Urban Playgrounds

The allure of the playground doesn’t go away as you reach adulthood – you just seek more substance from your urban jungle gym.

A trip to the playground was the most exciting thing that could happen before you turned ten. There were a couple of particular playgrounds that incited copious glee: wood chip paradises with an abundance of things to climb, swing and slide upon, usually constructed from raw natural wood. I’d beg my parents to drive for miles to take us to these magical places.

Later, playgrounds grew out of fashion. As a teenager, their only use was for lounging on downing cheap alcopops that someone’s older sister had bought for you (if you were deemed cool enough), or avoiding like the plague for fear of being mocked (if you weren’t).

Recently, I’ve been visiting playgrounds more and more. Not just any rickety rusty swing set will do, though; these spaces are designed to blur the boundaries between art and play. Working for all ages, contemporary play areas are being designed to encourage children to play and adults to admire. Open your eyes, and admit that the allure is still there.


Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Located in the uber hip Norrebro district, ever so slightly north of the centre of Copenhagen, Superkilen is a combination of art, sculpture, community spirit and an urban park. Half a mile long - stretching from Norrebrogade to Tagensvej - the park is split up into three areas, defined by their colour. Designed initially to promote diversity within the multicultural neighbourhood, Danish architectural firm, BIG sourced objects from sixty different nations to create the unique landscape of the park. Swings from Iraq, Russian neon signs, Moroccan fountains and Parisian manhole covers are among the objects that you can find within the colour coded areas. The Red Square was designed to incorporate local markets and sports facilities, alongside contemporary interpretations of children's play areas. Within the area, even the trees have red leaves. Cross the road and enter the black and white 'urban living space' - where you'll find locals BBQ-ing on the grills and playing chess or backgammon. The small hills also begin here; ideal for fun cycling. The final area is the Green Park, which has been designed for sports, play and picnicking. Proof that the Scandinavians do most things better than the rest of the world; even parks. 


Assemble and Simon Terrill’s playground at RIBA

Early last year, this temporary installation referenced the Brutalist inner-city concrete playgrounds of the sixties and seventies; dangerous yet handsome structures that encouraged play yet often caused injury. I remember having something similar at my own primary school (albeit, a couple of decades later): vast concrete platforms that we used to delight in climbing upon and jumping off, scraping the skin off our knees when we fell. Playground whispers were that someone had cracked their head open, and the structures were mysteriously demolished overnight. The installation at RIBA mirrored these dystopian creations, yet made them safe for play and therefore brought them up to date by constructing them from foam. It was pure coincidence that the foam had the speckled appearance of concrete; the design collective opted to use standard issue foam with the colour signalling the density, thus mirroring the Brutalist ethos to honour the truth of your materials.


Schulberg Playground, Wiesbaden, Germany

Architect collective, Annabau created a climbing structure suitable for all ages that weaves its way between the trees that already existed on its site. Twisting and turning and changing height, the structure’s green curves resemble organic shapes, perfectly fitting in with the surroundings. There are no fixed ways to play, allowing children and adults of all ages to explore the structure dependent on how high they can climb. Swings, nets and trampoline springs are incorporated into the design, creating other methods of play and adding interesting focal points.


City Museum, St Louis, Missouri

Although northern Europe is becoming known for its adult urban play areas, there is a structure over in America that dwarves them all. The granddaddy of urban playgrounds, City Museum is a ten-story-high labyrinth that could keep anyone entertained for hours. Located on the site of a former shoe factory, artist and sculpture Bob Cassilly created the structure for people of any age to enjoy playing upon. After Bob’s death, a collective of 20 artists known as the Cassilly Crew took over, constantly improving and adding on new features crafted from repurposed and salvaged materials, including entire airplanes and buses. From ten-story-high slides to underground tunnels, vertigo-inducing climbing frames and even a Ferris wheel, this is a structure begging to be explored.


Not all adult playgrounds are permanent fixtures. Numerous temporary structures fusing the boundaries between sculpture and play have recently appeared both in galleries and in outdoor spaces, creating interactive art exhibitions. Carsten Höller’s Isomeric Slides have been displayed in numerous galleries across the world, and made a triumphant return to London’s Hayward Gallery last summer where gleeful adults (myself included) flung themselves down the fifteen metre spiral chutes. Over in America, Howeler and Yoon Architecture recently installed twenty oval swings that glowed purple at night in temporary park, Lawn on D Street, attracting hordes of adults and resulting in thousands of social media posts.

Growing up no longer means having to stop playing in public.  Seek out your nearest adult-friendly urban playground, shake off your self-consciousness, and play. 

Images: British Brutalist Architecture, my own, Wallpaper, via google