Thursday, July 7, 2016

Ludic Landscapes and Political Parks: Revisiting Aldo Van Eyck in Mexico City

Aldo Van Eyck's first playground, Bertelmanplein, constructed in 1947
In partnership with Temporary Art Review we're pleased to share this essay on the legacy of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck and the social and political importance of making public space for play. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. 

The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck once claimed that if cities are not “meant for children they are not meant for citizens either,” and that “If they are not meant for citizens- ourselves- they are not cities.” For Van Eyck, citizenship was intimately linked to play and how city-dwellers interacted with, and constantly formed, the city around them. This is a radical thought — a citizenship based on social engagement and an ongoing search for joy in life (in the city) rather than a citizenship based on national origin or place of birth. To be a citizen is to imagine, explore, and play. In the lean post-WW2 years, Van Eyck took his theories of play and urban life and made them real, designing over 700 playgrounds across the Netherlands. Less than a hundred of these spaces remain but the impetus behind them and the questions they try to answer are more relevant than ever.

The Netherlands in this era was a country, it may be fair to say, obsessed with play. Figures such as Dutch historian Johans Huizinga and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys and avant-garde movements like CoBrA helped found the field. Huizinga, in his seminal 1938 book Homo Ludens, tried defining play by arguing that:

    1.    Play is free, is in fact freedom.
    2.    Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
    3.    Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
    4.    Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
    5.    Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

Van Boetzelaerstraat, 1961
Where, then, do playgrounds fit into this definition? Does play create playgrounds or do playgrounds create play? Van Eyck grappled with these issues and the rigidity of contemporary playground design. He aimed to create a new form of playground that did not force a single vision of play but rather
served as a theater for the city, offering basic structures to free, not chain, children’s imagination. If the dominant logic of modernist urban planning was to remap and recreate the city — bulldozing and destroying organically created neighborhoods — Van Eyck then intended to work within existing structures and place his playgrounds in often-untraditional places.

A classic Van Eyck playground was, at first glance, strikingly utilitarian. He often centered his playgrounds on a simple sand pit and instead of having large colorful jungle gyms he would place a few concrete blocks, serving as stepping or jumping stones, and simple curved climbing frames. These were often asymmetrical compositions and existed within the city. They were not raised, sunken or walled plazas; Van Eyck tried to use pre-existing spaces like an empty lot or a small intersection to integrate his designs into the surrounding community rather than trying to override it. Even his first playground, Bertelmanplein, embodied these principles. While it at first looks like a simple urban plaza, none of the elements are perfectly centered, rather existing in their own tenuous relationships. These playgrounds were sites of creative potential; there were no cartoonish statues or musical steps, just simple structures that children could transform using the power of play and imagination.

Van Eyck argued that his playgrounds produced space, predicting Lefbevre’s The Production of Space decades before it was written. Van Eyck theorized argued that “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.” While Lefbevre switched the definitions of space and place, the similarity of their thoughts is clear. Van Eyck’s playgrounds sought, to follow his definition, to create places rather than simple spaces and prioritized social value over physical structures. He was also heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Buber, who famously explored the relationship between “I and thou” (Ich-du). Buber focused on these small, almost unobservable dialogues and mutual exchanged between strangers. Van Eyck integrated Buber’s concept of “ich-du” in his playgrounds, trying to create places of encounter that used play to bridge “I” and “thou.” His playgrounds can be read as engines of radical encounters, creating new places, occasions, and citizenships through the simple act of playing.

Final Model for Riverside Park Playground, 1965
This spring two exhibitions opened in Mexico City that grapple with these issues and deeply resonate with Van Eyck’s designs. The first, The Playgrounds of Noguchi at Museo Tamayo, brings together for the first time a series of designs for unconstructed playgrounds by Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi’s playgrounds are strange landscapes, filled with colorful and geometric concrete forms. Instead of using just swings and slides, Noguchi constructs large concrete forms, ranging from orange trapezoids and chartreuse triangles to serpentine walls. These large versions of his sculptures are liberated and activated through play and, to a certain degree, democratize his practice. Only a few playgrounds were built — such as his Playscapes in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — and the majority only exist on paper or as small maquettes. His most famous designs are perhaps his series of unfinished proposals for a new playground in New York’s Riverside Park with Louis Kahn, displayed through a series of concrete models. The proposals vary, but they all show a deep interest in elongated sinuous forms that recall prehistoric tumuli. His landscapes ebb and flow, creating dense spaces that cry out to be discovered in a similar, if less utilitarian, way to the playgrounds of Van Eyck. Further, both often include simple details — like plain concrete forms — instead of elaborate jungle gyms. Yet, they are also always divorced from their surroundings, either by walls or artificial hills; these playgrounds exist in spite of, not because of, the city and are in many ways the opposite of Van Eyck’s small, more discrete interventions. Finally, the exhibition includes a small reconstruction of a set of his swings and concrete blocks.

Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
The second, Parque Experimental El Eco, by architectural firm APRDELESP at Museo Experimental El Eco, creates “a space within another space” that transforms the institutional setting of the museum into a democratic “park” where anyone can hold an event. While not a traditional playground in the sense of Noguchi’s or Van Eyck’s designs — there are no jungle gyms, sandboxes, or traditional playground accoutrements — the space carries on Van Eyck’s project. Parque Experimental El Eco is completely open to the public and anyone can, through a website, schedule their own event. The space consists of a grass-filled courtyard, complete with barbecue grills, tables and an inflatable pool, inserting a quotidian backyard scene into the museum. It fulfills, in many ways, Van Eyck’s goals; a few objects in a plain setting unleash the imagination and its public nature creates the possibility of chance encounters and new unforeseen dialogues between “I” and  “Thou.” Although the project is not directed towards children like a traditional playground, its sparseness and desire to create new forms of citizenship, albeit through an art museum rather than the city at large, certainly echoes Van Eyck’s goals.

Even if these playgrounds, playscapes and parks use play to create new sets of social relationships and, potentially, to democratize the city and its cultural institutions, they are not all equally
Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
democratic. Mexico City, like most others, does not have equal access to parkland or playgrounds across its 16 delegations. Azcapotzalco and Iztapalapa have less than half the green space per resident than Miguel Hidalgo, where Museo Tamayo is located. Even Noguchi’s parks — like his designs for Riverside Park — were marquee playgrounds in wealthier areas. If we imagine that Van Eyck’s thesis is correct, and that play and child-focused urban design is central to citizenship, then this is a damning conclusion as inequalities in play become inequalities in citizenship. Informal playgrounds and play exist, of course, everywhere. But true playgrounds exist as social and political theaters even if this facet is all too often lost in questions of aesthetics, and the radical potential of playgrounds should not be ignored.

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Henry Osman is an independent curator and writer based between New York and Mexico City. He debut book, Privacidad Total/Total Privacy, was published in February with Gato Negro Ediciones. He is an editor at Drippy Mag and he has recently curated shows at Preteen Gallery (Mexico City) and Free Paarking (St Louis).

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