Ben Highmore from the University of Sussex presents the 2022 CVAC Architecture Lecture
Not all Swings and Roundabouts: Playgrounds as Social Architecture
In 1989 the right to play became part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989): ‘States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.’ The convention, however, does not recommend the kind of activities that should constitute play, nor how different forms of play may be gauged as age-appropriate. Most playgrounds today are discrete areas dedicated to the physical play of small children. An uncharitable description of them might compare them to ‘hamster wheels’ designed to siphon off excess energies by using brightly coloured devices (usually plastic) laid out on a spongy ‘prison yard’ designed to keep children from hurting themselves. Playgrounds today are risk-averse places that require the least amount of upkeep (the devices are durable and fixed). The history of playgrounds, however, particularly in the decades that followed 1945, tell a much more diverse and experimental story. In this history we can learn about playgrounds that were aimed at all children and young people aged between 4 and 16; playgrounds where children learnt (with only the minimum of supervision and instruction) how to build shelters, how to grow food and how to cook it; playgrounds aimed at instilling a love of nature. We can learn about how the adventure playground movement developed into a campaign for adventure play for children with disabilities, and how playgrounds were at the forefront of a recycling movement. We can hear about ambitious and unrealised projects to turn islands into playgrounds (Washington DC) and to pedestrianize residential streets to protect public space for children's play (London). These were playgrounds that saw their task as preparing children for the future by giving them the space and means to develop a democratic ethos and to inoculate them from the lure of fascism. These were spaces ambitiously aimed at fostering self-reliance alongside the ability to participate in collective communities. These playgrounds often snatched 'waste ground' for a few years during transition periods between destruction and rebuilding. Today, as we face an uncertain future threatened by climate catastrophe, where urban space and the right to the city seems to preclude the young, we might want to ask: how can we prepare our young people for the future? How could the history of playgrounds offer resources of hope for an increasingly precarious future? This research investigates the recent history (post-1945) of playgrounds: their design, their day-to-day existence, the infrastructures that supported them, and the communities they fostered. Based on extensive archival research it will draw on: accounts of playground campaigns; architectural plans for playgrounds; photographic records of the building of playgrounds and of play activities; diaries of playground leaders; and the ephemera of leaflets, posters and DIY instructions that constitute a dynamic aspect of playground culture. The research is particularly interested in how informal and formal infrastructures develop to sustain playground culture: instructions for the training of playground leaders; international associations for playground advocacy; self-help playground literature; and a promotional literature for specific playgrounds. These infrastructures aren’t simply offering practical support: they are also offering a world of care and concern – an infrastructure of feeling.
Ben Highmore FBA
Professor of Cultural Studies (Media and Film), University of Sussex
Ben studied fine art in the mid-1980s before going on to complete an MA in the Social History of Art at the University of Leeds in 1990. Ben completed his doctoral studies at Birkbeck College, University of London in 2000 (supervised by Steven Connor). Between 1993 and 2006 Ben taught cultural studies in Bristol at the University of the West of England. In 2007 he joined the University of Sussex. Ben was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2021.