the toughest challenges was to position the camera correctly to get the best wide angle shot. “I don’t go in advance and scout it out or anything. I never know what’s going to happen. We get there that day and real men are hammering and nailing, I’m up on the roof screwing around with my nerd gear,” he says with a chuckle.

At the end of a long day’s work both the playground and the time lapse video were a wrap. So what did Brian’s 10 and 9 year old kids think? “Wow!” That was the unanimous reaction of everyone who gathered around for a sneak peek on the laptop display.

Volunteering with KaBOOM! was a positive experience for Brian and his kids. He’d consider doing it again if the kids were involved too. The build at Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia had the additional attraction of being in the local area as well as being a school his kids attended.

The Wharton School of Business contacted Brian for a high quality DVD version of the the short film. They now use this time lapse video as part of their orientation for new students. It’s a fun and effective means to introduce new recruits to the school’s commitment to community involvement. Brian’s all for that. He enjoys volunteering in the local community when he has the opportunity.

I’ve turned my hand to this too though in a much less polished manner than either Guillaume or Brian. Well, my end result doesn’t even look like a distant cousin. Here’s my first and and only attempt to date.

It’s pretty choppy and a little hard on the eyes. I’ll keep playing around to make a better product. In addition to experimentation, some of the links below will help set me on the right track. Note – my two little ones find this quite hilarious.

Dust off your camera, take a few thousand frames and create the magic of condensed time at the playground.

There are numerous examples of time lapse at playgrounds on the web. Check your favourite video hosting service to see what they have. KaBOOM!’s video collection is also well worth a visit.

Quick links

All things photography – Time Lapse Photography

Time Lapse Photography – Wikipedia

An Introduction to Time Lapse Photography

The Ultimate Guide to Time Lapse Photography

Time Lapse on Facebook

Gorgas Park – Brian’s favourite playground in Philadelphia

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

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