These public playgrounds were located in parks, squares, and derelict sites, and consisted of minimalistic aesthetic play equipment that was supposed to stimulate the creativity of children. Over the last decades, these playgrounds have been studied by sociologists, theorists of art and architecture, and psychologists. However, it is argued that the standardization e. This standardization, which was arguably the result of the aesthetic motives of the designer, might be appealing to children when simply looking at the equipment, but it is not of overriding importance to them when playing in it.
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Many hundreds more followed, in a spatial experiment that has positively marked the childhood of an entire generation. Though largely disappeared, defunct and forgotten today, these playgrounds represent one of the most emblematic of architectural interventions in a pivotal time: the shift from the top down organization of space by modernist functionalist architects, towards a bottom-up architecture that literally aimed to give space to the imagination.
Immediately after the Second World War, Dutch cities were in a state of dereliction. The housing stock was falling dramatically short in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Combined with a dysfunctional infrastructure, it presented planners with the situation of an outright emergency. On top of that, this ravaged urban context was soon to be confronted with the birth peak of the postwar baby boom, whereas almost no space for children was available, neither inside nor outside the house.
At that time, some playgrounds existed in the city, but almost all of them were of a private nature and based on membership of the fortunate few.
In Amsterdam, Cornelis van Eesteren, longtime president of the CIAM, was to implement his General Extension Plan Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan — AUP of , one the first modern urban masterplans to be based on extensive statistical forecasts of demographic and transport developments 1.
His plan embraced the ideal of functional separation, meaning that housing, work, traffic and recreation where to be functionally separated and integrally planned. This was the basic premise of the large-scale construction of new post-war neighborhoods in the fifties such as Buitenveldert and the Westelijke Tuinsteden, resulting in the well known open housing blocks with large amounts of light, air, greenery and monotony. This vision was radicalized in the sixties, when the entire city clogged up due to the explosive rise of car traffic, and urban planners introduced a proposal for an extensive network of metro lines and highways to cut through the old fabric of the city.
The Dutch planners, however, never got that far. Aldo van Eyck played an important role in defining what would follow. He also began to participate actively in the CIAM conferences 4.
However, the perspective on urban space that van Eyck developed through his playgrounds, would lead him to become one of the most fervent critics of the functionalist tendency that dominated the CIAM movement until then.
In , a critical group of young architects formed within the CIAM, van Eyck was one its most vocal members. Out of the organizing group of the Otterlo conference emerged a new platform: Team X. Looking back, we can see that the ingredients for this shift were already present in the playgrounds.
In the first eight years he designed sixty of them and after that many more, the last ones almost in batches in the new post-war districts. Of the grand total of , only 90 survived into the 21st century with their original layout.
The first playground on Bertelmanplein was a test case. Van Eyck designed a sandpit bordered by a wide rim. In it he placed four round stones and a structure of tumbling bars. The pit was placed in the north corner of the square, diagonally across from three tumbling bars.
Bordering the square were trees and five benches. The playground was a success. Many designs followed and, depending on the site, Van Eyck deployed a number of compositional techniques. For him the playgrounds were an opportunity to test out his ideas on architecture, relativity and imagination. Relativity in the sense that connections between elements were determined by their mutual relationships rather than by a central hierarchical ordering principle.
All elements were equal: the playgrounds designed by Van Eyck were exercises in non-hierarchical composition 8. Van Eyck also designed the playground equipment himself, including the tumbling bars, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms, and his children tested them.
To him, playing equipment was an integral part of the commission. The purpose was to stimulate the minds of children. The hemispherical jungle gym was not just something to climb.
It was a place to talk and a lookout post. Covered with a rug, it became a hut. These sandpits, tumbling bars and stepping stones were placed throughout the Netherlands.
Different elements of the playgrounds represented a break with the past. First and foremost, the playgrounds proposed a different conception of space. Van Eyck consciously designed the equipment in a very minimalist way, to stimulate the imagination of the users the children , the idea being that they could appropriate the space by its openness to interpretation. The second aspect is the modular character of the playgrounds. The basic elements — sandpits, tumbling bars, stepping stones, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms — could endlessly be recombined in differing poly-centric compositions depending on the requirements of the local environment.
The design of the playgrounds was aimed at interaction with the surrounding urban tissue. Of course the use of empty plots was also a tactical solution. Because the Site Preparation Service of the Department of City Development, working together with local associations, wanted to give every neighbourhood its own playground, they often had to be placed in vacant, derelict sites.
The focus on how space could be appropriated, stood in clear opposition to the prevailing modernist conception of space in architecture, most famously formulated by Giedion in his classic Space, Time and Architecture. How to feel at home in the modern city, this machine of mass rationalization? The Playground as Cultural Critique The playgrounds were not isolated architectural interventions.
Somehow they served as a powerful synthesis, a distillation of some of the most interesting motives that resonated amongst the last avant-gardes in that interesting time span when modernism came under heavy fire, but the general disillusionment of the postmodernist era was nowhere yet in sight. In itself, a playground seems a rather sweet and non-controversial undertaking, but at the time, it also functioned as a crystallization point of cultural critique.
In , van Eyck played host to the first exhibition of the Cobra group — a short-lived but influential avant-garde art movement — in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The Cobra group dissolved only three years after it was founded, but Cobra members Constant Nieuwenhuys and Asger Jorn were to re-appear on the stage as co-founders of the Situationist International in In that context, also the notion of play gained symbolic importance.
In , the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens 14 , a book on the historical importance of the element of play in culture; Constant Nieuwenhuys used the idea as the basis for his critique on urbanism. Much like Aldo van Eyck, he was deeply critical of the functionalist architecture of the postwar period. Together with Guy Debord, he drafted the now famous tract on Unitary Urbanism that proclaimed the advent of a society of mass creativity.
Due to mechanization, Constant proposed, Homo Faber, the traditional working man of industrial society, would be replaced by Homo Ludens, the playful man, or creative man, in postindustrial society In his famous utopian work of architecture New Babylon Van Eyck actually assisted him when he started making scale models , Constant created an explicit metaphor for the advent of a creative society.
End Battle In the Netherlands, modernist urban planning and the growing anti-modernist spirit of revolt were to have a final confrontation in the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood in Amsterdam. Years of spirited resistance, and a conclusive violent riot in , led to the final surrender of the modernist planners and the politicians who headed them: the metro-line was finished but the highway was stopped, and all other metro-plans were off the agenda. The New Left came to power and the Nieuwmarkt was saved, to become an inspiration for anti-modernization struggles elsewhere in the country.
One of the first and most symbolic of these projects was the redevelopment of the Nieuwmarkt itself. Maybe not so surprising, Aldo van Eyck was the architect to work on it. Here, his ideas on interstitial space, non-hierarchical composition, and participative planning led to an architecture that could easily mold into the existing tissue of the neighborhood. NAi publishers, Rotterdam. Gemeente Amsterdam, Amsterdam.
Inbetweening in a Postwar World. NAi Publishers, Rotterdam. The Growth of a New Tradition. MIT Press, Cambridge. The Experience of Modernity. Stokvis Cobra. Geschiedenis, voorspel en betekenis van een beweging in de kunst van na de tweede wereldoorlog. De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam. Proeve eener bepaling van het spelelement der cultuur. Tjeenk Willink, Haarlem. The hyper-architecture of desire , Publishers, Rotterdam.
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Amsterdam's Seventeen Playgrounds: Aldo van Eyck's Neglected Legacy
Over the course of his career he created a network of more than playgrounds throughout the capital. Today, only a handful of these remain intact. The following extract from the book seeks to introduce the project, and describe its urgency. We live in an era in which there are not many carefully constructed playgrounds.
Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck
Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck Feature — And outside Amsterdam too, almost every playground had one of his tumbling bars. Durgerdammerdijk in , designed in Displayed inside and outside the museum are pieces of playground equipment designed by Van Eyck. Despite their beautiful simplicity, they look lost in the museum. A better option, of course, is to get on a bike and cycle to those playgrounds that have partly survived. For the site is what matters.