Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Well played

Monstrum Fish, Chelsea Waterside Park, Manhattan. Photo by Max Giuliani, Hudson River Park Trust.

When Monstrum, a Danish playground-design firm, was asked to make playgrounds on the roof of the Lego House in Billund, Denmark, they knew one thing: they couldn’t be made of Lego. The exhibition building is full of Lego-based installations, games and, above all, playbricks, as visitors are encouraged to build whatever their imaginations conjure. The new playgrounds had to have the same sense of creativity without being made of movable parts. “Since the playgrounds are up in the air we decided to have everything mounted firmly into the ground, in order not to risk anything being thrown overboard,” says Jesper Vilstrup, general manager of the Lego House.

Instead Monstrum, which has built an international portfolio of playable fish, rockets, spires and birds, took the adventurous scenarios depicted on boxes of Lego as inspiration and decided on a theme: “How to get to Lego House”. Each area of the playground would be like a snapshot of a journey. There is a submarine caught in a fish net attacked by a sea monster, a hot-air balloon landing in a cornfield full of scarecrows, a helicopter made of wood and raised up high on thin steel poles that illustrate air currents whipping around it. The steel poles aren’t just for show: children can climb them to get to the helicopter, slide down to make their escape or ignore the vehicle above and simply swing between them. In each scenario, the child pilots his or her play, deciding how high to climb and how deep to descend into whatever adventure narrative they have devised. The playgrounds are stage sets, and the children are actors writing their own scripts.

Continues: 1843 Magazine

What Shapes Our Children’s Independence?

I discussed The Design of Childhood with Matt Katz at WNYC.

Is America’s densest city ready to make room?

A rendering of 80 Flatbush, which will stand just under 1,000 feet tall. Courtesy Alloy Development

At its current rate of growth, Brooklyn is about to be more populous than the entire city of Chicago.

Saying “we need more housing” is a given, but no one agrees on where, how high, and for whom. And New York has been later to that discussion than San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles: While the city is building housing, technically, it is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of 144,000 new Kings County residents since 2010.

All of this zooms into sharp focus on a 60,000-square-foot trapezoidal block straddling scenic Boerum Hill and high-traffic Flatbush Avenue. The proposed mixed-use project known as 80 Flatbush will include two high-rise towers, with offices below and 900 residences above. Twenty percent of its apartments will be affordable, and two existing historic brick buildings will be repurposed as a cultural facility and retail space. Two schools will be built, underwritten by the Educational Construction Fund (ECF), which creates schools on underutilized city sites without public funding.

The developers are seeking a change to the city’s zoning laws in order to build bigger and more dense, but have run into opposition from some Boerum Hill residents, who view the project as out of scale with their low-slung neighborhood. The City Council will decide its fate soon, perhaps by the end of this month.

Continues: Curbed

From schools to sand piles

Mt. Healthy Elementary School in Columbus, Ind. (Norman McGrath / H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture LLC)

An interview with Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times. Turns out she went to an open plan school too, in Irvine, Calif.

When architecture critic Alexandra Lange first had her children — a son and daughter, now ages 11 and 7, respectively — she says that she found herself, like many parents of infants, contending with an avalanche of stuff: toys, dish ware, clothing, furnishings and assorted accoutrements.

“As a design critic, all this stuff was coming into my house and I had opinions about it,” she recalls. Like the Automoblox Minis that someone had gifted her son — toys that showed a good eye for form, but which failed crucial tests of day-to-day play. “By the 100th time I lost the wheels under my couch,” says Lange, “I decided that they didn’t work.”

That episode inspired an essay in Fast Company about toy design. Since then, the intersecting topics of kids and design is something she has revisited regularly in her dispatches for Curbed and the New Yorker. And it’s something she explores at length in her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids,” published this summer by Bloomsbury.

As expected, the book contains chapters devoted to charting the history of important toys, such as wood blocks and Lego. But “Design of Childhood” casts a wider, more ambitious net, looking at the ways in which attention to children and their needs has helped shape design at large — including public space (playgrounds), architecture (schools and the home) and urbanism (safe street design).

Continues: Los Angeles Times

The Summer Idyll of Free-Range Children Could Last All Year

As many families head back to school (at last), what should they keep from the summer, besides jars of shells? New York City schools start after Labor Day. My family, like many others, tries to make the most of summer by going on vacation during the last week of August. Our getaway of choice is Fire Island, where, for the past four years, we’ve rented the same house. It isn’t ours, of course, but by now there is comfort in returning to the same corduroy sofa, the same mismatched mugs, the same rusty bicycles.

Familiarity means that we can quickly adapt to a way of life that feels very different from our daily existence in Brooklyn. And it isn’t just the lack of deadlines. The kids go in and out on their own, wandering to a friend’s house or biking to the next town over, with no more than a word of departure or a confirming text on arrival. We meet up on the beach and pretend to read. If you need to go home to use the bathroom, you go—the house isn’t locked—and come back with a bag of chips. I am not texting, calendaring, accompanying at all times. I can sit. My phone stays in a Ziploc bag for hours. Suddenly, it’s dinnertime.

For a week, I catch a glimpse of the family life that previous generations are always telling us about: “My mother kicked us out of the house after breakfast and said, ‘Don’t come back until dinner!’ ” Or, “We went out to the woods behind our house after school and built forts.” Or, “As soon as we scraped together the change, we walked downtown and went to the movies.”

Continues: New Yorker

How Kids Learn to Navigate the City (and the World), in Five Designs

Kiddicraft Interlocking Building Cubes, A Hilary Page Design, 1950. Chas Saunter, hilarypagetoys.com

I spoke to Amanda Kolson Hurley at CityLab about five designs for children discussed in my book: Kiddicraft, the Tripp Trapp chair, Crow Island School, Aldo Van Eyck’s playgrounds, and False Creek South in Vancouver.

In the era of Marie Kondo, the streamlining of our material lives still runs into one big obstacle: parenthood. “To have a child is to be thrown suddenly, and I found rather miraculously, back into the world of stuff,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange in her new book, The Design of Childhood. As Lange and countless other parents discover, you might use a baby-monitor app and have episodes of Peppa Pig on the iPad, but living with children means swimming in a sea of tactile objects—teething necklaces and strollers, play kitchens and board books.

Continues: CityLab