An adventure playground by Erect Architecture is a powerful antidote to the confinement of the child in the city, says Mark Dudek.
Over the past few decades, childhood has changed. The most alarming development is the relative lack of freedom afforded to children in our towns and cities. In his classic book The Child in the City (1978), Colin Ward describes how children used city spaces as venues, hideyholes for secret games and for sports as various as fishing and ferreting. Then childhood was played out in public places generally away from the immediate control of parents. It was more social and perhaps more risky, with intensive interaction engaging other children on an informal basis – very much child-directed play.
Today being on the streets usually labels young children as uncared for. Many adults hardly dare make eye contact with children for fear of being thought an interfering busybody or worse. Constant supervision to ensure total safety from a plethora of dangers, real or imagined, makes the modern child somewhat confined, lacking the freedoms enjoyed by previous generations.
Children are perceived to be in danger outside their own domestic space, and to be dangerous to others if they roam unattended. Both children and public space suffer in consequence. Many children exist in a private cocoon of TV and video games, separated from other children, lacking the physical and emotional engagement which was once the norm. For adults, one of the pleasures of public space – the pleasure in watching the unselfconscious, exuberant games and even the dramatic emotional extremes of children at play – is significantly diminished.
It was in this context that the London Borough of Camden developed a radical brief for a new adventure playground consisting of a play park with an activity centre to replace an existing Portakabin in a corner of Kilburn’s Grange Park, adjacent to a primary school. Not only is this an area of high deprivation, it was also woefully lacking in places where children could hang out together. One of the crucial issues for many working parents is where children can go after school and this new building was intended to provide a year-round haven in which they can pass a few hours between the end of school and the return of their parents.
The brief called for a project which would promote natural and adventure play, encourage social interaction between children (including those with special needs), and permit potentially risky play within safe boundaries by designing a total environment for play, in the spirit of the adventure playground movement.
Adventure playgrounds originally developed in Denmark more than 60 years ago as a conscious move away from the hard, sterile environments provided in municipal parks at that time. The aim was to create a softer, more natural woodland environment for urban children. Health and safety concerns largely killed them off in the UK during the 1980s, to be replaced by more predictable ‘off-the-peg’ installations which are the mainstay of most children’s play areas today. Adventure playgrounds were messy: they had a malleable quality which enabled children to move around elements such as logs, water and sand to modify the landscape and create their own play zones. They utilised existing trees and landscape features for climbing and swinging. This concept was very much back on the agenda in Kilburn.
From the outset, It was important for the client and the architect, Susanne Tutsch of Erect Architecture, that the scheme was well embedded in the local community; local children were involved in the design process, in part to generate a sense of ownership. Intensive workshops both in the school and on site developed key ideas about the nature of play.
This interaction helped the architect to understand the desire children have both for risk and exploration and for secret or hidden spaces. In response the architects developed a sequence of distinctive yet fluid spaces of varying sensory quality across the entire site. Crucially, the area located furthest from the building – the ‘construction zone’ – is a child-only area, used for making things and enclosed by a full-height wall of old doors. The doors give it a slightly odd, anarchic feel, like a Louise Bourgeois art installation lost in north London, or a post-war bomb site. It provides that critical quality alluded to by Colin Ward, giving children their own hidden space away from the view of adults, a place to which they can withdraw.
Overall the design is developed as a conventional sequence of ‘outdoor rooms’, with varying degrees of enclosure. The activity building is the lynchpin around which everything else flows. Its distinctive tree-like roof stretches out into the outside play areas, intimating safety and enclosure, while also encouraging less confident children to go out and explore. Children are allowed to lose themselves across a diverse range of spaces. Although Tutsch describes it as ‘controlled chaos’, it is clear that supervision by full-time playworkers is enabled by a subtle axial arrangement of the outdoor rooms in relation to sightlines from the main building; only the construction zone is hidden.
The menu of areas reflects both the child consultation sessions and the architect’s obvious affinity with the adventure playground movement. The schedule includes vegetable plots, a meadow orchard with fruit trees, and the ‘mountains’, an area of steeply banked escarpments adjacent to the bonfire area (a feature which is commonplace in Scandinavia yet considered an unnatural hazard by most British local authorities). There is a water area constructed of large rocks with mud and gravel sandwiched in between; water flows down from the highest point to create an eroding mound in which children can create channels and pools.
The most exciting elements are the treehouse structures that literally hang off newly-planted and existing trees. There is a fallen tree spanning ‘the ravine’, a two metre cut in the ground. High above is the galleon, a series of walkways and ladders connected to the ground with a wobbly bridge. The architects worked with play equipment specialist Apes at Play, which fully engaged in the witty and playful spirit of the scheme; for example they found the old piano which is now fixed securely eight metres above the ravine on the galleon’s highest viewing platform.
The building itself is a timber frame construction with an irregular twisted shape both in plan and section. It provides a large multi-use play and activity space which is dominated by a large table. When I visited, the airy
double-height room was fully occupied with children painting and making models. There is a secure office in one corner next to the entrance and a run of accommodation comprising toilets, a kitchen and a special needs bathroom within the low single-storey wing along the site boundary. It is all very relaxed, full of light and music, which is as it should be. Both the interior and the exterior are finished in wood, used in a natural, untreated state where possible. Inside deep glulam beams branch out from a Douglas fir tree trunk column as raw as the day it was felled.
The project cost close to a million pounds. Presumably Education Secretary Michael Gove would call that profligacy and waste; he obviously holds architects and architecture in the lowest esteem. But this is a celebration of what architecture can do, where the spatial drama or the subtle balance of natural textures will create memories that children will value for the rest of their lives.
This extraordinary facility should act as a prototype for twenty more across the city, so it is shameful that Camden’s innovative children’s unit is now being dismantled after ten years in which wonderful things have been achieved. Nevertheless, the best of them is here and in use, sending the message out to the surrounding community that children matter, that they are valued and important. And it shows to others beyond, should they care to look, that architecture can be a powerful vehicle for social change.
Mark Dudek is the principal of Mark Dudek Associates and a research fellow at Sheffield University. He has written several books on education and childcare environments including Kindergarten Architecture and Children’s Spaces.
Architect: Erect Architecture; design team: Richard Gatti, Barbara Kaucky, Susanne Tutsch; project manager: Developing Projects; structural engineer: Tall Engineers; qs: Huntley Cartwright; CDM consultant: The Quoin Consultancy; legacy project: The Building Exploratory; main contractor: Kier Wallis; client: London Borough of Camden.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Playstructures: Apes at Play; landscaping: Baylis Landscapes; structural timber frame: Donaldson McConnell; carpentry: Doug Phillips; zinc roofing: T&P Lead Roofing; biodiversity roof: Bauder; windows and external doors: Rationel; rollershutters: Charter; plywood: L&G Forest; lighting: Phillips, Encapsulite; sanitaryware and appliances: Armitage Shanks; ironmongery: Allgood.
AT216/ March 11, p.34.