Thursday, May 28, 2009

Elephant and Castle Playground, London, Martha Schwartz Partnership, 2008

Still traveling through London by playground (can you believe I saw all this in one day?)

Given Martha Schwartz' reputation for the avant-garde, I was disappointed that her firm's playground for the redevelopment of St. Mary's Churchyard at Elephant and Castle consisted mostly of off-the-shelf components from a manufacturer, with the addition of some orange climbing blobs.
Very artificial, of course, but that is her style.
The flat 'discs' in the second photo are little marble sculptures, polished cool and smooth for tiny hands, with a recess in the top that would catch just enough water for a little splashing after a rain, but not enough to stay around and become stagnant. They were my favorite feature.
In the wider parkspace, black and white spheres sprouting up like so many mushrooms underneath a grouping of trees were surprisingly comfortable to sit on, and more playful than your average park seating.

More exciting, I think, are some other plans for the area...there is to be an 'urban forest' that will run from Elephant and Castle to the Tate Modern, and include a playground (drawing below from architects-in-charge Witherford Watson Mann). Can't wait!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cantelowe's skate park, Camden, London, Wheelscape and the Cantelocals, 2007

There was also a nice skate park at Cantelowe's...I can't claim to know much about skate parks (having been on a skateboard no more than a couple of times in my balance, really) but the judgment of the masses is positive...according to a press release by Sport England, who helped fund the project, it has been dubbed the best in the UK, in large part due to the involvement of the Cantelocals, the local BMX and skateboarders' group that helped Camden Council design it. I liked the fact that the funding included £10k towards a Park Officer to provide coaching.

The park includes areas for beginner and advanced skateboarders and spectators as well as a massive concrete bowl, ramps, skid rails, practice pavements and a performance platform.

It has its own website:

The effort was led by Wheelscape, whose take on the design process of the park is enlightening.

I think there should be a rock band called Wheelscape and the Cantelocals.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cantelowe's Park Playground, Camden, Farrer Huxley, 2009

The Cantalowe's park playscape was my favorite of all those we took the familiar elements of the natural playground--stumps, rocks, sand, earth forms--and integrated them into a story: a meteorite had crashed to earth, crumpling the ground around it as it skidded to a stop, leaving a bare (sand) skid mark, upturned boulders, and fallen trees in its wake. We visited just prior to its grand opening; I'm anxious to see how the children respond to it. By London firm Farrer Huxley Associates, it is something of a departure in style from the other playgrounds they've completed. It can only be hoped that they'll continue in this creative vein!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bingfield Park Football Pitch, Islington, architectsnetwork

Also in Bingfield Park, behind Crumbles, was an well-designed football pitch: sunken, defined by gabion walls with strong design appeal, and boxy modern seating elements on one side with a curved seating wall on the other.
Designed by architectsnetwork; more photos at their site.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Crumbles Castle Adventure Playground, Islington, 1974

From a 1974 article in "Design" covering the installation of this adventure playground:

"Telegraph poles, concrete and granite sets from dismantled Kings Cross roadways were the chief raw materials for this toughest of all adventure playgrounds. Physically it is well suited to the robust natures of the kids in the Bingfield St neighbourhood. As an idea, it is blessedly non-abstract, a solidly fantastic landmark in an area which is visually no fun whatsoever.The Crumbles Play Castle was organised and designed by architecture students Catherine Davis, Robert Hamment, Robert Parker and Jill Seyler, at the invitation of local residents. Some nine months in the making, it is due for completion by Christmas. The 150m2 interior, designed as a quarter-amphitheatre, has now been roofed over and grassing of roof and surrounding mound should begin this month. The telegraph poles will be slung with climbing ropes.The project has depended on a lot of scattered generosity: an eventual £15,000 from the Islington authority and about the same sum in private donations of capital gifts, cheap materials, money and labour. Lang, for instance, donated some £600-worth of labour."

Crumbles continues to employ full-time playworkers to facilitate free and adventurous play that includes construction projects and cooking over a fire.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Through London by Playground - Elm Village, Theories Landscapes, 2009

When lately in London, I had the pleasure of being taken round some of its playscapes by playground advocate Tim Gill, and will be blogging about them over the next few weeks. Thanks to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the entire text of Tim's book "No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society" is available for download at their website.

It gives specific attention to children's play and spaces designed for play, and Tim has been instrumental in moving the conversation for new playgrounds in London from a discussion of risk alone to a proper consideration of risk AND benefits as applied to playgrounds.

The issue of fear and risk couldn't have been more evident than at our visit to Elm Village, a pocket park on a housing estate in Camden, to see an installation then but a few weeks old by London-based Theories Landscapes. Just as we were admiring the playscape, we were approached by a woman from the estate who was not only displeased with it, but actively upset about her perception of its 'dangers'.

Soon, we were at the center of a small group with aggressive complaints:

The climbing structure is dangerous. It's too high. You can fall off of it. You can bump your head from underneath. You can fall down on the hill. Kids on top can see into the ground-floor apartment windows. Maybe its ok for older kids but not for younger kids and the big kids will take over the space and be bullies. The sticks on the bushes are sharp and might poke a child in the eye. The kids might enjoy it for a while but they will soon get bored. One of the entrances to the playspace is through the parking lot and someone might get run over. It's ugly.

As we talked however, the attitude of the women softened considerably. They began to acknowledge that the playground was innovative and even attractive, though they still felt that it was somehow unsafe.

It became clear that the problem was largely one of expectations: the installation differed so dramatically from what they had expected; from what they thought a playground, and in particular a 'safe' playground, should look like. Having only experienced conventional commercial equipment installed on pancake flat ground, it had become their standard.

It reminded me that communication becomes extra important when trying to do something new or innovative. The residents acknowledged that they hadn't gone to the planning meetings held at the estate, but still insisted that the playscape wasn't what they 'thought' they were getting.

While it might not have allayed all of their concerns, some simple signage explaining the playground and its goals would have helped. Just a little information about how the bushes and the timbers were important natural elements, that the apple trees on the trellis (along the yellow arches in the pictures) would shield the windows of the ground floor apartments as they grew, and that the incorporation of the hills and the height of the climbers was in line with research about how children needed to be challenged as they played, could have at least helped the moms understand. And if they understood, perhaps they might have felt proud of their unique playspace instead of believing they were simply being experimented on by the council. Perhaps they still can. I wonder what they'll think at this time next year?

While we were talking, a group of children, ranging in age from 5 to 15, came to the playground and began to play together behind us. Quite happily.