Whereas Friedberg’s environments like Riis Plaza were totally fixed, Dattner introduced moveable components, setting in motion what would come to be known as the “theory of loose parts.” Central among these were a series of slotted wooden boards that could be assembled in a variety of ways, with some small enough for children to manage by themselves and others requiring cooperation. Large areas of sand and water further imbued the playground with the possibility of transformation. The opportunity for a child to explore and experiment without the direct interference of adults was of central importance to Dattner. “The main thing wrong with playgrounds is that a kid can’t change them. A child must feel he has an effect on his environment,” he explained. Dattner’s 2006 renovation of Heckscher Playground, though modified to conform to modern safety specifications, still gives a sense of this original approach.
At a moment when we cannot help but recognize the necessity of new approaches to old problems, it is time for New York to once again lead the country in creating dynamic playscapes that foster a child’s imagination and fuel creative thinking. Though our ever-litigious society has dampened much of the creative impulse, thankfully a handful of recent New York playgrounds are taking up the challenge.
In 2004, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh gave Battery Park City what the Boston Globe called “a manifesto on the possibilities of a playground.” Nestled into a two-acre plot of land amid four condominiums, Teardrop Park integrates playful elements into a sophisticated landscape meant to invoke the Catskills. The result is what the architects describe as “a park that also makes kids happy—rather than a kid’s park.” Thrilling to any city kid, this seemingly wild and secret garden—replete with 14-foot slide—possesses enough enchantment to warrant the lingering of all age groups.
Last year, Frank Gehry presented plans for a $10 million Playspace, his own undulating ode to play in Battery Park. Though it is slated to be unveiled in 2012, further details have yet to reveal themselves.
Undeniably, the city’s latest king of the sandbox is found in the unlikely figure of David Rockwell. As the designer behind some of the city’s hottest hangouts (think Nobu and the W Union Square), Rockwell might be said to have always been in the business of creating playgrounds—albeit ones geared to larger cool kids. At the South Street Seaport, Rockwell lent his vision and P.R. clout (with website, merchandise and a hefty press kit) to the Imagination Playground, which opened last summer to throngs of trendy tots. The chief conceit of Rockwell’s design—five years in the making—is 450 moveable large foam blocks that render children the architects of their own experience.
Looking to build on his playground’s success, Rockwell has partnered with play-advocacy group KaBOOM! to develop Playground in a Box, a boxed set of 75 biodegradable foam blocks in 15 different shapes. Rockwell and KaBOOM! are working to distribute these spin-offs to playgrounds and elementary schools across the country, in hopes that they will provide an affordable solution to making existing playgrounds more flexible—and fun. Last summer, 10 New York City playgrounds (two in each of the five boroughs) were provided with a set, while several more were sent nationwide. “It is going to change the narrative about what is the best type of play for kids, and parents will start to demand those elements,” KaBOOM! CEO Darell Hammond declared.
The trend toward playground starchitecture is not without its critics. A recent reader submission published in Wired depicted a facetious Jean Nouvel plan for a 2024 Lower East Side playground, replete with a Purell decontamination chamber, a Bugaboo stroller rink and a Pratt & Whitney 10G merry-go-round. While the luxurious budgets afforded big architects by high-profile public-private partnerships are rarely feasible, with Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 and Union Square’s newly renovated playground, Van Valkenburgh has demonstrated that, when sensitively incorporated, catalog equipment can create a playground that is more than the sum of its parts.
“I think that the focus should be on making creative imaginative spaces,” remarks Matthew Urbanski, a principal at MVVA and Van Valkenburgh’s closest collaborator for the past 15 years. “If the culture’s attention isn’t on it, it falls to pocket-protector types who are just going to try to cut down their own risk.”
Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, contends that just as museums were the commissions of choice at the end of the 20th century, the coveted assignment of the future could well be the urban playground. While celebrity architects obviously aren’t a scalable solution for local playgrounds, they can serve as a starting point, emboldening us to ask more of our playgrounds.