“The Playgrounds and the City,” Aldo van Eyck

Ken Worpole
13 February 2006

Aldo van Eyck: The Playgrounds and the City

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"Aldo van Eyck: The Playgrounds and the City"
edited by Ingeborg de Roode & Liane Lefaivre
NAi Publishers | January 2002 | ISBN 9056622498

Recommended by Ken Worpole: No other book published in the last decade captures the spirit of post-war European reconstruction as wonderfully as The Playgrounds and the City. It is the story of how an inspired young Dutch architect, Aldo van Eyck, with a number of (mostly) female colleagues in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, put the needs of the child and neighbourhood democracy at the centre of town-planning and urban renewal. Most books about architecture or town planning are earnest treatises: this book sings.

When van Eyck went to work for the Office for Public Works in Amsterdam in 1947, at the age of 28, the city had been badly ravaged by war. In the "hunger winter" of 1944 more than 20,000 had died of starvation alone. Images of starving children scavenging for food in barren streets, haunted the nation, and immediately after the war, politicians, artists and intellectuals called for a "new open-heartedness" in social policy.

The young architect had already gained a reputation as a critic of the mechanistic approach to city planning taken by some of his architectural colleagues. He claimed that their "year zero" functionalism rode rough-shod over existing social networks and the seemingly parochial loyalties of pre-war neighbourhoods. His first project was the construction of a small playground (speelplaats) on the Bertelmanplein. Delighted with the popularity of the playground, van Eyck went on to design over 700 more in the city over the next thirty years.

The Playgrounds and the City also doubled as the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 15 June–18 September 2002, one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen. The book has all the true qualities of a catalogue raisonné: a definitive list of playgrounds created in Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, along with maps of the city, colour reproductions of some of van Eyck's original sketches for his revolutionary play equipment (which quickly became adopted across the world), plans of key street layouts demonstrating how play areas could act as social gathering places, facsimiles of letters from tenement dwellers to the Department of Public Works, petitioning for play space, and fabulous photographs of children at play, enjoying the freedom of the city.

Most of the photographs in The Playgrounds and the City are black and white images of children at play from the 1950s and 60s, with a number taken from neighbouring apartment blocks to give an indication of the circulation patterns of the play areas, and the children's natural choreography (and shadow lines), seen from above. The book concludes with a terrific essay by Anja Novak on child photography in the Netherlands from 1945 to 1960, called Innocence Reborn. She explains how many of the photographs taken of children playing owed their aesthetic to the seminal exhibition "The Family of Man", first shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1955. This collection of 503 photographs by photographers from 68 countries, was, and is still, regarded as one of the most influential photographic exhibitions ever (despite what the deconstructionists may have said about it since).

It is doubtful if we shall ever see such photographs again, as it has become almost impossible to photograph children at play today, principally for copyright and protective reasons. In fact many now argue that the age of documentary (or "street") photography is now at an end. Everybody claims to own the right to their own image, especially in the developed world, and fears of litigation have made the tradition of public photography almost redundant. This has real implications for urban democracy and design, though it is rarely discussed. Children at play have become almost invisible in modern towns and cities.

Aldo van Eyck

Aldo van Eyck
(1918 – 1999)

Like his artist friends Piet Mondrian and Constant Nieuwenhuys, van Eyck thought of the ideal city as a labyrinth of small, intimate territories, or more poetically, a random constellation of stars. A playground on every street corner was just a first step on the journey to the "ludic city": the city of play. "Whatever time and space mean", he used to thunder at his modernist architectural colleagues, "place and occasion mean more." The Dutch have always regarded children's games as a preparatory stage in the growth of public life and citizenship, a tradition which has found expression in the rich genre of kinderspelen paintings, as Simon Schama and other historians have observed. In one of his essays van Eyck wrote of cities: "If they are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either. If they are not meant for citizens – ourselves – they are not cities."

Every time I take this book down from the shelf, usually in connection with something I have to write about the place of children in the city, I feel inspired again. Every home should have one – and every architect's atelier too.

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