Consider: Play Structures
Ingenious Design FORTitude
People who are not on TikTok tend to think it is full of dancing and viral feta cheese pasta. While it is full of that, there is also a surprising depth of creators doing fantastic commentary on contemporary art and design. Enabled by the famous TikTok algorithm, the videos you get served are curated almost exactly to what you are looking for, and oftentimes, it feels like the algorithm knows you better than you know yourself. While somewhat creepy, this led me to Toronto-based architecture student @healthy_punk who does quick features on architects and historical movements. She recently shared some of Isamu Noguchi’s work on playgrounds, which inspired this week’s edition of Considered.
A few weeks ago I had a great conversation with Sarah Jordan, the CEO of a leading Canadian toy retailer, Mastermind. She shared that some of their hottest-selling toys this year are fort kits made by a Canadian company called Crazy Forts It got me thinking about exploring and writing about play structures.
Trends in play are continuously evolving. When was the last time you saw a kid pushing a barrel hoop down a dusty road with a stick? But the adolescent desire to build and take ownership of your space has classical roots and the way adults have tried to take advantage of those urges over the years has led to many fascinating innovations and great lessons in making things.
The first playground was a pile of sand in Boston, built in 1855 by the Boston Women’s Club to give poor children a place to play (How you like dem apples!). At the time, Boston’s North End was a low income neighbourhood where kids not in school were left to wander the streets while their parents were at work. Over the years, these play spaces progressed to include the Four S’s of playground equipment: swing, slide, sandbox and seesaw.
Things changed in the early 1970’s, when two maverick thinkers with very divergent approaches on how children should play, and what kind of spaces they should have access to, came on the scene. One movement was led by Eric McMillan, an exhibition with no formal training who went on to invent the ball pit and the waterpark. The other, by Isamu Noguchi, the naturalist sculptor and designer who inspired generations of architects.
In Toronto, Canada, the 1970s was a time of bold experimentation with the built city. Architect Ebhard Zeidler and urbanist Jane Jacobs teamed up on a number of ambitious projects. One was Ontario Place, a local futuristic amusement park (and home to the world’s first Imax Theatre).
Zeidler then hired McMillan to design a children’s play space at Ontario Place. He designed a mixture of soft and hardscape that did not dictate how it was supposed to be used. Rather, it let the kids move and use the raw elements to create their own play. From this article by a friend of McMillan’s, it was described as: “At Children’s Village, McMillan built two-and-a-half acres of mayhem under an orange canopy—reproducing his feral childhood scrabbling through rubble in the safety of Toronto, with mountains of colourful vinyl and foam.” Time magazine called it: “one of the most imaginative playgrounds in the world.” The video below is narrated by McMillan himself. His work would eventually inspire the Wet ‘n Wild waterpark chain and McMillan would go on to continue to innovate by creating the ball pit.
A couple of blocks away, the City of Toronto adopted a European concept of “adventure play” that was popular in the 70s/early 80s. From the photos, it looks like surplus building materials were left in a pit and kids were given tools such as hammers and screwdrivers. The goal was to allow kids to imagine and create a reality of their own. At the end of every summer there was a contest to judge the best structure.
Noguchi, for his part, started thinking about children’s playscapes in the 1930s. I recommend the 99% Invisible podcast episode about his efforts to encourage Robert Moses, the famous NYC City Builder, to build one of his play mountains.
Noguchi would struggle for years to get one built, until 1973, when the Atlanta High Museum commissioned him to make a play space that was also a work of art. In a fundraising letter about the project, he said “I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational.”
Noguchi finally got a chance to realize his most grand playground visions when he designed Moerenuma Park in Sapporo Japan in 1988. It took over 16 years to complete, and the 454 acre park finally opened in 2004. If you have the time and like spaces like Storm King, this piece by Alexandra Lange in Curbed is well worth a read.
In 2020, with the introduction of the global novel Coronavirus pandemic, people became wary of public spaces. Parks and play spaces closed and children’s play moved almost exclusively indoors.
With that came a new popularity for designers who allowed kids to explore those same impulses that Noguchi and others targeted in times past. Two of those new designs include the cult Nugget Play Couch and the Buckminster Fuller reminiscent Crazy Forts.
The Nugget is an advanced version of taking all the cushions off your sofa and using them to build a fort. It is a sofa designed to be forted. Basically, giant stuffed blocks. This is one of those things you look at and think “how did it take this long for someone to market this?”. The answer is reduction of cost in manufacturing of polystyrene and improvements of global supply chains, but that is a topic for another article!
Crazy Forts on the other hand is a series of rods and connectors reminiscent of the classic Tinker Toys. While you could throw a blanket on them and create an enclosed fort, I personally like the use of negative space. It is reminiscent of geodesic domes, the installation Big Bambu by the Stern Brothers and One by Do Ho Suh. One is a recreation of the artist’s former apartment made from fabric. As a statement about global migration, the entire installation can be folded up into a suitcase (and was, to get it to New York).
The Nugget starts at $229 USD and due to high demand, has a 10 week lead time. They are going for multiples of MSRP on resale sites. Mastermind has Crazy Forts for $49.99 CAD. Of course you could always throw it back to “adventure play” and give your kid a bunch of boards and nails to build their own fort. With the rising cost of lumber these days, a 2x4 is as much as 2.5x more expensive than it was in 2019.
I have only had the pleasure of going to one water park/playspace in my life that was later closed for being too dangerous. That was Fantasy Island in Singapore. It had an 8 lane slide race. My brother and I weighed about 2x the average park visitor so we would get incredible air off the jumps, cross lanes and end up riding on unsuspecting kids to the finish line. I was reminded of these repressed memories while watching Class Action Park, a fun yet terrifying documentary about what can go wrong]when building a children’s play space.