Earlier this year, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art launched the Playground Project, an intriguing hands-on exhibition focused almost exclusively on play. Crowds of excited children were thrilled at the chance to run, jump, climb, and unleash their imaginations in the museum space.
Aside from youngsters, there were parents, students, local residents and tourists in attendance at the installation. They learnt about how playgrounds had once been spaces for public art, where architects and urban planners could experiment and exhibit their innovative designs.
Gabriela Burkhalter is the artist behind the Playground Project. The Swiss Curator has always had an interest in urban policy, and she wanted to explore the historical legacy of how playgrounds helped to improve children’s quality of life around the world. Her research project was chosen to mark the museum’s sixth interactive initiative. During this annual event, the gallery rooms are turned in to experimental laboratories for art. Visitors of all ages can come and participate in hands-on experiences and enjoy the creative collaborations exhibited by artists.
Research in Action
The installation publicised Burkhalter’s own research and one of the most notable features for adults was the black and white photographs uncovered by the artist. The snapshots displayed a whole host of old playgrounds that would be considered unconventional today. The wacky designs were all in full use by the public between 1950 and 1980, and they could be seen in Western Europe, the United States, Russia and Japan among several other countries.
Burkhalter’s point was that playgrounds during this time invited children to leave their comfort zone and venture into a new experience. They were places for spectacular sculptures, challenging designs and social experiments.
The playground was, in essence, a work of art in itself. But as well as this, playgrounds reflected the socio-economic environment of their innovators. Interwar Russian playgrounds demonstrated the goals of Soviet propaganda, while in Britain the 1950s gave way to junkyard adventure playgrounds that underpinned the hope of improving society after a devastating war.
Playgrounds were constantly evolving. By the 1960s, playgrounds were being built in New York to strengthen communities and create safe open spaces. Artists, urbanists and architects received a boost of public funding to improve leisure facilities and encourage creative play, leading to developments such as abstract ‘play sculptures’.
But a decade later this optimism had vanished amidst economic recession and environmental concerns. The rise of the 1980s consumer society marked an end to experimental playground design. From this point on, civic groups and neighbourhood organisations invested in instant adventure playgrounds. More often than not, they used poor materials and had mediocre designs which Burkhalter describes as “standardized and mostly boring”.
So, can today’s playgrounds be restored to the lively and imaginative public spaces that they once were, or have these initiatives been forgotten forever? Burkhalter believes that it’s still possible to achieve real spaces for play when states make it a high priority to work with the most creative minds.
She says that “The exhibition wants to remind us that we have a responsibility toward our children to include them in the public space, its planning and daily use, and not to hide them in the private sphere or behind the screen”.