Aldo van Eyck and the City as Play­ground

Some notable paragraphs in the article…

In 1953, a critical group of young architects formed within the CIAM, van Eyck was one its most vocal members. “Functionalism has killed creativity”, van Eyck stated in an article in the Dutch magazine Forum, “it leads to a cold technocracy, in which the human aspect is forgotten. A building is more than the sum of it’s functions; architecture has to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction”

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. Instead, all elements were equal: the playgrounds designed by Van Eyck were exercises in non-hierarchical composition. Van Eyck also designed the playground equipment himself, including the tumbling bars, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms, and his children tested them. To him, play equipment was an integral part of the commission. Its 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 it’s 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 polycentric compositions depending on the requirements of the local environment. The third aspect is the relationship with the urban environment, the “in-between” or “interstitial” nature of the playgrounds. The design of the playgrounds was aimed at interaction with the surrounding urban tissue. The temporary character of the intervention was part of this ‘in between’ nature, recreating space through incremental adaptation instead of the tabula rasa approach of modernism, in which the designs had an autonomy of their own, based on abstract data and statistics. 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.

“Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” The question raised was not the emulation of movement towards some unknown horizon, the archetypical uprootedness of the experience of modernity, but exactly the opposite: how can people make space their own and create a subjective “sense of place”? How to feel at home in the modern city, this machine of mass rationalization? The transitory playground was ‘place’ and ‘occasion’ combined.

In that context, also the notion of play gained symbolic importance. In 1938, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens14, 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 time. Together with Guy Debord, he drafted the now famous tract on Unitary Urbanism that proclaimed the advent of a society of mass creativity. Constant believed that, due to mechanization, Homo Faber, the traditional working man of industrial society, would be replaced by Homo Ludens, the playful man, or creative man, in postindustrial society15. The Situationists took this element of play and developed it into one of their core notions, as Debord would state: “Due to its marginal existence in relation to the oppressive reality of work, play is often regarded as fictitious. But the work of the situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to come.”16 The situationists, whose themes came to play an important role in the ’68 rebellion, developed the notion of play into a subversive strategy to rebel against modern capitalism and modernist architecture; Le Corbusiers’ authoritarian architecture was seen as a form of fascism. With psychogeography and the famous dérive, they changed focus from “streets, buildings and businesses” to how “people inhabit the city and the collective psychic ambiances they project”, much in parallel with van Eyck’s stress on place and occasion.

“Play”, as Huizinga once said, “is a serious matter”.

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