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The Last of Amsterdam's Post-War Playgrounds

In the traumatised city of post-war Amsterdam, one Dutch architect changed the face of urban play by building over 700 playgrounds. Architect and documentary filmmaker Daryl Mulvihill photographed the few that remain.

PHOTOS - Daryl Mulvihill
WORDS - Caroline O'Donoghue
20.07.2017

Between 1947 and 1978, Aldo Van Eyck built playgrounds. Hundreds of playgrounds. He built sandpits and climbing frames, stepping stones and concrete pyramids. Most of them haven’t survived – perhaps 90 of the original 700 are still visible in Amsterdam.

But despite their dwindling physical evidence, the playgrounds' influence has stretched globally. Many a city playground today displays the igloo-shaped climbing frame that is Van Eyck’s most recognisable hallmark, and the odd jumbles of bold, graphic shapes that are so synonymous with modern playgrounds are also his. 

So how did one Dutch architect change the face of urban play? 

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playground

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playgroundAbove: an inviting run of stepping stones shows how Van Eyck seamlessly integrated play into the streetscape. They sit in contrast to the recent addition in the background. Below: two large sandpits with some new climbing elements. All caption text: Daryl Mulvihill.

The answer, to both this and virtually every question about the latter half of the 20th century, is in World War II. After the war ended, the Netherlands was still reeling from the “Hunger Winter” – a man-made famine that occurred after Germany cut off food and supplies to its southern territories – and architecture had suffered in tandem. There were simply not enough houses to go around, and facilities that did exist were woefully unprepared for the post-war baby boom. 

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playground

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playgroundAbove: large circular basin in Vondelpark with a series of stepping stones. In summer, this is filled to a shallow depth with water. Below: a detail of a hexagonal concrete blocks climbing structure.

Functionalism reigned supreme: buildings were baldly unadorned, and certainly not meant to inspire the imagination. Van Eyck’s playgrounds – directly influenced by observing how children play and interact with the world around them – seemed to fly in the face of the functionalist regime. Their very existence was radical, as Darran Anderson writes, and they are symbols of a child’s right to “gain sovereign space in surroundings built by and for adults.” 

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playground

Aldo Van Eyck Amsterdam playgroundAbove: the large climbing dome is all of what remains at this playground in Staatsliedenbuurt. Below: the first playground Van Eyck designed and still intact.

There’s something hopeful, punk even, about the idea of playgrounds – 700 playgrounds! – springing up like weeds in a post-war Amsterdam. The playgrounds would go on to be central to Van Eyck’s later career as one of the founders of Structuralism: early cave scratchings for an entire new language of architectural design, culminating in his famous Amsterdam Orphanage in 1960.

That would all come later. For now, hold the Van Eyck playgrounds in your head for a minute: imagine a city, ravaged by famine and war. Imagine a nation attempting to keep their infrastructure together with rubber bands. Imagine that kind of hopelessness, and then, seconds later, imagine a whole new type of public space, specifically designated for children to play in. It means something to prioritise that kind of space, and to build 700 examples of it. It means: we’re ready to feel hopeful about the future again.

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