While recently visiting the Carl Andre retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof, I was loudly reprimanded by an attendant for hopscotching across ‘6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev)’, one of the artist’s famous floor grids from 1995. I pointed out that while the guidebook does discourage visitors from touching the sculptures with their hands, nowhere does it forbid walking, or indeed hopscotching on them. I walked away feeling humiliated (I continued to be observed in case I was to try such nonsense a second time), and generally frustrated by the oppressive surveillance that ensures no one engages fully with the art as it was intended, or - heaven forbid - enjoys themselves. At Tate Modern, Andre’s firebrick sculpture, ‘Equivalent VIII’ (1996), is completely cordoned off, an understandable but nonetheless conservative, killjoy measure.
The experience made me wonder the reasons for denying our physical engagement with works that were designed with our bodily participation in mind. Why is some modernist sculpture left exposed to the elements whilst others are so fastidiously preserved? When Rosalind Krauss argued in her 1979 essay, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, that we needed a new set of categories that might better address the overlap of sculpture, architecture, landscape and site specific installations, she was also thinking about the interrelationships between our bodies, objects and the spaces we together inhabit. If Minimalist sculptures could speak, surely they would ask us to play. And yet, counterintuitively, we too often feel alienated by them, forced to hover at their edges in awkward contemplation.
With the tagline ‘part sculpture; part installation; all play’, the Assemble collective and Simon Terrill’s most recent iteration of ‘The Brutalist Playground’ at S1 Artspace in Sheffield, consciously expands the sculptural field whilst importing the social history of British post-war architecture. Visitors are asked to remove their footwear if they wish to enter the chipped-foam coated surfaces of the gallery and explore the various play areas dotted throughout. The use of pliant, spongy material to cover the concrete walls and floors of the gallery is itself a playful inversion of the Brutalist medium of choice. Brighter, softer and with moving parts, this playground is a twenty-first-century translation; a sweetshop homage to the custom-cut, reconstituted material that normally remains hidden beneath the fabric of seating in pubs or offices.
With earlier incarnations at RIBA in London and Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen (part of Look Again Visual Art & Design Festival), its current installation at S1 is perhaps its most apt. The gallery space is on the ground floor of one of the Park Hill towers, in what was formerly The Scottish Queen pub. The building, designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith in the ‘New Brutalist’ style (characterised by unpainted concrete), was completed in 1961. Part of a controversial restoration project which began in 2004, the block has been colourfully renovated by Urban Splash in collaboration with French architect Christophe Egret. The re-envisioning of this failed utopian social housing project (the estate had fallen almost completely to ruin by the 1990s), is mirrored in Assemble and Terrill’s ‘re-mattering’ of the concrete playgrounds that served as accents, and often architectural afterthoughts, to municipal, educational and residential buildings that sprung up across the UK in the 1950s-70s.
With each new site, ‘The Brutalist Playground’ grows and changes, its wood, metal and OSB structures re-clad with chip-foam in pastel blue, green and pink (the colours are an indication of foam density rather than an artistic choice). Elements from particular playgrounds are added each time, in most cases based on photographs and drawings as their originals have been demolished (unlike the buildings they accompany, they are rarely given listed status). The newest addition – a raised area with a staircase and a winding rectilinear tunnel entered through circular holes – is taken from the playground that resided atop one of Park Hill’s high-rises. Archival materials relating to this and other playgrounds decorate one of the gallery’s walls and are montaged in a video work by Terrill, which can be viewed from the comfort of a chip-foam platform.
Crawling down inside the geometric chamber, I was reminded of the childhood pleasures of playing and hiding out in forts constructed from furniture and household detritus. At the other end of the gallery is the candy-pink tower slide inspired by Ernö Goldfinger and Ian Fleming’s original, which still survives on Balfron Brownfields Estate in Poplar, Tower Hamlets. I mounted the chip-foam covered staircase leading to a concealed viewing platform and, unseen, peered out across the playground. In the gallery the walls nearly reach the ceiling, whereas the original is open to the sky. From this position of vantage, one is reminded of the delightful mischief and secrecy of treehouses, in which as children we acted out our fantasies and fears in relative safety.
The proliferation of play-inspired projects across the Northeast of England, and further afield, represent an exciting departure from the sanitised experience of art in which physical interaction is taboo. The BALTIC in Gateshead is currently showing ‘The Playground Project’, curated by urban planner Gabriela Burkhalter and formerly exhibited at the Heinz Architectural Centre in Pittsburg (as part of the 2013 Carnegie International), and at the Kunsthalle Zürich earlier this year. In her book and corresponding exhibition, Burkhalter has fastidiously compiled experimental or ‘risky’ examples of adventure playgrounds from across Europe, the USA, Japan and India, erected before restrictions were imposed in the 1980s. Unearthing rare archival materials, the project reveals a legacy of innovative playground design that is mysteriously absent from both social and architectural (or indeed, sculptural) histories.
Tactile and gleefully interactive, ‘The Brutalist Playground’ is part of a growing trend that anticipates families flocking to galleries. Marketing rhetoric leans toward family-friendliness, but the message should also appeal to anyone who wants the freedom to physically explore and experience art, and to escape (at least for a moment) the deeply serious and troubling realities of the real world. In Autumn 2016, The Tetley will see the installation of a commissioned outdoor play sculpture by Matthew Houlding on its Brewery Green, whose practice combines sculpture, architecture and playground design. David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, recently introduced the idea of ‘Playgrounding’ as the basis for regenerating its spaces, in which artists, staff and audiences encounter ‘flexible worlds in which anything could happen’. Jubb observes that the best games are often invented by children in sparsely equipped and under-designed areas of playgrounds, the parts where ‘we could create our own worlds’. A similar creative planning strategy is being taken up at S1: Mark Latham, regeneration officer at Urban Splash, has remarked on the potential of ‘The Brutalist Playground’ exhibition to open up dialogue about new play spaces in the refurbished Park Hill estate.
It makes sense that big leaps of the imagination and elaborate narratives are inspired in minimal spaces. As with art, elegant compositions of form and space prompt us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, and engage in more fluid forms of mental and physical play. Whilst few of the original Brutalist playgrounds would meet present day health and safety standards, they presented endless possibilities for imaginative worlds. Stacking some of the hexagonal columns with the help of a little girl, I thought back to my recent visit to the Giant’s Causeway, and the distinctive geological formations that served as prototypes (in the originally playground, designed by Powell and Moya for the Churchill Gardens Estate playground in Pimlico, the geometrical formations were permanently fixed). Convinced of the universal benefits of play, I left the gallery reinvigorated by an encounter with sculpture in which my physical presence was not simply incidental (or inconvenient), but in fact integral to the work itself.
The Brutalist Playground at S1 has an accompanying events programme that continues until the end of the exhibition. Details here: http://www.s1artspace.org/events/