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The Playground Project: an Exhibition in Progress

Is there a public urban space where peaceful chaos and unpredictability are still possible? After having researched its history for around ten years, I would definitely say “Yes”: the playground!

Between 1950 and the end of the 1970s, driven by social questions, a sense for experiments, and the will to build communities, people engaged to shape the public space and its playgrounds in new ways. In the decades of the baby boom, streets were full of children and teenagers. The public and private agencies had to manage them, and the politics of leisure became a central topic, especially in the fast growing cities.

Throughout the last 150 years, four main paradigm shifts can be identified in the development of the playground. First, at the beginning of the twentieth century, social reformers set up playgrounds to improve the mental and physical health of lower-income classes and immigrant children. Then, in the early 1930s, the idea that children should play with natural materials instead of dull play equipment gained more traction. In the 1960s, the decade of autonomy and do-it-yourself, parents, children, and neighbourhood groups began to take charge of playgrounds themselves. Finally, in the 1980s, with the end of social and political utopias, and the emergence of new concepts of childhood, playground design entered into a period of stagnation. However, today, young architects, artists, collectives, and activists are back on the spot with a new pioneering spirit, creating a play environment far beyond the prevailing standards and regulations.

My research started by collecting documents, handbooks, magazines and images. In a second step, the website was built as a way to structure my findings, sharing them with others, and deepening my understanding of urban history and politics. By taking the viewpoint of playground and its history, I gained particular and sometimes unexpected insights into realities such as the segregated urbanism in the US, the rise of participation in planning, the roots of urban problems in France, and so on.


The website was mostly fed by images from books. But when asked to present my research as an exhibition, I faced one major challenge: how could I mount an exhibition when the material was dispersed in public and private archives and libraries all over the world; and, furthermore, when this material wasn’t considered valuable, as it addresses a subject that nobody cared about. So, for its first itineration of The Playground Project, as part of the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, we decided to keep the spirit of research in progress and opted for a casual and DIY-presentation. Another important decision was to root the project in the place by inserting it into the local fabric. In Pittsburgh, The Playground Project served as an inspiration for the annual summer camps for children and teenagers; the Carnegie Museum of Art also partnered with the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children to organise play events, and to lobby on play and child related subjects; and the museum’s Department of Education reached out to underserved communities to improve their play opportunities. Eventually, we even built a large playground in front of the museum, which is still there and very popular. Through these diverse collaborations, scepticism was transformed into enthusiasm.

The Playground Project at 2013 Carnegie International functioned as a test version, since we understood that there was enough material to go much bigger: The Playground Project at Kunsthalle Zurich (February 20- May 16, 2016) added new finds, documents, and films, and included a series of real playgrounds for children to play and go wild. Not only the legendary Lozziwurm from 1972, but also Atelier cordes (rope workshop) inspired by Group Ludic. It is a structure made out of tubes and ropes where children can climb, relax, and build a giant hammock and macramé.


Our curatorial concept was twofold: to test out the possibilities of the museum or Kunsthalle to address children as an audience without locking them up in separate children’s workshop; and, secondly, to build an exhibition with serious content and playful entertainment for children and adults. It certainly was an exercise in crossing borders between art, architecture, landscape architecture, history, and education. Yet the playground, this niche in our cities, proved to be a perfect spot for addressing all these topics.

The accompanying catalogue highlights the most important protagonists of the modern playground movement, and situates then within the larger context of social and urban history of Europe, the US, Japan, and India. Both exhibition and catalogue paid a special tribute to the work of French Group Ludic, an artist and designer collective founded in 1967. We were allowed full access their private archive to present a selection of their more than 150 innovative playground projects.

30.Jun.2016 6443 views
Gabriela Burkhalter

Gabriela Burkhalter (Burgdorf, 1968) is a Swiss political scientist and urban planner based in Basel. Documenting the history of playgrounds on since 2008, she was the curator of The Playground Project at Kunsthalle Zurich (February 20-May 16, 2016), and the editor of the accompanying catalogue (The Playground Project, Kunsthalle Zürich/JRP Ringier, Zurich 2016). The Playground Project was first presented at the 2013 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh. In 2014, she was a guest curator for Architectures for Children – Zurich’s Playgrounds at gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich. In the same year, the French artist and designer collective Group Ludic assigned their archives to her for preservation and research. She is a grantee of The Graham Foundation for the project Group Ludic’s Visionary Urban Landscapes, 1968-1979.
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