Arguably, for many years my greatest skill was that you could drop me blindfolded in nearly any city, spin me around twice, pull the blindfold, and I could point you in the direction of the best basement gallery and/or glass of wine. Now I’m old, and priorities have changed—these days. We travel often, and somehow, this old skill of mine has morphed into something completely unexpected, as it is necessary. Test me. Chicago? Easy, the Play Garden in Maggie Daley Park. Seattle? Big fan of the musical sculptures in the Artists at Play Playground. Doing some work for Meta? Don’t miss the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto. Are you bringing the kids along to Sin City? How about a 3-story treehouse with spiraling slides? Want a deep cut? Over in Greensboro, AL, you almost have to see the Rural Studio-designed Lions Park Playscape to believe it. The students used 2,000 55-gallon mint oil drums to create a bigger-than-life maze. The labyrinth includes rippling ground surfaces, sound tubes, and sensory rooms deliberately concealed throughout to encourage exploration. (Bonus for older kids, Lions Park has the most unique skateparks, funded by the Tony Hawk Foundation, I’ve ever seen). (More on Lions Park Playscape soon).
Many amenities come from living in close proximity to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, but the one I relish most is taking the kids to Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes. So many of us think of Noguchi for his furniture and lighting designs; some can quickly identify his biomorphic sculptures, and some remember his work in consumer products, like his design of one of the earliest baby monitors to be mass-produced for commercial use. His innovations and influential creations that impacted the concept of play need to be discussed more. From his first attempt to design a playground in New York City in 1934, Noguchi’s influential career was plagued with his aspirations of harmoniously blending play and art being rejected. Robert Moses, who arguably shaped 20th-century New York City, was a continuous throne on Nougchi’s side. His obituary states that before his tenure, the state contained a modest amount of parkland but that Moses added 416 miles of parkways and 658 playgrounds. Even after a half-century, his cut-and-paste approach continues to dominate the landscape. When Noguchi entered his office to propose Play Mountain, a playground with no swings, sandboxes, or seesaws but did include a multicolored step pyramid, a curving ramp, and a rock, Moses was less than impressed. Noguchi recalled the meeting: “Moses just laughed his head off and threw us out, more or less. [He] took offense at me, thought I was trying to kill people, said a playground had to be tested equipment and that New York City could not afford to test my mountain.”
There wasn’t a decade where he tried to design a playground in New York. More than once, an idea would make it to a final round of consideration before being rejected by Moses. When the construction of the UN building led to the removal of a nearby playground, a local civic organization, the Ladies of Beekman Place, engaged Nougchi to design the new iteration. Here there was land, funding, and community support. However, Moses stepped in and rejected the building. Instead, he brought in a one-size-fits-all playground of his own design. Noguchi’s never realized design was considered such a work of art that the model was later exhibited at the Museum of Art.
In contrast to his experiences in New York, Nougchi’s Atlanta commission came ready-made with a designated site, pre-secured funding, and an enthusiastic reception. The whole project came about in 1973 after Frankie Coxe, a volunteer at the High Museum of Art several blocks away, brought to the then-director the idea of building an innovative children’s playground that doubled as a work of art as the institution’s bicentennial gift to the city. From the start, Noguchi was their top choice. The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on May 1, 1976, and was attended by both Mayor Maynard Jackson and Mayor H.R. Pufnstuf, the then-popular Saturday morning friendly dragon of Living Island.
Playscapes isn’t as interesting as some of Nougchi’s previous earth-mounded designs. It is on the safer side of what had previously been proposed, but it’s also the only version to be fully realized. Also, it fully aligns with his ideas of not offering children a pre-prescribed blueprint on how to play. There is an open-mindedness to the up, down, around topographical forms that allow kids to “misuse” them, to come to their conclusions, and to be creative. I’ve watched my kids play for an hour on a low circular concrete mound that seems simple before transforming into the moon’s surface, home base, an epic mountain to scale under dire conditions. It is nothing, and it is everything. There is the swing set with different length chains, the triple slide, which is perfect for races between kids of different ages and sizes, the piles of blue and green Q*bert blocks that are perfect for ninja training, and the S-shaped slide that slithers and climbs in equal parts.
Playscapes are within walking distance from our home. We’ve made it there countless times over the past five years. Along the route, five minutes away and nearer to home on the path, is a more conventional playground. Sometimes we stop. Sometimes we make it to the Noguchi. At the standard playground, I know going in what the experience is going to be. I know there will be time on the climbing walls, then the spinner, a brief rendezvous with the shaky firetruck. But at Playscapes, I never know what will happen. What the game will be, what equipment they’ll focus on, and where their imaginations will take them. It’s much more fun to watch.
And it’s a similar experience for the parents. Those off-the-side parents and those old guys like me climbing stairs and flying down slides in a spirited game of Zombie. Piedmont Park is our Central Park; it’s Atlanta’s lawn. It’s always full of hustle and bustle. Despite a thin semi-circle of trees around it, Playscapes is in the middle of everything. To the east are the runners and sports fields of the active oval. To the south is the farmer’s market. To the west are cars barreling down Piedmont Road. Everything is right there at the tips of your fingers, yet it all feels a million miles away. More than anywhere else in the park, when at Playscapes, you could be anywhere. Noguchi designed a safe space for any of us, regardless of age, to tune in to reconsider the spaces of our lives and how we can move through them more creatively.