Category Archives: Ottawa

Urban Play Space

There’s a place in the centre of Ottawa that just screams play to me. It’s like an invitation to make believe, to climb, jump, lounge and generally have fun.

It’s not designated as a play space but does that really matter? There is a truly inside out aesthetic going on here with what is in fact a public art installation. Let’s not forget that public art frequently doubles as venues for kids to have some fun – to whit hometown Halifax’s The Wave….

Here in Canada’s capital, in a downtown pedestrian courtyard The Living Room by UrbanKeios livens up the sight and the smile lines within a quadrant of government buildings.

Over the years, I’ve dropped by to revel in the lightness, the levity of the piece in these oh so official and serious environs. There are law courts and offices for the City of Ottawa, who commissioned the work, and less than ten minutes away on foot are Canada’s Parliament buildings.

Now I wouldn’t necessarily put this small green space surrounded by brick and mortar and located on top of an underground parking garage in the category of a destination play place. But it is a bit of an oasis, a space that is worth a pause on a walking route and a few moments for young ones to run around and amuse themselves within this incongruous setting. What great opportunities for boys and girls to play house in the great outdoors.

I still enjoy strolling over when I’m in Ottawa. Over the years, I’ve walked through the door, reclined in the chairs, looked out the window and tried in vain to tune in a channel on the industrial looking vintage TV. It’s like a theatre set and takes me back several decades to an Ionesco play I appeared in – Jacques ou La Soumission – L’avenir est dans les œufs. It’s just the kind of farfelu that I like.

In all my visits though, I have yet to see kids playing here. I know they must – our timing has just not coincided. Let’s hear it for public spaces that unintentionally lend themselves to play, a wonderful happenstance! If you have similar examples in your community, drop a line to PlayGroundology we’d love to hear from you…

What the Hoop

I’m in Ottawa the next couple of days for business. This afternoon while wandering about downtown I noticed a lot of green space but not much in the way of playgrounds or playscapes. I walked across the Alexandra Bridge hoping to see something at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Québec. I remembered there had been something there for kids 15 years ago when I used to live here. Either it was too late in the season or it was just plain gone.

On my way back to the hotel I came across a mini hulapalooza under the gaze of the National Gallery’s gargantuan arachnid. People were starting to pack up and head home as I installed myself on the sidewalk for some good natured gazing. The light was failing but some of the hoopers stayed on squeezing out a few more gyrations. With dusk creeping across the sky, specialty hoops started to pulsate with light. I wished that Nellie-Rose, our 4-year-old, could have been beside me to revel in the colourful moves and try some of her own.

Mystic Myron and Awesome Alwynne swore by the hoops as a cure for everything. They were part of the Ottawa contingent celebrating World Hoop Day with their brethern and sistren in farflung parts of the world. Plans are underway to bring out the hoops for the next iteration in Diourbel, Sénégal. I had to give it a try. As you’ll see, I failed miserably but I had a lot of fun.

Now these young folks are keeping fit, creating a community and learning about the wider world. They put on public shows and don’t ask for any money in exchange. Seems like a good past time – if I only had the moves, I’d sign up. Now I’m not sure that hoops will herald in world peace but there’s nothing wrong with bringing a little joy into someone’s day. I was smiling as I watched them and thinking of how young kids must love this shiny, magic dance. If you hear about a hoop jam in your neighbourhood, check it out. It’s more than just pretty lights.

Last word to the amateur circus performers. Long live the hula hoop….

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.