Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck
July 15, 2002
Almost everyone who grew up in Amsterdam during
the '50s, '60s and '70s is connected by an unusual fact: they once
played in one of the more than 700 playgrounds in Amsterdam designed
by Aldo van Eyck. And outside Amsterdam too, almost every playground
had one of his tumbling bars.
Bertelmanplein, 1947 (The vertical climbing
bars behind the sandpit were added after 1947.)
Aldo van Eyck (1918-1999) was 28 when he joined the Department
of City Development at Amsterdam Public Works in 1947. After working
on city expansions for a short time, he was asked to design a playground
for Bertelmanplein. At the time, there were just a few private playgrounds
in Amsterdam run by trusts and children had to be members to play
there. Residential areas offered hardly any play facilities for
children. It was Jakoba Mulder, head of the design group where Aldo
van Eyck worked, who came up with the idea of providing a small
public playground in every neighbourhood of Amsterdam. The first
playground for Bertelmanplein was an experiment. Van Eyck designed
a sandpit bordered by a wide rim. In it he placed four round stones
and a structure of tumbling bars. The pit was placed in the north
corner of the square, diagonally across from three tumbling bars.
Bordering the square were trees and five benches. The playground
was a success. Many designs followed and, depending on the site,
Van Eyck deployed a number of compositional techniques. For him
the playgrounds were an opportunity to test out his ideas on architecture,
relativity and imagination. Relativity concerned a reality in which
connections between elements were determined by their mutual relationships
rather than by a central hierarchical ordering principle. As a result,
reality was no longer dominated by a permanent centre. Instead,
all elements were equal. The playgrounds designed by Van Eyck were
exercises in non-hierarchical composition. Owing to the placement
of such elements as benches, trees, hedges and different coloured
paving stones, the slender metal tumbling bars had the same status
and were as emphatically present as the big concrete sandpit. Its
round form and rounded corners softened the presence of the sandpit
Van Eyck himself designed the playground equipment, including
the tumbling bars, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms, and his children
tested them. To him, play equipment was an integral part of the
commission. Its purpose was to stimulate the minds of children.
The hemispherical jungle gym was not just something to climb. It
was a place to talk and a lookout post. Covered with a rug, it became
a hut. These sandpits, tumbling bars and stepping stones were placed
throughout the Netherlands.
In collaboration with the neighbourhoods, the Site Preparation Service
of the Department of City Development drew up the programme for the
playgrounds and decided where they would be built. Because the department
wanted to give every neighbourhood its own playground, they often
turned vacant lots in the city centre into temporary play areas. Hemmed
in by old walls and ramshackle buildings, these are the best known
of the playgrounds. Van Eyck worked for the department until 1951
before setting up his own office, but he continued to design playgrounds
for the municipality. Between 1947 and mid-1955 he designed around
60 playgrounds, and after 1955 he designed many more in the new post-war
expansion districts. The latter were designed more or less in batches.
Of the 700 playgrounds realised by Van Eyck between 1947 and 1978,
90 still maintained their original layout in 2001, though equipment
designed by others had been added to some of them.
Dijkstraat, 1954 before and after
This summer the new wing of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is staging
an exhibition on the playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck. The soberly furnished
space contains a number of original design sketches, photographs of
playgrounds and photographs of the sites before redevelopment. On
display to the right of the entrance, beneath the stairs, are works
by Constant Nieuwenhuys, Karel Appel and Jean Dubuffet. Initiator
and compiler of the exhibition Liane Lefaivre attempts to make a connection
between the art brute of Jean Dubuffet, the work of the Cobra group,
and Van Eyck's playgrounds - but unconvincingly, as the assertion
on page 37 of the catalogue illustrates. 'Aldo van Eyck's coloured-pencil
sketches of some playgrounds bear similarities to Cobra art. Just
as the artists of this group tried to imitate children in their style
of drawing (e.g. Promenade au Pays des Pommes by Corneille), Van Eyck,
too, used coloured pencils for his sketches of, for example, the Zeedijk.'
If there is any demonstrable connection between works of art and the
playgrounds by Van Eyck, then the playground compositions are more
akin to the work of De Stijl, Joan Miró and Jean Arp than to art brute.
Corneille, Promenade au Pays des Pommes, 1949
Design for Zeedijk playground, 1955
Displayed inside and outside the museum are pieces of playground equipment
designed by Van Eyck. Despite their beautiful simplicity, they look
lost in the museum. A better option, of course, is to get on a bike
and cycle to those playgrounds that have (partly) survived. The exhibition
catalogue lists all Van Eyck's playgrounds chronologically and their
current state (reasonable condition, demolished, replaced by new playground).
And those who want to experience how the network of playgrounds was
distributed across the city centre and surrounds can follow the 'psychogeographic
cycle tour of Amsterdam playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck' in the latest
issue of Archis magazine. The map indicates 40 playgrounds within
the city's ring road. Some are long gone, but that's not important.
For the site is what matters. 'They are points where the seeds of
community were sewn, where the city was not to be viewed or consumed
Durgerdammerdijk in 2002, designed in 1955
(All pictures taken from Aldo van Eyck. Playgrounds)
Marina van den Bergen
Translation: Billy Nolan
Exhibition: Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck, through September 8 at
Museum, Paulus Potterstraat 13, Amsterdam.
This summer the Stedelijk Museum is organising workshops for children
entitled 'Design your ideal playground' (see website).
On September 6 the Stedelijk Museum is staging a congress on playgrounds
Liane Lefaivre, Ingeborg de Roode (ed.), Aldo van Eyck. Playgrounds,
Rotterdam, 2002, Euro 24,-, ISBN 90-5662-248-X, 144 pages. Liane
Lefaivre (ea.) 'A psychogeographic cycle tour of Amsterdam playgrounds
by Aldo van Eyck', in Archis
No. 3, 2002, Euro 13,75. Francis Strauven, Aldo van Eyck.
Relativity and Imagination, Meulenhoff Amsterdam, 1994, Euro
56,72 (still available in English).