Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

As Necessary As Food

Review of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, with an introduction by Jane Mah Hutton (Concordia Press and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2023).

“Up, Down and Over” read the headline stretched across the pages of the September 13, 1954, issue of LIFE magazine. The photograph above these words showed a set of half-round monkey bars swarming with children, with a mushroom-shaped concrete spiral slide behind. “Goat Mountain,” pictured in a smaller photo, consisted of a series of biomorphic concrete steps, instant topography on which “children play old standbys like ‘king of the hill’ or…improvise games using tiers.”

The featured playground, at 18th and Bigler Streets in Philadelphia, was part of a concerted push by the city to add new children’s facilities at the rate of one per week. “Designed to be pleasing in line, safe to use and stimulating to the imagination, the new playthings cater to the natural inclination of youngsters to climb like mountain animals, crawl through dark passageways and hang by their heels,” wrote the anonymous LIFE reporter.

Also anonymous in LIFE was the designer of the playground, the 33-year-old landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander; this was her first solo project. Today, Oberlander (who died in 2021 at age 99) is Canada’s most famous landscape architect, thanks to her collaborations with the architect Arthur Erickson on key outdoor spaces in Vancouver, including Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. But those lush, layered compositions were only part of her legacy—the classic big client, major location, major architect part. The other part, as captured in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds, was her lifelong
commitment to “up, down and over”—to learning from, and designing for, children.

This slim volume is only the second in the series Building Arguments, drawn from texts by Canadian architects and landscape architects in the Canadian Centre for Architecture archives. It collects five essays on play by Oberlander, written between 1965 and 1984, as well as visual artifacts from her playground design process. It has been deliberately underdesigned—text-only cover, big type, a color insert for Oberlander’s hand-drawn plans, and some lovely child responses. I couldn’t help but wish the book was a little bit more talismanic: Its purpose, in my view, is to make sure Oberlander’s contributions to the history of play aren’t forgotten, though she doesn’t say anything radically different from contemporaries such as Lady Allen of Hurtwood or, later, Richard Dattner or M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. Practitioners familiar with more recent scholarship on the history of playgrounds by Roy Kozlovsky, Susan G. Solomon, and Mariana Mogilevich aren’t going to be surprised. Rather, its publication asserts Canada’s central position, thanks to Oberlander, in the second great playground revolution (the first being the Progressive Era expansions of the early 20th century). Shouldn’t Pedagogical Playgrounds, as an object, be a little more playful in keeping with the texts?

The book, after all, republishes one of the greatest playground renderings: Oberlander’s perspective view of the Children’s Creative Centre Playground at the Expo 67 in Montreal. Decisive cream perspectival lines on a brown background show the orthogonal perimeter of her site; within their boxy embrace, vertical pines with umbrellalike green boughs, a pirate ship with jaunty red flags, and spots of high-intensity kid activity, climbing here, running there, building there. She’s using sky and ground in the design to give children the maximum play possibility, and the graphic qualities of screen printing to make those possibilities clear to the viewer. It just looks like fun, the
same quality that her looser writings contain.

In her thorough introduction, the landscape architect Jane Mah Hutton introduces Oberlander by way of her lists, several of which are reproduced in the book. The liveliest is “Children Like…” (circa 1960) typed on two yellow pages, with illustrative photos. “MAKING THINGS—anything!”; “DRESSING UP (PRETENDING)”; and “BUILDING FORTS AND DENS” all get a positive mark. “MOVING LOOSE MATERIALS” gets a question mark, though Oberlander would change her mind on that later. Hutton quotes the literary critic Robert E. Belknap on the literary value of lists, seeing them not as efficient shorthand but as generative documents allowing the reader to “[wind] around and through the possibilities.”

In the playground setting, this metaphor becomes physical. “Together,” Hutton writes, “the individual pieces encourage discovery, allowing readers to explore and rearrange elements like debris in an Adventure Playground.” It is in the spaces between the designer’s words, and amid the debris she has chosen to leave out, that play happens—and so do Oberlander’s lists and histories, as a set, serve as a provocation for a new generation of playmakers. Because even though loose parts and natural playgrounds are nothing new, there still aren’t enough of them. Oberlander, like Aldo van Eyck, the Dutch modernist architect who designed 700 playgrounds for postwar Amsterdam, “saw potential in small vacant lots to address children’s need for play,” Hutton writes, but she had a messier vision, articulating “the additional need for plants, insects, and animals; modern-
ist planning disconnected children from soil and water too.”

In “Playgrounds…A Plea for Utopia or the Re-Cycled Empty Lot” (1974), Oberlander itemizes these essentials: “left-over lumber ends…hammers/saws/nails…rope…old car tires.” In “The Magic of Sand—Indoors and Out” (1978), she lists sand’s unique qualities (“texture…colour…pliability”) and more than a dozen things that you can do with it (“sift…dig…eat…shape”), advocating for its use in almost any setting for its “magic and magnetic qualities to which all children gravitate.” Negotiating between the stylish sculpture of the Isamu Noguchi playscape tradition, and the mud, water, and hammers tradition of Carl Theodor Sørensen, is an ongoing project. Oberlander bridged it better than most, placing herself (through her writings and her built work) in a long tradition of women advocates for play. Lady Allen, yes, but also Ellen Tower and Marie Zakrzewska, who founded the first play gardens in Boston in the 1880s, and Polly Hill, who popularized discussion of early childhood development with the Canadian TV series Ages and Stages and was later president of the International Play Association.

Oberlander wrote her own work into that history with “A Short History of Outdoor Play Spaces” (1978), which begins in a hazy beforetime in which “leisure and work were intertwined and inseparable,” and proceeds forward, unpacking the ways in which work, play, and the architectural provision for both have changed across centuries. In the Middle Ages, she writes, “children could play everywhere. The city as living experience had more effect on the training of the young than the formal school.” Industry brought an end to exploration and apprenticeship, along with a literal darkening of the urban skies, crowded streets, and crime. It was against that backdrop that the Playground Movement of the late 19th century was born: “Play is as necessary to a child as food,” wrote Everett B. Mero in 1908, arguing for investment in playgrounds as a way of keeping children off the streets.

During the first decades of the 20th century, cities did build playgrounds—but the civic provision for play had, by the 1950s, become stultifying. In 1978, Oberlander describes an ongoing need for a “fabric of play” across cities, “so that a six-year-old does not have to send a letter to me stating: ‘our present playground isn’t that bad, but after a year or more you just run out of games and you get bored.’” The solutions she offered were portable equipment, available playworkers, more country in the city—because while trade unions in that era had successfully negotiated more time for leisure, cities had yet to add the “more challenging and more flexible play and activity spaces” to meet that demand.

In 2023, the stakes seem simultaneously the same and radically different. A fresh wave of union organizing has centered itself on reenshrining set work hours and reasonable work schedules, along with paid family leave and paid sick and mental health days. A fresh wave of urban park building has enshrined photogenic playgrounds as part of the appeal of the world-class city—just look at the extensive work by Waterfront Toronto in that city. But only some of these parks have the loose parts, sand, wood, and water that Oberlander put first on her list of necessities; and many of those marquee parks are far from the neighborhoods where open space and free play (in both senses of the word) are most needed. The last entry in the book, “Planning for Play Everywhere” (exact date unknown; the editors suggest circa 1984), is the most practical and the least in need of an update: “Play is a part of the infrastructure of living,” Oberlander writes, “and this possibility for play should be built into the total environment.” Inventory your sites, identify your play goals, find your collaborators, she exhorts, through more lists. “There are 7 ingredients for a good playground space,” she says, and number 7 is “a good leader.”

Contemporary artists, architects, and activists also continue to assert play as central to any vision of the future city. The British design collective Assemble exhibited The Voice of Children at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale: a collection of films that, as they describe it, “are documentation of children playing freely, without undue adult intervention, external direction or goals, in environments which have been designed to enable play.” At the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, Francis Alÿs exhibited The Nature of the Game, a series of videos of children playing around the world; the film reappeared in the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston’s recent exhibition, To Begin Again: Artists and Childhood. At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale (theme: The Laboratory of the Future), the Lithuanian entry is a “Children’s Forest Pavilion,” with a timber playscape, horticultural shadow projections, and the end goal of returning all materials to their original woodland setting on the Curonian Spit.

Looking at images of the pavilion and its debarked branches and stepped platforms, I couldn’t help but think of how far we haven’t come from Oberlander’s Expo 67 playscape: The ideas and forms she presented remain out of reach for so many that a re-presentation of many elements remains a radical gesture. As is this book, putting her ideas into compact, legible form so that we may fight for them anew. As Hutton concludes: “In the generous multiplicity of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s lists, and in the legacy of the play spaces that she designed and built, is a nudge and wink that there are more ways to be, more barriers to overturn, and more adventures to be had.” Play doesn’t just happen—it is up to adults to be leaders, to set the stage, and then withdraw so that the children can have their fun.

Originally published in Landscape Architecture Magazine