‘Not only Critical, but constructive.’ Aldo Van Eyke.


Aldo van Eyck. 1918-1999

Playgrounds in Amsterdam.

‘In the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible’

‘ If cities are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either.’
Aldo van Eyck.

Aldo Van Eyck was trained as an architect in Zurich between the two world wars. He was very much a part of the modernist movement signing up to the CIAM manifesto. However he was sceptical about the ways the modernist ideals were being implemented becoming wary of the modernist ‘machine’ approach to urban re-development.
He spoke quite early on in his career about the dangers of sweeping away whole districts to create, in their stead, a mass development of high rise housing built according to strict modernist principles.
With the benefit of hindsight, this seems to us a self evident truth. The idea of the total remodelling of Amsterdam to replace it with a modernist city is appalling to us now. But for a young unknown architect to speak out against the popular school of the day showed great resilience and foresight.

Van Eyck believed that Modernist architectural concepts could start immediately and on a small scale, rather than waiting until whole of a areas of city could be demolished and rebuilt.
He thought of this as ‘Inbetweening’, making seen the overlooked spaces. Giving waste space a use.
He was interested in developments on a human scale focusing on a ‘Play, Work, Life’ approach to communities.
Later in his career he created many large design projects, among them an orphanage building in the centre of Amsterdam. This was based on polygonal units, a much repeated motif in his work. The building was described to me by a woman who spent time there as a visiting social worker as being some-what impractical but feeling gentle and welcoming for children.
However, it was in the small works that Aldo Van Eyck tested and developed his humanist radical theories.
He designed playgrounds.
Then as now, this was a sphere of design largely ignored as being too superfluous and insignificant to be prestigious. ‘He believed play spaces were a legitimate art form’ (Solomon)
Until this time, official playgrounds within the city of Amsterdam had been private and access was restricted by membership. This. despite the work of Huizinga in the writing of ‘Homo-Ludens’ (1938 in the original Dutch) and a integrated history of children at play within the whole community as demonstrated by Simon Schama through his exploration of Dutch ‘Kinderspelen’ painting.

Amsterdam was in process of recovery from the Nazi occupation. The Hungerwinter 1944-45 had compounded the privations of the occupation and marred the joy of the liberation of Amsterdam. Many thousands of children were orphaned and displaced and huge numbers of child and adult refugees in the city placed an intolerable strain upon available resources, especially as the harvests had failed that summer and no food was being imported to the city. Some survived only by eating tulip bulbs some by scavenging for scraps on the street. 20,000 people died of starvation.
In the light of this deprivation it is not surprising that there was a move to look to the needs of children, just as there had been in Copenhagen where the first adventure (junk ) playground had been created during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s.

Van Eyck was inspired and encouraged by the Head of the Design Section for the Office of Public Works in Amsterdam, his manager, Jakoba Mulder . She had already restored the Beatrixpark following the liberation of the city, reclaiming it from the Nazi functionalist and propagandist re-branding. She suggested the plan of creating a small, open access, public playground in every neighbourhood of Amsterdam.

So it was that In 1947 Aldo van Eyck designed what was to become the first of this network of playgrounds, a small experimental site in the Bertelmanplein. 20×30 meters in size and surrounded by Amsterdam school style housing, the playground was designed as a simple, understated affair with a concrete moulded rectangular sandpit with what was to become the Van Eyck trademark broad topped walls, tumbling bars, ample room for free play and trees and benches for shade shelter and comfort. (The square was added to by Van Eyck in 1975. It was presumably at this stage that stepping stones and a polygonal steel tube climbing frame was added to the site.) The project was a success, as early photographs show.

The City Council were so delighted with the positive responses from the local community that they reserved a million Guilders to build several more of these playgrounds.

Van Eyke went on to design at least 733 other playspaces over the next 30 years in Amsterdam, though it is hard to pin the figures down as many were undocumented.

The majority of the spaces that he designed were on sites requested by small neighbourhood communities who had seen successful playgrounds around the city and who wanted the Department of Works to create for them something similar of their own. This was a scheme supported and funded by the Municipality. I have found no information about the cost of individual sites.

No comprehensive mapping of these spaces was ever undertaken as they ‘were not a part of an a-priori plan.’ Rather, they ‘made use of the holes of the urban fabric’. The only maps that exist are from around 1957 they show fewer than 100 playgrounds. However several of the sites were documented, photographed from high neighbouring attics, before and after the work. These offer a glimpse of the astounding impact of the work of this man which was replicated through out the city and its growing suburbs*******(Aldo Van Eyck. Humanist Rebel. Inbetweening the Postwar years. Lianne Lefaivre, Alexander Tzonis. 1999)

In some ways his work on playgrounds is lost and unknown. Today, the design literate in Mokum ( literally ‘The Place’ the Yiddish name for Amsterdam,) know his name from his large buildings, but are unaware that it is his work which gives them the places in which they still play with their children. In an interview with parents sat in a Van Eyke playground in the Vondelpark, parents were surprised to learn that Van Eyke had designed the space. They all knew his larger works well, and had found then difficult to work in. But they found the playground perfectly suited to purpose.

The sites that were chosen for playgrounds were sometimes grand spaces in parks, (the Vondelpark alone has four Van Eyck play places). More often they were scrap yards, derelict spaces and SLOAPs (Spaces Left Over After Planning,) between roadways and the gaps left by the houses that had ‘belonged to people deported during the war which had been scavenged for fuel’. Here I realise the thinness of the translation that I am working from. Solomon in conversation with Lefaivre, 2003 ‘ Where spaces held tragic meaning, such as the empty lots, where deported Jews had once had their homes, Van Eyck tried to initiate a firm and hopeful sense of beginning.’ In bold terms, families transported to concentration camps by the Nazis were paid tribute through the creation of play spaces for the children that survived them. ‘Rather than calling up the past, he laboured to re-establish the present.’ (Solomon).

Many playgrounds were integrated into the traditional Amsterdam squares in the middle of housing blocks in the older parts of the city, and where suburban communities were being created, Van Eyck designed playgrounds into the courtyards between the medium-high rise blocks mimicking the success of the town house squares.

It was very much in Van Eyck’s mind that this was an offer to all sectors of a neighbourhood. So his playgrounds do not look like ‘deserted amusement parks when the children are gone.’ They ’become places that make sense to adults, places of rest or encounter’. He refers to the matter of taking care of the sites. ‘There is no supervision there. It should not be necessary…..You may see ladies in fur coats letting their dogs roam in the sandpits. However, by contrast the people of the Jordaan*.. have accepted the playground as their collective property and work to keep it clean together.’(* The Jordaan is a district near to the heart of Amsterdam- Van Eyke refers to it at a time when it was a place of low income households, with a strong sense of community.)

He said in 1962.’ In Amsterdam we… have used up ( by building playgrounds,) all the places in the inner city that might have been used for playgrounds. Between the Playgrounds we have created a more finely-meshed network (of play places). It might be said that there is no more to be done. But we want to make the network even denser by combing the city again and this time finding places that are just big enough for a single play apparatus. The opportunity for the child to discover its own movement as an integral part of the city; the city is also a playground.’

What was his design philosophy?

‘Just as one places a bench because one wants to sit, a lamppost because one wants to light the street, a news-stand because one wants to buy newspapers,, I am putting a playdome there because children want to play.’ AvE (1962)**

Aldo Van Eyck used ‘Relativity’ as one of his compositional techniques. Relativity ‘concerns a reality in which connections between elements are determined by their mutual relationships rather than by a central hierarchical ordering principle.’ * He intended no element within a playspace to have supremacy over any other. Sandpits, from the very first experiment on Bertelmanplein were set wildly off centre with tumbling bars on a diagonal line. Each element has space to be used and explored by many children at once and many times over. Watching the spaces used by children it would seem that his awareness of the relativity of the elements within the playground does affect the way that the children use the space. Although their attention is maintained by each element, the spaces in between also offer a play value that is not concerned simply with movement from one piece to another, as is observed on most play sites. It is more concerned with the flow of the playing. The narratives of the playing children seem to incorporate the artefacts as well as the spaces between them. These playgrounds seem to have created a very permissive play signifier for children.

He is aware that his playgrounds are ‘in between’ places, and that the sense of ‘place and occasion’ is what transforms them. His playgrounds are not closed off, ‘when the children have gone to bed, it is just an ordinary street again’.

‘Fences may be desirable in the staffed play gardens, fences create a sense of the ‘interior’. But on a street one cannot create that same sense of the ‘outdoor room’. It is a shared space with shared use.’ ‘ One must observe the places where one wants to put playgrounds, you are grafting something new on to something that already exists if you put the wrong thing into your syringe then the existing thing will react immediately.’ AvE

He is concerned that poor urban design boxes in space and dictates its use for very narrow and specific purposes. That the ebb and flow or purpose , which he sees as being so much a part of a successful urban space, is factored out by ill-considered thinking.
( paraphrased from chapter cited at end of piece.)**

In the creation of the elements he included in his playgrounds he was determined to discover forms that would remain archetypal. He says that an elephant or ‘a giraffe made of aluminium stands there odd and bored.’ ‘Animals are not of the language of the city and they shut down the imagination rather than expanding it. ‘ ^’ Catalogue equipment is not real enough or having the right aesthetic. It is unnecessarily complex, unlike a simple tumbling fame with children somersaulting round it like flywheels and talking at the same time! That belongs to the city’.
So an arch or an igloo can be a hill for lots of teenage girls to sit on and chat or eat lunch; a venue or a piece of gymnastic equipment. ‘The child has discovered the possibility for itself and this is a reward, a bonus for the designer.’

And his designs are archetypal. One recognises them from a distance.
Sandpits with rounded corners and gentle edges are round, rectangular, polygonal or triangular depending on the character or nature of the space or play offer he wishes to make.. They have low, wide moulded polished concrete walls. Some have seating platforms inside the sand area and in most, different arrangements of fixed stepping stones are used, which are designed to be almost buried in sand.
Tumble bars, either solitary or in long rows or arcs with varying heights, in parallel or seemingly serving only as markers of the edges of the play area. These are included in almost every site .
Stepping/jumping stones , originally ‘sand tables’ set within the large sand pits, Van Eyck developed this concept of concrete cylinders to squat in clumps or pace out a space to suggest a movement or flow across a play space. Often grouped in spirals with no order to the height of the stones, they do not rise or fall in a steady progression as you move around the spiral. They are balancing stones, seats and thrones and chalk boards and sand play tables, or seats for adults. They are endlessly useful and adaptable for play and are seen in odd spaces all over the city
His bent metal pieces have an elegance and dignity which mark a sense of ‘place and occasion’ in his designs which is still powerful. A little play archaeology reveals what a few moments observation spells out, children continue to be drawn to these pieces and play on them in much the same ways that they did from the earliest days. The original pieces are silvery steel and look remarkably fresh. One can see where they are polished by regular use. Several copies of these original designs are scattered around the city. They are generally primary coloured and branded and the steel frame seems to be of a smaller gauge.
In my meanderings through Amsterdam I found examples of most of the types of play artefacts that Van Eyke had designed and installed.
The essential ingredients of his sites are as listed:-
Igloos. 2 sizes
Cups and cones
Tunnels 3 sizes (very smallest in sandpits.)
Balance/tumble bars
Giants’ causeway roughly moulded concrete polygonal pillars for scrambling
Stripes in the playground surface marked out in counterintuitive directions using a coloured variant of the local standard brick or small square paving slab.
Trees are used to create shade and shelter, dappled lighting, and to give an architectural height and elegance to the playspaces.
Benches are always in place to the periphery of a playground for parents to use as the site back and watch the children play.
Hopscoch markings are laid in the original paving slabs of many sites.
Mosaics have been created on paving slab sized cement inserts. They are obviously the work of children and utilise household objects.
Ceramicised manufactured stone clusters were found as a repeated motif in only one site. Their Miro-esque design and colour schemes and the apparent age of the pieces suggest that they were an original Van Eyck design element
The splash pool design is also hard to track down. I found two versions of the circular pool with its almost challenging pacing of stepping stones describing an elegant arc through the water. A small fountain is encompassed by this arc. Research shows another example of the splash pool in the Beatrix park. It certainly has the flavour of a Van Eyck design, but I can find no mention in the available English literature to this piece, except an illustration from Planning for Play (Lady Allen of Hurtwood 1968,) showing images of a site on the Bellamplein, Amsterdam, which shows the same pool design and seems (from Google maps 2009) still to contain water.
Climbing frames of polygonal towers made with interconnected steel tubing, sometimes spouting water.

Missing from his playspaces are hills. Van Eyke says ‘The world suddenly becomes very different if you stand on a bank 1.5t meters high.’ It would seem that the cost of creating landscaping was prohibitive even to this new ‘open hearted’ social policy. ‘The Netherlands’, he says, ‘is a flat country, but that does not make it absolutely necessary to act in a two dimensional manner.’ ’The miracles of a slope of a valley and a hill… anchor our playgrounds much more in the ground as a place.’reference

What is there to be seen.
I visited sites of his designs, mostly extant, in busy markets, quiet hidden squares, social housing estates with a design of his at the heart of each courtyard, (one of these spaces is an illustration in Planning for Play ‘ a seminal text by Lady Allen of Hurtwood.)

I cycled around big parks and small ones and saw his work bubbling with children and parents in the late summer sun. There was an estate built in the early 50s, a pleasant leafy middle class comfy place where twenty or so houses clustered around a treed green space with a Van Eyck playground patiently sitting there, a quietly placed playground, that should have felt bleak and hostile, but was still enlivened by the diagonals of block paving colours breaking up the surrounding rectilinear grids and linking the trees and the spaces surrounding the play elements. The squat mushroom-like ceramicised boulders and the curved arms of seating made the space soft and appreciative of the clambering and everyday sort of playing of the children of these homes. The market it was in constant use by the broadest of age groups each of the four times I passed through it on my tour. The man made boulders and stepping stones tumbled into the streets of the estates around the market place playground, the ultimate manifestation of ‘playable space’ built into an original design concept.

Whilst many of the spaces have been swept away entirely by large scale developments on land in central Amsterdam, others have been re-designed and a surprisingly large number are relatively untouched. Rubber tiles have frequently been added to the floor and some have new stands of swings, sometimes catalogue pieces have been added.. These are seldom in keeping with the original designs and often they miss the aesthetic of the space entirely, doing little to contribute to their play value – except in a negative capacity. Or as Van Eyck said ‘Gaudy vehicular and animalesque gadgets available on the market were added willy nilly spoiling the visual homogeneity whilst contributing nothing to the child’s basic repertoire of movements’ ****

Other sites have been developed far more successfully using more contemporary play design theories to build upon the successes of the original designs. Some are completely removed and have been replaced with pieces that have been bought from catalogues and fitted into the spaces in ways that are dictated more by safety clearance restrictions than any sense of a place for play to flow or for the space to feel elegant. For example, one of the Vondelpark places has added contemporary water play features of steel and concrete and extended the artificial playground offer into the surrounding ‘liminal’ spaces. Another in the Rembrantpark has designed a steel aqueduct to harvest rainwater from the community building and direct it into troughs around the Van Eyke sandpit.
And Van Eyck’s spaces do have an elegance. Or as Solomon calls it’ an exquisite clarity’. In many of the illustrations available, they appear as bleak featureless, design heavy places. But once within the playgrounds one can feel that they have been designed with a sense of proportion, of light and shade and shelter, entirely suitable to the location.
There is space to breathe and run and there is, where ever possible a good surrounding area of green and trees and more formal hedge planting. In the case of one of the Vondelpark’s playgrounds, ‘liminal’ spaces have been opened up so children can explore around the paved concrete and bent metal of the AvE elements. They are in keeping with the beauty of the city and with its cool proportions. He ‘interpreted the playground as a landscape, making art into a useful part of every day life’. (Roy Kolovsky 173 designing modern childhoods.)

His work seems to be very little about issues of personal ego. One feels that he uses his work to create a blank canvas for play which he expects children to take and use for themselves. He expects them to introduce fabric to make dens from his structures, to bring loose parts to the sandpit. These are neutral spaces which children can inhabit with their own playing. His designs remained simple and uncluttered throughout. The elements he used didn’t vary greatly, however the sites were each designed with an awareness of the surrounding area and local need. This awareness manifests itself not only in designs which perfectly compliment the dignity of the Amsterdam design aesthetic, but in the way in which the spaces could be used by children and the wider community.

Sand and water and risk of falling are almost unheard of in the UK playgrounds now. Yet they thrive in Amsterdam.
This is a city which lives with pavements and canals running together without borders. It rests on a coating of sand. Sand is always present in street works.
In this city, tiny children are taught, from the earliest possible age, to manage the steep stair cases in the tall narrow houses.
So sand, water and gravity, considered to be unacceptable risks in English playgrounds are, in Amsterdam, the rather tame challenges of an everyday normality.

In the letters of request to the municipality for neighbourhood play places, there are complaints from residents about the children being forced to pull up the block paving to get to the sand beneath them in their streets to be able to indulge their playing. (Beneath the street the sand). They are demanding sandpits to be installed for the children with a real sense of outrage at the lack that their children are forced to endure.

It is entertaining to us now to read about complaints from residents that there is not an open accessible sand pit for their children to use. In contemporary London we are constantly told that sand pits present unacceptable risks from the hiding of drugs and the dropped syringe of drug users. Asked for evidence of this, Safer Neighbourhood teams in Tower Hamlets can provide no evidence of any such incidents, yet the myth still carries huge power. I have heard of only one substantiated report of syringes in a sand pit, and that was in Manhattan in the 1980’s.

What also seems remarkable now is that these spaces, built in an understated style, have successfully marked territory for play. They have established an expectation of regular play opportunities every few hundred yards or so, throughout Amsterdam and its suburbs. Aldo Van Eyck’s desire to change the city into a ludic experience with play of culture recognised as integral to its fabric, has to some extent succeeded. Seventy years on and children are still playing on Bertelmanplein and almost all of the other sites that I discovered on my tour.

His work has also allowed other designers to factor in space for play and meeting and sitting into their work. Seeds of the neighbourhood playground concept had been sown and although many of the copies of the original concept lack the grace and style and sheer playableness of the original, at least those spaces are still there. (‘ a city which over looks the child’s presence is indeed a poor place. Its movement (flow?) will be incomplete and oppressive. The child cannot rediscover the city until the city rediscovers the child’ Av E 1967)

These were my reflections after visiting the sites.

Van Eyck himself had different thoughts.
’ The sad side of the story
‘There is indeed a sad side to the Amsterdam Playground achievement. What was thought to be more permanent than snow’ has since proved to be not permanent enough. It has at any rate become clear that an urban ingredient, as vulnerable as the playground fabrics, cannot survive without permanent attention and special care. The mood has changed since the ‘50s. As the playgrounds receded from the forefront of municipal attention the care they constantly require slackened. What was once an homogenous fabric all too soon began to fall apart. One by one the playgrounds were disfigured as a result of only casual maintenance. Faulty repairs, loss of equipment or, worse still when they had to make way for something else. One still comes across bits and pieces. Here and there an old playground has survived, but the gratifying impact of countless children playing in so many places, made especially for them, all over the city, has gone AS IF THE CHILDREN HAVE GONE TOO.
Aldo van Eyck . The Works. 1999

I wonder how the city must have looked when there were indeed children playing in the parks and smaller places and on the streets and corners inbetween on the pieces that he had designed, on his concepts. For anyone involved in the creation of a play places the issue of maintenance and the wilful or lazy or ill-informed or false economies of poor care or ill-informed ‘improvements’ are the greatest threat to the works.

‘If we could encourage maintenance people to see their work in terms of a caring role rather than a battlefield, if they saw themselves as Care-Takers, playspaces would be better used and more sustainable.’ Alan Sutton. East End Conference 2009

Penny’s experience of the Practical use of these playgrounds.

My first experience of an AVE site was on a large square beside a canal in the middle of winter.

Although it felt bleak and exposed the very young children played for an hour or so in the sand, moving to run down a slide or balance on a wall or run away and return to the sand.
They tried to tumble over the bars.
It was on this playground that the game of sand sharks was invented. (Drag two adult handfuls of sand together so that they model a sharks fin on the sand surface… then begin a race between the maker of the fins and the smaller hands that are the squashers of the fins.)
When looking at the images of the sandpits on this trip, one of the original sand shark children, 13 years on, said ‘Didn’t he know how much it rains in this city?’ His father pointed out that without the rain the sandsharks would not have been possible’.
In fact Van Eyck is quite exercised by the issue of playing in the rain. ‘if a child does not want to stay inside when it is ‘bad weather’ then it remains ‘bad weather’, but if you can enjoy yourself in a playground when it’s raining, then it’s no longer ‘bad weather’.

The little playground that was…
It is in and around the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat that most of my family’s time has been spent in Amsterdam. For fifteen years or so we have played in a toothy gap between tall houses. A small snippet of land that feels a little like a diorama. The tall houses surrounding three sides of the box and the fourth open to the street. Within this space a surreal tangle of plants, manufactured play equipment and rubber tiling invites the children in to play. It is used for little children’s birthday parties. Teenagers hang out there when the smaller ones are gone. The well established trees provide roosts to birds whose droppings make the base of the slide and the benches by the lockable entrance unusable.
The youngest of the ‘sand shark’ children told me that adults really should ‘ask children about the design of playgrounds so they would avoid mistakes like this.’
Yet this is a little sliver of playfulness, and very important to the neighbourhood, but it feels poorly furnished and thought out. During my visit to Amsterdam for the Aldo Van Eyck research trip, I discovered that my hunch had been correct and that this play place was one that had been commissioned from him by the local community in 1973. It is also, sadly, one of the ones that was not valued and preserved as he created it. There are no pictures of his designs for the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat available that I can find, but one can imagine a site very similar to the well documented Dijkstraat site.

It still carries the message.

Here is a gap in the houses that is not a gap.
Here is the ‘Play Element of Culture’.
Here was a Space that is now a Place.
Here we overlook and do not overlook the child’s presence.

Some of Van Eyck’s writing has been translated into English and his poetry/prose thinking pieces are useful to us now as we consider the creation of spaces for children to play.

‘When snow falls on cities.
The citizen has forsaken his identity.
He has become and onlooker instead of a participant,
an isolated soul amid millions of isolated souls.
But the child withdraws from this paradox. It discovers its identity against all odds, damaged and damaging, fouled and fooling, edged towards the fringes of collective attention, the child survives, and emotional and unproductive quantum.
Look Snow! A miraculous trick of the skies- a fleeting correction.
All at once, the child is lord of the city. The child is everywhere, rediscovering the city whilst the city , in turn , rediscovers the child, if only for a while.
Yet what it needs is something more permanent than snow.
Something the city can absorb without losing its remaining identity, something not altogether different from the incidental things the child adapts to its imagination and vitality, something carefully shaped and judiciously placed where there is still some room: on innumerable formless islands left over by the road engineer and the demolition worker, on empty plots, on places better suited to the child than the public watering place.(urinal?)
In Amsterdam 150 places have been laid out. They become indications for play, tools for imagination. They constitute a conscious attempt to give the child’s movement a visual meaning in the image of the city. They are places where energy condenses and disperses, indications for increased community.’

Aldo Van Eyke
English version of ‘het kind en de stad’.
Article in ‘Goed Wonen’
October 1957

Penny Wilson
April 4th

‘On the design of play equipment and the arrangement of Playgrounds.’**
Marina van den Bergen
^ from the introduction to Aldo van Eyck. The child, the City and the Artist
**** Aldo Van Eyck, ‘The works’ 1999

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  4 Responses to “‘Not only Critical, but constructive.’ Aldo Van Eyke.”

  1. A beautiful, insightful, scholarly piece. Thank you Penny. I expect to return to it repeatedly. I have admired van Eyck’s work on playgrounds since Ken Worpole put me onto them some years ago, and it is a joy to discover here the depth of his thinking on function (so pleased to read his views on adults sharing spaces with children), design (sand!), location and (yes) fencing.

  2. I am doing a PhD thesis on accessible neighborhood public spaces, and I was told be my supervisor to look into the works of Aldo Van Eyck. It was very interesting to see how he was thinking deeply in what children needed on that time. I would like to ask about whether he did any work on children in public spaces and not only parks??

  3. *this was of great help to me

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