Category Archives: Playground sculpture installation

Tour of Otterness’ 42nd Street Playground

Playground packs in more fun than the proverbial barrel full of monkeys. Tom Otterness’ anthropomorphic sculpture installation is a space for wonderfalls, a place for children to imagine, to make believe and play.

Back in January I had the opportunity to interview Tom for PlayGroundology’s initial musings on the rich world of playscapes. Tom’s iconic installation is so arresting that I asked him if I could use a photo of Playground in my masthead as well as making it the subject of my first post. Permission granted and PlayGroundology now has a great visual that represents the spirit of the blog.

From the outset, Manhattan’s Bronze Guy has been a popular post. In June of this year it became even more so, as some of the millions from around the world who saw Playground as wallpaper on the Google homepage started looking for more information. It created a spike of visits to Tom’s homepage and to PlayGroundology.

Just recently I came across a video on Youtube that gives a partial tour of the 42nd Street PlayGround Bronze Guy. It has renewed my appetite to be there and play with my kids. I hope you enjoy this short vid as much as I did. Many thanks to Youtuber Jiunyiwu.

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

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

So, you want to go play in a lagoon with monsters? Have I got the place for you. It’s not on the bayou, no endangered mangrove swamps at risk and no flora or fauna about to die off though the playground itself was threatened with extinction in the very recent past.

As for the ‘monsters’, well they’re of the friendliest aquatic variety – whales, dolphins, sea serpents and an octopus are amongst the cast of starring anthropomorphic beauties. They’ve been lapping up adoring caresses from kids for over 45 years.

The idea of historic playgrounds isn’t something that’s discussed much at all. It’s really interesting in the preservation community to try and talk about protecting a resource that’s so heavily used by children and is being climbed all over. You still have to make sure it’s safe and that nobody is coming in harm’s way. By seeking a historic designation for La Laguna, we are trying to find a way for playgrounds that are inherently non-compliant, because they were built before the current standards existed, to be as safe as they can be.

Senya Lubisich, President, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

Back in the mid-1960s Frank Carpenter knew how to pick a winner. As San Gabriel, California’s Parks and Recreation Director, Carpenter took the road less traveled by. In doing so, he likely assumed a little professional risk, a risk that continues to bring joy a couple of generations down the road.

On Carpenter’s recommendation, the City of San Gabriel contracted Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez to create a playscape for the city’s children in a new municipal park. Carpenter was familiar with Dominguez’s work in two other California locations and believed the distinctiveness of a sculptured public play space would become a valuable community asset.

The rest is history. La Laguna, aka Monster Park, aka Dinosaur Park officially opened for play on May 16, 1965. The kids haven’t looked back. Late boomers, gen Xers and gen Ys all had a chance to graze knees and elbows while learning to climb and balance on the creamy, pastel coloured sculptures. The magic of play lives on through today’s kids. Their imaginations animate La Laguna paying tribute to Dominguez’s artistic vision.

I do not have a memory of my childhood without La Laguna. I’ve been going there since I was one, all my life. This place is amazing, it’s an experience that transcends. People just stand in awe. I always try to explain to adults okay you’re 30, or you’re 40, or 50. Now, just imagine for a moment that you are five and you’re here in the middle of all this.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, FoLL

All was well in this sculptured paradise until the City decided in 2006 that La Laguna had outlived its best before date. Plans were made to replace it with a more modern playground to be built to current safety code specifications. Enter the dynamic husband and wife duo of Eloy Zarate and Senya Lubisich, two local history professors, who made it their mission to rally public opinion, build a team of concerned citizens and lead the charge to save and preserve this playground as a unique cultural landscape.


The Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) was formed in the fall of 2006. In January 2007, the City and FoLL agreed to work together through a Memorandum of Understanding entitled “Assessment and Conservation Proposal for La Laguna de San Gabriel”. This MOU was the cornerstone of ongoing collaboration to ensure the preservation and protection of the existing La Laguna play area for continued use.

We learned that Monster Park was going to be removed so we decided to make some noise. We gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition. It was really heartening to see how the community responded.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Senya and Eloy are passionate about their commitment to protecting this living history. Their excitement about the cause is infectious. They are so familiar with the subject matter, so immersed in the strategies to present a winning case that speaking with them is like having a tag team conversation – where one leaves off, the other picks up.

The city was looking at the playground and its viability and thought it would be easier to just demolish it and build something new that was compliant. It never occurred to them that it was anything other than a playground – that it could be art, or that it was unique, or rare in terms of the experience it afforded. So there was a lot of different battles that we had to fight.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Four years and thousands of volunteer hours later, the Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) have championed their cause with the City of San Gabriel and the State of California. There has been a stay of execution and a renaissance of community spirit.

Both Senya and Eloy see their commitment to La Laguna as part of the broader civic engagement and service that college professors are encouraged to bring to their communities. Eloy’s students now have an internship possibility to work at the park and to help the community do things it doesn’t have the funds, or resources to do itself.

Lots of help has been offered along the way – students who participated in door-to-door awareness campaigns, contractors who have helped unravel the mysteries of safety codes, conservation and preservation professionals who examined historic playgrounds as a new concept, public sector officials who opened doors, sponsors and of course kids who wanted to play.

FoLL succeeded in reversing the demolition plans through a combination of research, community engagement and advocacy. Senya has written an article outlining their approach that will appear in an upcoming issue of Forum, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Key elements of the strategy include:

1. Be prepared – do your homework, do your research, understand the subject matter. Leave no stone unturned;

2. Mobilize public opinion and demonstrate that community support can make a difference;

3. Build a strong and duly constituted organization with board members who possess a broad range of skill sets;

4. Define the key challenges and offer solutions. Frame the solutions, not the challenges, as the reference points for discussion and debate;

5. Identify your allies and seek their support, draw on their knowledge and strengths.

The Historic Structures Report and Preservation Plan and Appendices are FoLL’s key research pieces. This is ground zero in the ‘be prepared’ category and they’re really worth a read for anyone interested in playground conservation. The report and appendices cover a lot of territory – historical overview, architectural evaluation, conditions assessment and project objectives along with photos of all Dominguez’s pieces. They are the reference documents for FoLL’s ongoing La Laguna campaign.

When the fight to save La Laguna got out of the starting blocks, it pitted a small non-profit organization going head to head with the local government. Hard work, creativity and community support brought city hall on side.

Once we were able to figure out what their arguments were, we were able to offer solutions. We would hold them accountable so that they had to answer to the solution not to whatever barrier they had thrown out. They can’t sit there and say safety when we’ve provided all these alternate ways to mitigate the safety issue. They have to respond to what we’ve proposed. That keeps the dialogue going and it really holds them accountable to work with their community.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Safety, safety standards and liability are recurring issues that FoLL continues to address. These issues make legislators and elected representatives nervous. Part of FoLL’s strategy has been to distinguish between safety and liability. FoLL’s assessment and the safety record indicate that the pieces are safe. They were built for children with safety in mind and are not inherent hazards.The fact that they don’t comply to modern standards is what increases liability.

This is the most difficult argument that we’ve had to make and it’s still comes up in every talk that we have. We always have to say that something being unsafe by code doesn’t make it dangerous or hazardous. Then eyes glaze over because people don’t make the distinction between those things. But they are legal distinctions between something being unsafe, being hazardous and being risky. We have to say wait a second – nobody has been hurt here for 40 years.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

There are no records of injuries at any of the playgrounds created by Benjamin Dominguez. From FoLL’s perspective, it’s critical to separate out what is a hazard and what is a risk. FoLL is committed to eliminating hazards. There are skills that children have to master to be able to play on some of the equipment and sometimes that requires supervision. In the absence of supervision risk may increase but it is a parental responsibility to be there to help children test and learn their limits. That should be part of every park experience.

FoLL and the citizens of San Gabriel have plenty to smile about these days. In 2009, La Laguna was entered in the California Register of Historic Places – a first for a playground. In early May of this year, FoLL hosted a picnic as part of the L.A. Conservancy’s The Sixties Turn 50 series of events. It was the perfect opportunity to celebrate their $250,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE). Prospects are also looking good for Bill AB 2701 to be adopted into State law over the coming year. The intent of the bill is to place playgrounds that are designated to be culturally, or historically significant under the jurisdiction of the State Historical Building Code. This would provide for greater flexibility while still addressing safety concerns.

La Laguna was the last playground Benjamin Dominguez created. Through concerted community action it will now be a going concern for years to come. The preservation of this asset has struck a chord across the nation. Other communities are consulting FoLL for direction on saving their own ageing playgrounds. Bravo to FoLL and San Gabriel for leading the way. Hopefully more playscapes will be saved from the wrecking ball.

Saving, and now restoring, La Laguna has become a real family affair for Senya, Eloy and their four children. The project has touched many lives and the family just keeps on getting bigger. Witness the growing Friends of La Laguna Facebook page.

Dinosaur Park is a creative experience without rival for our children. It’s a whole different type of play. You really do feel like you’ve crossed into another world, you’ve sort of left a park and gone into a fantasy lagoon. It’s really evident in the way that they play.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

The Friends of La Laguna are in the midst of a $1.2 million capital campaign for their ongoing restoration and preservation work. Information on donating is available here.

If you can’t get their yourself – I’m looking forward to the day that I can – you can get an idea of what FoLL has been fighting for in this community perspective video.

Photo credits

1. Stella the Starfish and Sammy the Snail Slide, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

2. Sea Serpent, Friends of La Laguna

3. Minnie the Whale, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

4. Dolphin Family, Friends of La Laguna

5. Lighthouse Dragon Slide, Friends of La Laguna

6. Ozzie the Octupus, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

7. Lookout Mountain, circa 1966, photo by Ron Brown, City of San Gabriel Archives

8. Friends of La Laguna Facebook photo album

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

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

Playground, a Tom Otterness sculpture cum anthropomorphic architecture, cum dreamy play area is a reclining behemoth. The gentle giant is a whirl of fun and fancy, an open invitation for children to play and for adults to rekindle a spark of childlike wonderment. The New York City iteration of the limited edition series is nestled between One River Place and Silver Towers on West 42nd St. between 11th and 12th Avenues, not too far from the Hudson River in Manhattan. The park where it is located is scheduled to open in the spring of 2010 as reported in this New York Times article where a photo shows it in situ.

For scale, think of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Otterness’ creation is of such gargantuan proportions that kids can slide down its lower legs and one of its arms. A swing hangs from its flexed knees and the figure’s head is hollow allowing for a pint-sized observation deck looking out on the world below from an elevation of nearly 20 feet. There are also numerous tiny size people interspersed throughout the installation that will endear themselves to the toddler set.

For imaginative élan, dream if you will of a fourth adventurer for Dorothy and Toto on their way to Oz. The Bronze Guy, heart bursting with the echoing laughter of children, could be The Tin Man’s long lost cousin. I can see him rising up and imparting his gentle, rough and tumble wisdom, a boon companion as they progress along the yellow brick road.

Manhattan developer Larry Silverstein purchased the sculpture as a unique signature piece for his West 42nd St. properties. He stumbled across an image through a Marlborough Gallery catalogue. He made some inquiries and discovered that the installation was conceived as a series of six editions. Three are owned by private collectors. One collector has two, one each for houses in Florida and Cape Cod. The third calls Aspen, Colorado home. Silverstein travelled to Cape Cod to view that edition up close and personal. He loved it and wasted no time in purchasing the fourth edition of Playground for a Manhattan installation.

I loved it too when I first saw a photo of the sculpture in The New York Times in early January. Being a man of much more modest means than Mr. Silverstein, acquisition of the 5th or 6th editions is not an option. I have no doubt though that it would spice up the backyard and make our kids giddy with disbelief, overcome with excitement.

I settled for contacting Otterness’ studio and asked if an image of the sculpture could be used for the masthead of PlayGroundology. I also requested an interview for PlayGroundology’s inaugural post. I got an affirmative on both.

Tom’s voice was immediately warm and inviting as he explained that Playground’s origins could be traced back to a public art competition sponsored by the City of Milwaukee. He didn’t get the nod for the commission but kept the computer boards because he liked the project and a significant amount of work had already been completed in the concept, design and modelling stages.

A private collector came through Otterness’ studio accompanied by his pregnant wife. He saw the drawings for the project and looking over at the mother-to-be said, “Well, we’ve got to buy a swing set anyway.” As Otterness explains, this got the ball rolling again. “Having the collectors come in all of a sudden brought this back to life. Now with Silverstein it’s kind of a dream come true. It’s come back through this private commission, what was meant to be a public commission and made the full circle to a park that’s open to the public. I still have a couple more to do and I hope they find public homes. I’d like that a lot.”

Playground creator Tom Otterness comments on –

Playground’s scale

“As is my way I typically like to mess with the scale especially to the way the kids would think. You know a lot of it is not just physical play but it’s sort of mental play too. I wanted to do this kind of Alice In Wonderland kind of approach to how does the scale of the sculpture effect the kids’ perception of their own size. They come to this huge figure and then feel really small and then go to the little tiny figures that are all over it and feel really enormous. You can climb up inside of the head and look out of the eyes. All of a sudden you’ve got a 35 ft. body in front of you. It’s like Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”

“I make these enormous things and for a work like ‘Playground’ I can imagine little kids running up to it and locking in on a little tiny figure and kind of ignoring the whole big thing you know. Sometimes you get surprised. At different installations, I find kids talking to the little figures, or running back and forth and pouring water into the ear of a figure on the ground. They just get really engaged in the little tiny guys and sometimes the bigger thing doesn’t matter to them as much.”

Sculpture as play

“Almost all my sculptures are meant to be play pieces. The first really major public one was down in Battery Park, down by Stuyvesant High School. It’s been 15 almost 20 years and it’s getting much used down there. There’s maybe a 100 small figures – a very complicated project an kind of a Wall St. thing. In another playground down south from that in the same park I’ve got a dodo bird. A world that’s a dodo bird and a fountain. Kids climb and play on that all the time. The idea is that the work’s off the pedestal that it’s sitting by a bench next to you. It’s meant to be climbed on and handled.”

Kids’ reactions

“I haven’t got to see them on this piece. I’ll get to watch that in the spring. But close to my house on East Houston and Essex Streets is Public School PS 20. I donated a big frog there that the kids climb on all the time. I often go to the school to give lectures. When ‘Playground’ flashed up during a slide show you should’ve heard them. There was a loud WHOAAAH that moved through the auditorium. I wish I had a recording.”

Coqui, the big frog, is PS 20’s mascot. She looks like a great addition to the standard playground equipment.

On childhood playgrounds

“I’ll tell you the truth I didn’t spend much time in playgrounds. I went to the creek you know. We had a creek behind our house. I caught frogs and snakes, crawdads, whatever we could get our hands on back there and that was the adventure. Sometimes I try to bring that feeling, it’s like a little tiny world. You know kids get into that. You’re looking really carefully for really small things and I try and bring that experience into my pieces for the kids growing up in New York City. We did have playgrounds where I grew up in Kansas and I spent some time at them. I remember really hot slides. We cranked around on the swings and stuff. The playgrounds were pretty basic.”

Note – Safety experts were consulted during Playground’s design phase. Their recommendations were incorporated into the final work.

As we wrapped our conversation, Tom invited my family to visit his Brooklyn studio whenever we’re in New York City. I’m looking forward to taking him up on this and to seeing the West 42nd St. edition of Playground. I can just imagine Noah (4) and Nellie (2) discovering Playground – pure pandemonium, followed by entrancement, total engagement.

Putting this post together, I thought the West 42nd St. installation would make an excellent location for a TV show or film shoot. Playground’s structural and design ingenuity in combination with its visual magnetism are such that it’s probably only a matter of time before it’s on a small, or big screen somehwere near you. The Seinfeld gang could have had some fun with it. Imagine Kramer’s careening slapstick antics on the apparatus and George’s scheming for some kind of personal benefit. Below is the opening to a Seinfeld show that never was.

Costanza – Jerry, I’d really like you to meet this bronze guy. He’s made a real impression on me.

Seinfeld -Yeah, yeah George. You’re easily impressed. What’s this guy got that’s got you going on like his agent?

Costanza – Jerry, you wouldn’t believe the size of this guy. I’ve never seen anything like it, a colossus. And the job he’s got, it’s like a dream. Outdoors all day not moving around too much, relaxed, unbelievable.

Seinfeld – George, George, George. Don’t get carried away.

Costanza – I’m telling you, you’re going to love this guy. Let’s get Kramer and Elaine and go on up to West 42nd St. You won’t regret it…….

Not sure where it would have gone from there but this Playground has got something that the show about nothing could have woven into a modern urban parable.

So, can an inanimate object have charisma? Watch the kids on West 42nd St. this spring to get an answer.

Playgroundology will bring occasional updates of Tom’s work as it links to the world of playgrounds. Coming up in the spring is a San José installation at Happy Hollow Park.

Photo Credits in order of appearance

  1. Dick Jackson
  2. Kat Sterck
  3. Kat Sterck
  4. Vogon Poet

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, are licensed through Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).