Remembering Vito Acconci

Multi-talented artist and all around “mensch” Vito Acconci (1940-2017) died recently. His loss is devastating for anyone interested in expanding concepts of art and public space. Vito spent most of his career trying to improve the ordinary places we inhabit and forcing us to acknowledge that these can be artful, playful, and unpredictable events in our everyday lives. Most importantly, he said that space only makes sense if it is inhabited.

Many of the obituaries for Vito have stressed his innovative and often outrageous performance art. For people of my generation – those of us who “came of age” on art in the late 1960s and early 1970s- it is easy to say that he is remembered for his shocking “Seedbed” at the Sonnabend Gallery (1972).  Underlying these antics, however, was a firm belief that we can’t distinguish between public and private venues and that art can be found anywhere, not just in rarified museums. Vito understood his debt to the slightly older artists of Happenings of the early 1960s and he invigorated their restlessness for a generation that was contending with the Vietnam War and the societal upheavals of the late 1960s.

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High Design + Playability = Success

Treehugger.com recently wrote a snarky piece about a new play area in Lexington, MA. The editor of the site dismissed this structure, saying this “play equipment encourages kids to pretend they’re in a Dwell article.”

It sparked my interest. From the images, I thought I saw lots of opportunities for kid directed and variable free play and I began to wonder if we expect – perhaps even unconsciously demand- low caliber aesthetics in outdoor architecture for children?. Do we cynically assume minimal playabllity when good design provides an armature for child-centric activities?

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Location, Location, Location

I send you greetings for the best possible 2017!

I want to start the new year by expanding the discussion of playgrounds, going beyond the physical characteristics of where children could gather.  It is no secret that I like a particular type of environment.   As many of you know, my ideal play area would be a loosely configured “playscape” that would be unfenced, intergenerationally inclusive, filled with areas (rather than equipment) for non-directional exploration and imaginative creation.

Now I want to develop the notion of what a play space might look like by considering where we might place them. Critic and dean (Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture) Aaron Betsky spurred me on to think about this. Betsky wrote a wonderful essay for the December issue of Metropolis. Entitled “The High Line Effect,” his piece carried this summary: “This has been a great year for new parks in cities all around America- but is that good news for all citizens?”

Betsky does a remarkable job of showing how many well-funded park projects are destinations, ones that reside in wealthy areas (or places that are quickly becoming unaffordable to most people). These types of projects, he rightly explains, do not enhance poor neighborhoods or provide an outdoor sanctuary where working class people could gather daily near their own homes. They become instead “exclusive” enclaves, “ a new kind of park that isolates itself from the urban fabric.”

Betsky’s remarks are a clear reminder that where we put parks and playscapes is as important as to what is in them. When planning for play, advocates have to consider how close the play space is to nearby housing and how easy it for kids or young families to come frequently. It would be encouraging if we could follow the direction of many cities, especially Tokyo, where it has been routine for decades to have every family within ten minutes walk of a park and where young children are encouraged to come by themselves and meet up with their friends.   Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was an even earlier proponent of neighborhood oases, starting right after World War II, and contemporary architect Liane Lefaivre has sought to reestablish similar “webs” in her work for immigrant communities of Rotterdam. American cities are now beginning to explore and implement similar strategies.

I was heartened recently to find a good example of innovation and accessibility in Washington Square Park in New York City. It is a model that could be easily and inexpensively replicated in less affluent neighborhoods. Talented designers Jason Schwankert and Akiva Rubin brought it to my attention. It is in the southwest corner of the park, somewhat removed from all of the activity surrounding the square’s arch and its plaza. There is nothing to keep anyone out of this playscape and there are many nearby seats for adults. As you can see from this photo, children can have a variety of experiences, including hanging from and going across, above, below the low cables. These rope cables take on height by being placed over gently carved gullies. Kids can jump down, then run up and down the low hills. Or, they might just play on the hills. Or, they might just hang from the ropes. There is variety in what they can attempt and they decide what will challenge them. The artificial grass is not offensive; it makes sense so that the grass pits are not worn down too quickly. The site, which appears to be the place where Robert Nichols installed short rising mounds in the late 1960s, nicely evokes his prior accomplishments

Let’s hope that the coming year brings out similar well placed and well conceived play areas in many parts of many cities.

P.S.  I am on vacation in Rome. Next Saturday, January 21, I will be at a local rally in support of the Women’s March.  It is at 11:00 AM in front of the Pantheon and I urge other Americans who are here to join in.  Please spread the word to any friends, relatives, colleagues who also may be in the Eternal City.

Bathrooms and Public Space: Really?

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When was the last time you were in a public bathroom that was whimsical? How about a public bathroom that was beautiful? Joyful and lovely?

For readers who come to this site to read about playgrounds and public space, please don’t despair. I have a point to make and I will get there soon.

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What Is On Your Reading List?

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I never expected to devote an entire blog posting to a single book. Alison Gopnik’s new work, The Gardener and the Carpenter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux published it in August) has propelled me to do just that. I strongly suggest that anyone in the world of play and playgrounds – including planners, parks department personnel, play activists, designers, funders, parents- rush to their library and get a copy ASAP. It would not be wasteful to consider even buying a copy

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Suncheon, Korea: Great Collaborations Lead to Great Playgrounds

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Policy, activism, design. I think that those three elements are often key to successful playgrounds.   When I recently visited Korea, I saw how effective these could be when they are in sync. Suncheon city hosted me and asked me to speak at their International Play Symposium.   I was delighted to participate and to see what has been accomplished there in terms of outdoor public space that invests in children.

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A Spectacle: Lateral Office and CS Design Reinvent the Seesaw

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Architect Louis Kahn used to say, “nothing is as permanent as something temporary.” There is a lot of truth to what he had to say. It is a stern warning, especially when considering housing. Kahn wisely instructs us to invest in long-term solutions rather than short term “fixes.”

But there is one category- spectacles- where the intention is to dazzle and excite people for a short period of time. There is little chance that these ephemera will remain and that is ok. It’s a tradition that has many precedents, including ones in ancient Rome and 18th century France.

A recent spectacle, the Luminothérapie festival in Montreal, can be appreciated for the joy it brought to the city and for what it teaches us about play and playgrounds in public space. The site is appropriately the Quartier des Spectacles, an arts and performance district that is often quiet when there are no performances. The Quartier des spectacles Partnership, the local group that coordinates programming, sponsors an annual architectural competition. Their objective is to underwrite pieces that draw people to this area during the cold winter months. Their underlying concept is that people can activate outdoor spaces, many of which are empty lots, if they are involved in thrilling events. The Partnership sees possibilities for a sense of community, even in fleeting settings. The Toronto firm Lateral Office (Mason White and Lola Sheppard founded it), together with the Montreal Lighting firm CS Design (Conor Sampson), won the commission this past winter. They co-created a total environment, Impulse. Their winning team included sound artist Mitchell Akiyama who designed musical tones and Mathieu Lesourd of Maotik and Daniel Iregui of Iregular who made the video projections.

With videos projected onto nearby buildings and abandoned lots, the centerpiece was 30 seesaws that were either 16’ or 24’ long. Each emitted a white light, one that brightens as children and adults use them. Actions (speed, height) energized and controlled the five tones that are unique to each piece. The seesaws stopped working late at night (a requirement the client requested) but the area was open 24 hours a day. There were no security systems or guards. At a time when ho-hum playgrounds seem to cost at least $ 1 million (US) it is heartening to see that this entire enterprise cost less than $300,000 (CN).

It is gratifying to see that Lateral Office and CS Design created real seesaws, ones that can go quite high. In the United States, seesaws have become almost stationery horizontal bars that rarely go more than an inch or two above a horizontal position (Ironically, old fashioned seesaws are not prohibited by our Consumer Product Safety Commission’s guidelines as long as there is a half tire below for padding). Here, Lateral Office and CS Design used a rubber bumper that is unnoticeable but effective. . At the same time, the 1.5-meter drop (approximately 4.5 feet) was within the local safety code.

The lesson here is that it is imaginable to reinvent an old standby piece of equipment, do it with beauty (the seesaw light was meant to reflect on snow) and panache, and see that there were no dire consequences. In fact, there were no injuries. The design team acted in a gutsy and exciting way and they were rewarded when children- and adults- were drawn to their piece and used it appropriately.

The Lateral Office/CS team had a progressive vision about how the ensemble should function. They sensed it would provide whimsical experiences. The photo at night (Chiara Isserlis was the photographer) shows that a variety of ages used this unique equipment. The photo shows, too, that there were no gates or fences to separate the play area from the street. Kids were intrigued which may help to explain why none of them ran into the traffic. In fact, the pieces may have been all the more inviting since there were no barriers. While no one was excluded, the site did not become a home for vagrants or an attraction for illegal behaviour. Architect Sheppard has eloquently noted that this was effectively the democratization of public space.

Lateral Office and CS Design also demonstrated that the legacy of architect Aldo van Eyck, who designed over 700 playgrounds in Amsterdam after World War II, survives. Van Eyck felt that children could invigorate a city and that designing exterior spaces for them would benefit the city as a whole. Impulse shows that that notion remains true.

I have written in the past that we need to educate the public (especially parents) about the necessity and vitality of innovative spaces. Pieces like Impulse have made me change mind. I am beginning to think we need to find a way to create these spaces; we need to let the public see how successful and safe they can be. We should then see the demand unfold. It is quite possible that the public, including parents, will embrace innovation and petition for more exciting play spaces after they see them in action. Perhaps the temporary spectacle is the way to create the “baby steps” that might allow us to begin to make public spaces that are fun for children and intergenerational for all.

Reconsidering Getting Kids to Go Outside

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American kids, when they have unstructured free time, seem to favor playing inside. Conventional wisdom cites computers, video games, and TV programs as some of the primary culprits that seduce kids into staying indoors. These beliefs are so entrenched that some manufacturers of playground equipment are finding ways (I think foolishly) to bring electronic gaming into outdoor spaces.

While it is easy to blame electronics, we haven’t looked diligently for deeper, more systemic causes. The problem may be both simple and easily rectifiable: we don’t expose children to the outdoors when they are very young. We don’t introduce American children to cold weather as infants and then we don’t consistently make sure that they continue to spend time outside -in all weathers and all climates- when they are toddlers and preschoolers. When they get to elementary school we bemoan the fact that they do not play outdoors; it may be that by that time the kids have grown so “addicted” to the indoors that their habits are hard to break.   Why should 7 or 8 year olds want suddenly to play outside when it has not been part of their routine since birth?

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Do We Know How To Get Information?

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How can we learn what children utnd adults want and need in playgrounds? And how can we make sure that those playgrounds are a vital public space?

These questions were front and center when I participated in a recent review for students in a graduate program for landscape architects.  The focus of the course was how to create playgrounds that would stimulate creative, harmonious, healthy urban living.

One of my fellow jurors chastised (rightfully) these young designers for failing to diligently observe how local folks – young and old- used the designated spaces during the course of the day.  How did participants and their activities change as the day progressed?  Who interacted with whom? What did they DO?

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Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen

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I worry about public space that is captured in images that are “too good to be true.”  Such is the case with Superkilen, an urban linear park in Copenhagen.  And like the old adage, the on-the-ground experience is not as good as the photos.   When I saw it this past summer, I came away thinking that Superkilen is a wonderfully photogenic one-kilometer long stretch, one that sadly does not live up to its promise. It’s a pity the results are not more positive because millions of people are already familiar with it (they might not know its name) thanks to an iPhone ad that placed it on magazine covers and billboards this past spring. Readers might remember the dramatic images of white squiggly lines on an undulating black surface.  The cost of Superkilen- over $8 million-compounds my feeling of unease.

The results are all the more dispiriting because heartfelt intentions underlay the Superkilen concept.  It represents a potent belief that design can ameliorate social shortcomings and foster community.   Creating Superkilen was an attempt to improve the everyday life of newcomers who have arrived in Copenhagen over the past decade.  Many are poor and live jammed together in the roughest area of the city, Nørrebro  (although to American eyes this neighborhood appears much more benign than inner cities in the USA and there is at least one street, previously notorious for killings and crime, which now hosts upscale restaurants). Superkilen was introduced as a respite space, a series of outdoor hubs where local residents could gather.

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