back to

The stark whimsy of Brutalist playgrounds


While most of us are familiar with Brutalist buildings, have you ever seen a Brutalist playground? Admittedly, they seem like a bit of a design oxymoron–cold, hard concrete hardly making a hospitable environment for play–but in these images of London’s 1960s playgrounds, they seem rife with imagination, like geometric sci-fi abstractions come to life. Check out the images via the Guardian below, which have been published in tandem with Assemble’s Brutalist-inspired exhibition at RIBA.
Churchill Gardens estate, Pimlico, 1956. The flying saucer looks like it has crashed and there’s a mysterious cruise-liner chimney. Brutalist buildings are built out of bush-hammered concrete and the playgrounds are made out of the same material. Photograph: John Maltby/RIBA
Balfron Tower playground, Poplar, London, 2015. Ernö Goldinger, who built the Balfron Tower, was interested in play and children’s toys. But this playground looks inhospitable. Apparently the slide once had metal on it – now it is just the concrete, so you wouldn’t want to go down it – it would take your skin off. Photograph: Simon Terrill/Assemble
Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1963. Part of the Park Hill estate, designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, who were tutored by the Smithsons – the founders of new brutalism. The estate was famous for its experimental ideas, like walkways in the sky, and that approach was reflected in the playground. Photograph: Arch Press Archive/RIBA.
Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1962. The same shapes appear in brutalist playgrounds around the country: hexagons, ramps, holes in walls. The children would have had a very physical encounter with the concrete – crawling over it, feeling it under their hands, grazing their knees. It’s a very different way to experience brutalism than the way most adults did. Photograph: Arch Press Archive/RIBA

And here’s an image of Assemble’s Brutalist-inspired landscape:
Children playing on Assemble and Simon Terrill’s playground at RIBA. The colours are standard issue, and relate to the density of the foam. Pink foam is denser than blue. The brutalist ethos was to expose the function of a building, and honour the truth of your materials. Brutalist playgrounds were a truth to concrete, ours is a truth to foam. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Check out more on the Guardian.

Lead image caption: Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico, London, 1978. This playground is on the modernist Churchill Gardens estate designed by Powell and Moya, but clearly built at a later date. Before these postwar playgrounds were built, children would have been playing in the bomb sites left after the war. It’s possible the architects were referencing that in their design. All captions by Simon Terril. Photograph: John Donat/RIBA


One of the striking things about visiting the Noguchi museum was learning about how his real passion was designing playgrounds. Many of the anxieties of modernist art find their relief and in fact productive ends in playground design: the emphasis on process over product, on empowering rather than dominating… This whole ethic of learning through play is what makes Montessori and Lego so great!