The World Around Them – Mid-Century Playscapes.

by Sandi Vincent

Saul Bass model playscape, 1961
Graphis 97

Robert Winston play sculpture, 1961
Graphis 97

Children’s Play Structure in Czechoslavakia
Arts & Architecture Magazine, March 1964

Noguchi UN playground, 1952
Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space by
Ana Maria Torres, 2000
(via Atelier)

I am quite pleased to introduce the lovely Sandi Vincent as guest contributor to AQ-V. She is an avid mid-century modern collector and the proud owner of several vintage Graphis Annuals (for which I am envious). See my feature last month on Sandi right here. And now without further ado…

A few months ago I came across images of Isamu Noguchi’s proposal from 1952 for a playground in the UN’s New York headquarters. Breaking out of the jungle gym and swing strictures, the playground was never built as it was deemed unsafe for children. Since then, I’ve collected a few more images of playscapes, both actual and in model form that present as art for play rather than just structures that serve for play. The Saul Bass model is from a 1961 Graphis issue as is the Robert Winston photo. The organic shapes in the Czech and Winston images are made the better with children crawling over them. I would imagine it’s rather like being able to scale that Henry Moore sculpture I was once admonished NOT to touch.

Noguchi Playground for United Nations Headquarters, New York City
1952, unrealized

The suggestion that I design a playground for the United Nations came from Mrs. Thomas Hess in early 1951. It was proposed that the spirit of idealism and good will engendered by the UN should be matched with a new and more imaginative playground for the small children of the delegates and of the neighborhood. A private subscription was raised for the building, and everybody was enthusiastic about it, including the people at the UN and, of course, myself.

Upon finishing the model and submitting it, I asked Julien Wittlesey, the architect, to join with Mrs. Hess in promoting its realization, as I had other things to do in Japan. That Robert Moses was so opposed to it should not have been the surprise that it was; I thought that this time he would not be concerned, because of the United Nations extraterritoriality. I had underestimated him.

The upshot was that the Museum of Modern Art showed the model in an exhibition in their children’s department as a protest, in which the press joined: The playground was killed by ukase from a municipal official who is supposed to run the parks in New York, and who somehow is the city’s self-appointed guardian against any art forms except banker’s special neo-Georgian. The fact that he had no legal or moral right to dictate the UN’s aesthetics was of concern only to the many distinguished educators, child welfare specialists and civic groups who had seen the model and had hailed it as the only creative step made in the field in decades… A jungle gym is transformed into an enormous basket that encourages the most complex ascents and all but obviates falls. In other words, the playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there) becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play. And it is a thing of beauty as the modern artist has found beauty in the modern world. Perhaps this is why it was so venomously attacked (‘a hillside rabbit-warren’) by the cheops of toll bridges. –Art News, April, 1952

Eventually the United Nations had to submit to Moses who I understand threatened not to install the guard rail facing the East River. –The Noguchi Museum

>> MCM Playscapes flickr set
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sandi VincentSandi Vincent grew up in the bay area of California surrounded by mid-century modern architecture and other influences for which she can attribute her affinity for the period and its pop style, including her early exposure to The Monkees, The Avengers and Gerald McBoing-Boing. Sandi currently resides in Portland and is a board member of a local nonprofit preservation group, the Mid-Century Modern League. In her day job at a community foundation, she sports the web/social media/print materials coordinator title.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Previous post:

Next post: