Category Archives: Tom Otterness

Bonne fête, Feliz navidad, Happy Birthday, Barka da sabon shekera, Rā Whānau ki a Koe!

It’s a little hard to believe that the first PlayGroundology post, Manhattan’s Bronze Guy, was published five years ago. Based on an interview with American artist Tom Otterness, it features his limited edition sculpture, Playground, which had caught my eye before the Colorado version of the piece adorned Google as a background image.

70179_600x357Playground by Tom Otterness – Google background image. Photo credit – Dick Jackson

Since then, play has become my volunteer vocation much to the delight of our three young kids aged 9, 7 and 5. Along the way, the PlayGroundology blog has won a couple of Canadian blogging awards and racked up readership from over 160 countries. More importantly though, I have had the opportunity to become long distance friends, and in some cases meet, with fine ‘play’ people from Scotland, England the US, Canada, Ghana, Singapore, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.

DSC06210London’s Glamis Adventure Playground from Mark Halden’s presentation at Play Summit in Glasgow, Scotland – April, 2014.

Among the many things that continue to strike me is that this world of play is broad, deep and inter-connected. Passionate parents, educators, professionals in health services, public administration and child care, practitioners, researchers, designers, landscape architects and lay people are amongst the stewards and advocates for children’s inalienable right to play.

Also in that first year, who knew there would be an opportunity to be Going Philatelic in Singapore? Connecting with Justin Zhang for that post resulted in a follow up a couple of years later when his e-book with photography and writing on these culturally attuned playscapes were featured in the blog.

3991913517_4f4a2cf01f_bDragon playground, Singapore. Photo credit – Jerry Wong. License: (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I continue to find joy in sharing public playspaces that break the mould, that boldly present alternatives, speak to place and do not shy away from risk. Early in year two, Alfio Bonanno’s Himmelhøj (Sky High) located on Copenhagen’s Amager Island came to my attention. It is a playspace of place, elemental in a natural setting even in its proximity to urban development.

Alfio Bonnano - CopenhagenThe Amager Ark. Photo courtesy of the artist, Alfio Bonanno

In year three, I discovered Pierre Szkéley and his love of cement. The architect used it to great effect in a number of sculpted playgrounds in France dating back to the 1950s. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the work, a sense of future forms creating a new physical narrative for kids to explore.

szekelyhay00Pierre Székely’s L’Haÿ-les-Roses, 1958. Photo credit – As-tu dèja oublié?

PlayGroundology’s fourth year continued to explore the intersection of art and play in posts that examined Ann Hamilton’s the event of a thread and Jason Richardson’s Australian playground music – transforming playground equipment into instruments…

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

In PlayGroundology’s fifth year, I fell in love with ‘loose parts’ thanks to friends at Pop-Up Adventure Play, Brendon P. Hyndman’s research in an Australian primary school and the wonderful people at Nova Scotia’s Youth Running Series who provided me with the chance to run my first public play event – oh it was intoxicating…..

loose partsLoose Parts – Nova Scotia Youth Running Series

The blog continues to afford an endless journey of discovery – meeting people, admiring design, becoming familiar with the rudiments of play theory, developing public play activities and of course, playing. I’ve learned that play is under duress in countries around the world including the post-industrial economies. I’ve met with great generosity of spirit and experienced passionate engagement on behalf of kids with play people players of many nationalities. It seems there is a renaissance of play underway with resilience and risk advancing in tandem. Play matters…

I want to thank PlayGroundology’s readers for your comments, kind words, story ideas. I plan to be sharing stories of great play happenings for another five years and hope you’ll be able to join in.

5 Cool Ones

Cool is in the eye of the beholder – no common currency, no standard to overlay. Since PlayGroundology’s beginnings in January 2010, I’ve come across a number of what I consider ‘cool’ playgrounds. My kids have seen photos of all of these places and without exception it’s the same question that leaps from their lips – can we go there? And that in a nutshell, as my Mom would say, is one of my primary litmus tests for cool.

So, here is PlayGroundology’s inaugural installment of 5 Cool Ones. They appear in no particular order. The beauty is that there are hundreds more out there waiting to be discovered. That is my dream job – exploring the playgrounds of the world with my family while meeting the kids who play there, the parents who take them and the people who design them. If you ever see this opportunity posted anywhere, please give me a call.

Salamander Playground – Montreal, Canada

Salamander Playground, Aerial View – Montreal, Canada.
Photo Credit – Marc Cramer

The design, equipment and feel here are reminiscent of some playgrounds in western Europe – flickr slideshow. That’s fitting as Montreal is a bustling cosmopolitan city that evokes the old country. There is lots of climbing, spinning, swinging and getting wet. All of this and more in the beautiful setting of Mount Royal Park close to the heart of Montreal’s urban core. More about Salamander Playground here

Miners’ Playground – Chuquicamata, Chile

Chuquicamata Playground, Chile
Photo Credit – Carlos Borlone Leuquén aka Mi otra carne in flickrville

Otherworldly with a touch of the surreal describes some unique play structures that sit quietly in Chuquicamata, a former mining town in northern Chile. Located in the Atacama desert, the most arid on the planet, Chuqui is encircled by foothills of slag and tailings from nearly 100 years of mineral exploitation.

Chuquicamata Playground flickr gallery here.

Himmelhøj – Copenhagen, Denmark

Amager Ark, Copenhagen, Denmark
Photo Credit – Alfio Bonanno

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.

Himmelhøj photosets here and here.

Playground – New York City, USA

Playground – Tom Otterness
Photo credit – Marilyn K. Yee, The New York Times

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. Read more here on this one of a kind New York City play sculpture.

Eden Project – Cornwall, England

Oaken Log – Touch Wood Enterprises
Photo courtesy Touchwood Enterprises

Over a period of ten years, the Eden Project in Cornwall, England has transformed a disused clay mine into a lush and fertile oasis. Environmental, educational and cultural discoveries are the heartbeat of this wonderland.

The Eden Project also has a massive section of oak trunk that serves as a rustic play station. The trunk comes from an oak that fell naturally and was then hollowed and sandblasted by Touch Wood Enterprises Ltd.

Eden Log photoset here

Keep in mind that the sample size for these cool playgrounds is very small. There are so many great designers and interesting playscapes out there. If you know a cool playground you’d like to share, send a photo(s) of it, its name and location to playgroundolgy@gmail.com for a future post.

Happy Birthday PlayGroundology

Noah-David’s rendition of our local playground – Halifax, Canada

Happy 1st birthday PlayGroundology!

This joyful sweep of lines and colours with blue skies sailing is just the perfect scene to represent the fun and adventure I’m experiencing with PlayGroundology. Since the first post in January 2010, I am continuously surprised by people’s generosity, by the richness, variation and sometimes audacity in playground design and by children’s imaginative spontaneity.

Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to speak or correspond with many fine people in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. Many of them are advocates for play, some are aficionados and others activists. All have provided their insights – words, memories, photos. Their stories and images are the heartbeat of this small corner of the playground universe. Thanks to all of you.

Thanks also to the readers, the tweeters, the commenters, the bloggers, tumblrs, flickrites and facebookers. I appreciate your sharing of links and content, getting this blog in front of an expanding audience. We’re growing modestly with just over 16,000 views in the first year. That’s more than enough to keep me getting up at crazy hours of the morning to do a little research and writing.

In case you haven’t read them already, here are some of the more popular posts from the first year.


Screen shots of some of the more popular posts – click here or on the image above.

Manhattan’s Bronze Guy
Anthropomorphic architecture installation – Playground – by sculptor Tom Otterness and Playgroundology’s first post.

Go Tell it on the Mountain – Montréal’s Salamander Playground
Montréal’s Salamander Playground incorporates new forms and equipment in a design by Cardinal Hardy Architects. Located in the city’s Mount Royal Park, it opened in June 2009 and is becoming a desination playscape within the city.

Playground Access for All Abilities
Research study, after research study has proven that children need to play. Children need to play because it makes them healthier and less likely to become obese. Children need to play because it makes them more focused in school. Children need to play because it teaches them social skills that are essential to becoming adept adults. Although play has been decreasing from our landscape, many children are still out there playing on playgrounds.

The Playgrounds of Flickrville
The web is wide and deep – an ever expanding repository of sound, text and light. We’re in a golden age of information sharing. On the images side of the equation, it’s a global photorush and Flickr is the motherlode. With 4 billion images and counting, this is a visual feast fit for a gourmet. It is now established as one of the primary digital meeting places for people who want to share photos and their interest in specific subject matter.

Popular Mechanics on the Playground Beat
I remember Popular Mechanics as a boy growing up in the 1960s. One of the trademarks was a small font size. They also had wondrous plans, superb graphics and fine photos. Until I stumbled across an old issue, I had never considered it as a resource for playground research. At the turn of the last century, Popular Mechanics had started chronicling the playground world in the United States. Who knew?

In the year ahead, PlayGroundology will be featuring artists, designers, thinkers, great playground cities, playground organizations and of course more innovative playgrounds, playscapes and playspaces. If you have a story idea for us to go after, or a guest post you’d like to contribute, contact us at – playgroundolgy@gmail.com.

It’s been a fine first year – bit of a magic bus ride. I hope you’ll join us for the rest of the trip.

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.

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.

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).