A Spectacle: Lateral Office and CS Design Reinvent the Seesaw

Chiara Isserlis snow night

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.