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How Playgrounds Became Art Spaces in the 20th Century

Explore the history of the 20th century playground in ‘The Playground Project: From New York to Moscow.’

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

Installation view. Photos by Egor Slizyak, courtesy of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

No one expects to find anything spectacular on a children’s playground, except for children—or so Swiss curator and urbanist Gabriela Burkhalter thought. But when she encountered a range of examples from different countries, she finally understood their relevance. Playgrounds are both public and hidden, and, rather strangely, of zero mainstream commercial interest. Within these zones, Burkhalter tells The Creators Project, some very gifted architects and artists have staged experiments in art, architecture, design, public space and, of course, childhood.

Burkhalter’s research was recently part of an exhibition at Moscow’s Garage Contemporary Museum of Art, titled, The Playground Project: From New York to Moscow. As this is an interactive initiative, the exhibition allows children (and parents) to actually immerse themselves within playground installations, while learning about the visual and social evolution of these spaces from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Installation view

Burkhalter says that the design of playgrounds always occurred in response to a social, economic and political situations. In New York, for instance, a massive influx of migrants crated a great need for a space to, as she puts it, “control the children” and provide them with the basics of a civic education.

“In the 1960s, when New York plunged into an economic crisis, playgrounds were places to strengthen the community and to create safer open spaces,” says Burkhalter. “So playgrounds can be considered as public spaces moving back and forth between social control and civic engagement. This is the case for most cities, although with interesting variations that I try to address in my exhibitions and research.”

Through research, Burkhalter discovered that there were many efforts to improve leisure facilities and encourage creative play. As a result, abstract "play sculptures" started appearing, representing the optimism of a new leisure society, particularly in the US.

Group Ludic, Spheres on Stilts, Hérouville-Saint-Clair “La Grande Delle”, 1968. Courtesy Xavier de la Salle

Both Burkhalter and co-curator and Garage Public Program Curator, Anastasia Mityushina, note that these early playground designs had a certain anarchy about them. Burkhalter says that this feeling pops up in the “adventure playground movement,” particularly in the United Kingdom, with its various forms and the hope and expectation of improving society after a devastating war.

Mityushina believes this anything-goes nature allowed children to see things differently and question rules. “This thinking can be supported by historical precedents when society reacted sharply to the architects who invited kids to become their partners while making their projects,” says Mityushina, pointing to the KEKS group project for Venice Biennale and Riccardo Dalisi’s activities with street children in Naples’ Rione Traiano area.

Installation view

By the 1960s, playground development got a boost from an abundance of public funding and new materials. But by the 1970s this optimism had vanished amidst economic recession and environmental concerns.

“There, we observe a shift towards play activities and instant adventure playgrounds set up by civic groups or neighborhood organizations,” says Burkhalter. “The 1980s finally marked the rise of the consumer society, and the end of idealism and experiments of the previous decades: playgrounds became standardized and mostly boring.”

N.Y. Playground, 1910–1915. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

“In general, the stories of the playground development in the 20th century in the USA, Europe, and in Russia have many similarities,” adds Mityushina. She notes that from the 1910s to 1940s Russian playgrounds were patronized by the state, so the design and activities reflected the goals of Soviet political propaganda.

Despite all of the unexpected creativity that Burkhalter’s research unearthed, it also laid bare an unfortunate modern reality—playgrounds are currently suffering from mediocre design and materials. As far as she can tell, we have returned to the playground as a “soulless place with dull equipment similar to streetlights or drinking fountains.”

Installation view

“Real play spaces are still possible if people get involved in some way or if the state has a high priority to provide good play opportunities,” says Burkhalter. “The exhibition wants to remind us that we have a responsibility toward our children to include them in the public space, its planning and daily use, and not to hide them in the private sphere or behind the screen.”

“The way society treats children’s freedom and self-expression is more telling than any state laws,” adds Mityushina. “I hope that [visitors] will leave the exhibition with inner questions about trust: do I trust my own kid to be herself/himself? Am I generous enough to let her/him do this? And how can I improve the environment I live in?”

Water Playground, Central Park, New York City, 1972. Courtesy Richard Dattner

Installation view

Bernard Luginbühl, Small Сyclops 1967, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1972

The Playground Project: From New York to Moscow ran until January 10th at the Garage Contemporary Museum of Art in Moscow. Click here for more information on The Playground Project: From New York to Moscow.

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