Designing restaurants, Jet Blue Terminals, and hotels is nothing compared to coming up with an interactive play area that will keep kids entertained for more than five minutes. Architect David Rockwell—famous for so many buildings and interiors around the world—came up with a way to do exactly that using blue foam blocks and called it Imagination Playground. As Rockwell explains, "if you're digging in the dirt in the country and you've got a hill, you've got elevation change, sand, water and loose parts so you can kind of make anything. This is urban equivalent of that."
The Imagination Playground has morphed into several forms—from portable playground carts to the latest multi-room experience now open at the National Building Museum (which will stay open over Thanksgiving weekend, much to the relief of area parents). The very beginning of the idea, however, came from a working relationship Rockwell developed with the city of New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He was initially approached to help liven up a temporary school ("One of the parents thought I could make the cafeteria less-depressing because I work on restaurants," he says) and NYC caught wind of what he had made happen there. That evolved into the desire to create more places for creativity, art, and just plain fun.
"Several days after 9/11 I was called by Anna Switzer, who is a principal at PS 234—a very progressive well-known public school that had to evacuate to a temporary school on 13th street," says Rockwell. "I live in Lower Manhattan and we were deeply affected by the attack so I went to see this school and I realized I knew a lot of people who could help. I brought in Maira Kalman, Tom Otterness, plus about thirty people from my office. It was like an urban barn raising to make the school ready for these kids. It sounds obvious and corny, but it was an example of the act of creativity in working together being an answer to destruction."
This project caught the eye of New York City and Co (the marketing arm of the city) and they asked Rockwell to design a VIP viewing platform at the 9/11 site for family members and visiting dignitaries. After visiting the site—which was still in rescue mode at that point—Rockwell offered instead to make a public viewing platform 'that would allow the public to have an unmediated look at the tragedy' (see his TED talk about that at the bottom of the screen). He raised the funds from private donations and in just over one hundred days was able to to turn the concept into a finished space open to the public. Not long after that several of the donors asked Rockwell if there was any other project he wanted to do in Lower Manhattan and he raised the idea of creating an arts incubator where artists could create new work. Even though names like Kevin Spacey, Naked Angels, and the Public Art Fund had agreed to collaborate on the idea Rockwell realized after about a year of work that it was going to be too mired in bureaucratic hassles to make it happen.
"In a moment of total frustration I was walking by Pier 25—where my kids used to play and had been taken out by 9/11—and I said to this guy that works with me that I should have just created a new playground for the city. And he said well what would that playground look like? I started to do research on playgrounds at the same time that I was experiencing my own kids wanting to take whatever it is they're supposed to play with and turn it upside down, rip it to pieces, and play with it completely differently."
That research led Rockwell and his team to learn about the Adventure Playgrounds that were created in Europe after WWII as well as old toys that existed long before the ones that require batteries or plugs. "We did hundreds of sketches of what could be kid-directed play and then we tried to find the simplest common denominator," says Rockwell. That common denominator turned out to be blocks in cardboard and foam core prototypes, which were then tested in kid playdates in partnership with the Department of Parks & Recreation for New York City.
As Rockwell remembers it, "The first thing that happened was the boys took the noodles and decided to fight with them. You could just see these parents try to pull back the urge to get involved and break it up. But we just stood back and watched (first of all, they couldn't hurt themselves with the foam noodles). Within four or five minutes they would do tug-of-war with the noodles after fighting. Then it would settle down to the kids trying to figure out how do you create different things and objects just like block play. But the most interesting thing is about twenty minutes into the play experience you would start to notice children looking around to see what other children had built and they would see if they could connect their structure to someone else's."
It was that moment when kids started trying to merge separate creations that sparked yet another iteration in the design of Imagination Playground. "I started to think about pieces that swoop and have an elevation change so it would create a 3-D structure," Rockwell explains. "So you could create not just on the left-right axis but on the up and down axis as well. We made new pieces and started to make the pieces progressively bigger so some of them required two kids to move them. The pieces themselves encourage collaborative activity."
Collaborative activity, physical movement, and no resemblance to a typical playground are the three major themes of this endeavor, whether it be on as big a scale as the one at the Building Museum or the portable version of these blocks made for schools and camps. "While there are so many amazing playgrounds for kids to do stuff in," says Rockwell, "most of them have a very similar play experience. A lot of them are linear and there is mostly fixed equipment." This exhibit designed for the Building Museum has three separate spaces—one where kids can use hand-sized blocks to create structures on a light table, another that has the oversize pieces, and a third room that has an interactive video game component where kids can "build" on a screen.
"I was surprised how many vehicles kids can make from these pieces," says Rockwell. "Kids are also intrigued by paths. So you see a lot of creating a kind of journey along the ground with structures along side it. Kids tend to try and explore concentric structures—things inside of things inside of things is a basic instinct for how kids play. I do think it is interesting to see which kids are minalmists and which kids use the noodles and the fun shapes to create little baroque Dr Seuss things."
PLAY WORK BUILD replaces the well-loved LEGO exhibit that brought thousands of kids to the museum. It was as that exhibit was winding down that Rockwell happened to be in the right place at the right time. "I did an installation at the Building Museum and the Lego exhibit was still up and [the staff] were talking to us about what was going to replace it," says Rockwell. "We started talking to them about bringing this down and God smiled on us in this particular case."
· PLAY WORK BUILD [National Building Museum]
· Imagination Playground [OfficialSite]
· Adventure Playgrounds [AdventurePlaygrounds]
· David Rockwell [OfficialSite]
· Maira Kalman [OfficialSite]
· Tom Otterness [OfficialSite]
· David Rockwell builds at Ground Zero [TED]
· All prior David Rockwell coverage [CDC]
All photos from the National Building Museum.