Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

How not to cheat children: Let them build their own playgrounds

Play Panels, Central Park, 1967, Richard Dattner Architect. Photograph by Norman McGrath.

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.

Continues: Curbed

Is Instagram changing the way we design the world?


“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.

Concrete utopia: What does our love of brutalist buildings say about us?

Miodrag Zivkovic. Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska. 1965-71. Photo by Valentin Jeck, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

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.

Continues: Curbed

Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: A Close Look at Where Kids Live, Learn and Play

Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

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.

Continues: New York Times

Gateway to what?

The entrance to the new visitor center from above. Courtesy Gateway Arch Park Foundation.

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.

Continues: Curbed

More good press for “The Design of Childhood”

On the radio: I spoke to Courtney Collins on Think, from KERA, and Frances Anderton on Design and Architecture, from KCRW.

Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand shared a few of their own parenting memories when they talked about the book on The Observatory, and I talked to Failed Architecture about how the book fits into my whole magpie-like career.

On the internet: How highchairs teach good manners, by Sarah Archer at Architectural Digest and the first review, by Allyn West, at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

And at Lifehacker, I tell readers which blocks are best.