Kurt Andersen accompanied Alexandra Lange (and her children) for a tour of The Hills on Governors Island to discuss the history of playgrounds. Part of a play-themed episode of Studio 360 that also covers Frisbees and Barbies.
It wouldn’t be much of a Play Week on Curbed without our resident expert’s take: Critic Alexandra Lange has been all over this beat in recent years, trekking to Noguchi’s last work, a mega-playground in Japan, and highlighting Aldo van Eyck’s progressive Dutch playgrounds. (This summer she also published, ahem, an entire book on the design of childhood, which scales from toy blocks to city blocks.)
Here, we’re excerpting a section from Lange’s book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, that delves into the adventure playground and its history in New York City. That’s right—there was a time in the not-too-distant past when parents let their scamper over concrete ziggurats and build their own play structures with hammers and nails. Intrigued? Read on!
“The next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult, but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it,” architect Richard Dattner writes at the beginning of his case history for the West Sixty-Seventh Street Adventure Playground, one of five he would eventually design at the periphery of Central Park. Where Kahn and Noguchi failed before him, Dattner and landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg would succeed.
“Designing from Instagram for Instagram seems like a snake eating its own tail. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and the eye grows tired of bananas or concrete tiles or mirror rooms.”
Quoted in The Guardian on architecture and social media.
First on Tumblr, then on Instagram: frame-filling, deep-shadowed, looming edifices, gray and often looking perpetually damp, pocked by windows, frilled with balconies, enlivened by murals or supergraphics or plants.
But popularity breeds restlessness. Paul Rudolph’s bush-hammered walls? Been there. The Barbican? Done that. Boston City Hall? A thousand op-eds. Flaine? Boutique ski resort. Marina City? Album cover.
The eye needs to travel. So social media gave us more: bigger buildings, more flamboyant and flowing forms, more spectacular settings. Like Yugoslavia: first through the photographs of Jan Kempenaers, widely published in 2013, then through Instagram accounts like
_di_ma and socialistmodernism for a daily dose of concrete.
To an American audience the forms, names and locations were strange, adding to the abstraction and the othering headlines: “These 1970s brutalist buildings in Serbia look like Star Wars spaceships,” said Quartz, who filed them under the category “Futuristic Finds.”
It was as if a forest of concrete mushrooms had sprouted and grown to gargantuan size while we were otherwise occupied.
A Q&A with John Williams for the New York Times.
Jane Jacobs, the famed urban activist who thought deeply about the streets and spaces where we live, wrote of children: “Their homes and playgrounds, so orderly looking, so buffered from the muddled, messy intrusions of the great world, may accidentally be ideally planned for children to concentrate on television, but for too little else their hungry brains require.” Alexandra Lange quotes this thought from Jacobs in the introduction to her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” In Ms. Lange’s book, schools, playgrounds, toys and other habitual features of young people’s lives are closely examined: the origins of their design, their strengths and shortcomings, and their short-term and long-term effects on children. Below, Ms. Lange discusses Minecraft and Legos, her surprise at the feminist angle of her book and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
The short answer is I had a baby, in 2007.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall catenary curve—designed by Eero Saarinen and clad in stainless steel—stands on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. But really, it stands everywhere in St. Louis.
As you walk downtown, the Arch appears at the end of every broad street, framing rooflines, slipping outside vertical walls, larger and more delicate than any other structure in town. You snap a picture, walk a few blocks, snap another and another. They are all good. There’s no bad side to the Arch. The Arch is perfect.
Should it fall out of sight, some sign or souvenir will remind you where you are, suggesting that you haven’t been anywhere in St. Louis if you haven’t been to the Arch yet. Earrings, keychains, sidewalk stencils, neon beer signs, temporary tattoos, T-shirts. A family of arches for the families that have always flocked to the Arch—albeit, in recent years, in declining numbers. Where once the soaring symbol was a potent enough attraction, now, the city realized, it had become a drive-in, drive-out phenomenon. If St. Louis could get visitors to stay, even for an extra half-day, it could produce the economic equivalent of a second Cardinals baseball season. The answer lay underfoot.