Creative Generosity and the Hobbyhorse

A recent visit to my favorite public park led to an interesting understanding of an article I read many years ago.

A beautiful depression-era public works project, this park originally had a large lake for swimming which was bisected by a bath house into two sections. Swimming is no longer allowed in the lake, the larger section has been retained as a picturesque focus, while the smaller section was filled in in the 1970's and an Olympic size swimming pool placed at one end. The rest of the former pond was filled, becoming a flat grassy plane at the bottom of a geometric-shaped crater.

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This lawn was largely ignored for almost twenty years until the city decided to create a play area adjacent to the swimming pool. This rather long-winded prologue finally brings me to the curious realization I made during my daily walk. The play area is a modular system of prefabricated elements. This type of system would not seem a promising laboratory for an experiment in subtle architectural theory, however, one, fairly simple design gesture, and a confidence in the creativity of those who would play on it make this play area, fun, exciting, and worthy of careful study and attention.

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The designer’s very simply divided their assets of play elements into two distinct clusters. The first is a larger structure, with multiple platforms, slides, and other play elements. The second is a much smaller structure, with fewer elements, set some distance from the first.

This simple act of dividing the play elements allows for a much richer play experience, and creates a more substantial design statement. On its most basic level, the division allows for separate play areas for younger and older players. In addition to this simple reading, the layout fulfills many of the concepts outlined in Ernst Gombrich’s “Meditations on a Hobby Horse” a seminal work from the early 1960’s that focuses on the concepts of abstraction, and their importance in the design process.

The division of the play structures sets up a dialog between the two as well as the space between and surrounding them. This dialog allows for a variety of play options, limited only by the creative imagination of the people using it.

It can be a boat approaching a city, a friendly neighbor to go visit, a distant planet to reach for…. The possibilities have no limits, because the designer had the foresight and humility to keep the composition abstract enough to allow for multiple readings. One hugely important component of good design is the confident respect a designer maintains for those who will inhabit the completed composition.

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The inclusion of this kind of abstraction does not automatically result in an artistic work. Art requires careful development, sensitive detailing, and continuous creativity; however, it is a necessary step on the continuum which transforms mundane functionality into transcendent art.

Standing on the park ring road, it is amazing to see the creativity of the children as they approach and use the play area. If you have not had a chance to read Gombrich’s “Meditations..” it is worth it. An imperative part of a designer it to be open and observant, and to incorporate the beauty and excitement of everyday experience into their work.

Below are photographs of our recently completed playground for New York Mills Union Free School District. This playground incorporates several of the above concepts, and also uses the elements of color and texture (both of the play elements, and the surface material) to create an environment to encourage “creative play”, as well as to inspire and excite those who play (and learn) here.


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