OPINION

The Brutalist Playground by Assemble and Simon Terrill

London

11 June 2015

The Brutalist Playground finds its perfect introduction in the opening line of Concrete play sculpture, an article written in the July-September 1962 issue of august British publication Concrete Quarterly. “The world of fantasy,” it reads, “is as important to the child, as, say, the arts to the adult.”

A better sentiment could not be found for an installation that revives, in the context of a gallery space at London’s RIBA, portions of the now forgotten (or demolished) playgrounds built around social housing created in the postwar years by the provision of the British welfare state. Yet rather than the concrete spaces of the postwar architects, the play equipment of The Brutalist Playground is executed in reconstituted foam: slabs of mallow pastel pebbledashed with specks of colour.

The project has been developed for the London Festival of Architecture by Assemble, the architecture collective recently nominated for the Turner Prize, and Simon Terrill, an artist whose work often focuses on photography of brutalist architecture and the movement of crowds. “Assemble has gone towards a kind of art practice, whereas Simon is an artist working with architectural photography,” says Assemble’s Jane Hall. “For The Brutalist Playground we’ve met somewhere in the middle, although I don’t really know what that is.”

Whatever that thing is , it’s manifest as a trio of faithful, 1:1 recreations of elements of play equipment and landscaping from three London estates. There are steep ranges of ramps taken from Michael Brown's brick landscaping for the Brunel Estate, Paddington (1974); a fortress-esque slide that served as an outpost to Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (1963) on the Brownfield Estate, Poplar; and – the pièce de résistance – the ill-advised, yet nonetheless glorious, 4m-high concrete Flying Saucer designed by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya for Churchill Gardens, Pimlico (1962). The separate elements are crammed into RIBA’s small Architecture Gallery, amounting to a form of foam-brutalism that Assemble and Terrill have collaged into an architectural Charlie Chalk Fun Factory.

The original Flying Saucer, executed in concrete (IMAGE John Donat)

Hall is right to point out the ambiguity as to what The Brutalist Playground actually is. The installation is, wonderfully, something of a mish-mash. On one level it’s an act of reconstruction (“The Flying Saucer was demolished,” says Hall. "This is the only place you’re ever going to see this again”); on another, a tongue-in-cheek critique of the playgrounds it depicts (“Imagine the Flying Saucer when it was rough, bush hammered concrete,” says Terrill. "You would immediately lose all the skin of your elbows when you fell”).

Or is it a paean to architectural ambition and romantic nostalgia (“Goldfinger's slide took the fortress nature of his Balfron Tower, but it is just as particular,” says Terrill. "These architects continued their signatures from the weightiness and seriousness of tower blocks onto things that were quite frivolous,); or a pointed reminder of the value of these structures, directed in particular at the developers currently transforming Goldfinger's Balfron Tower from social housing into luxury apartments. “Everybody speaks about the building and not the surrounding landscape,” notes Hall. “But this playground element is the last ruin. Could it be worth recreating it or should it be knocked down completely?”

All of these disparate elements come together harmoniously in the installation. The Brutalist Playground is many things, but above all it’s a wonderfully immersive experiences. As befits a playground, it's fun. The foam structures are patently too large for the gallery space in which they sit (the result of the scale on which brutalism worked; they swell and explode around and against the space's low ceiling and numerous columns), but the effect of this super-sizing is to produce a fairground aesthetic: a huge, exciting, overwhelming space that is cleverly redolent of childhood. That the gap between the top of Goldfinger’s fort and the ceiling is so tight that visitors have to drop to all fours to squeeze through the narrow gap that squirms through into its turret is a masterstroke. The Brutalist Playground is not about dignity; it's about evoking the joyfulness of childhood and play.

A more serious side emerges alongside this however however. While the original brutalist playgrounds were flawed (even a cursory awareness of what bush hammered concrete does to skin reveals the lunacy inherent in Concrete Quarterly's 1962 claim that “the suitability of the material [for play equipment] is obvious”), the essential benevolence of their intention cannot be doubted. These were spaces that seriously entertained the idea that fantasy and play might be important to modern life; public spaces that aimed to provide more than the bare minimum.

The aesthetic of the foam mirrors that of the original concrete (IMAGE Tristan Fewings)

Accompanying the installation is a film made by Terrill. It's a sequence of archival photographs of and written material around postwar social housing, replete with streets in the sky, in-built public spaces and, of course, playgrounds. Pamphlet titles regularly flash across the screen: “Planning Your Neighbourhood; for home, for work for play” and "Good environment is the basis of health” feature prominently. The failings of much postwar housing have been well documented, but the utopian strain that underpinned these projects cannot be ignored. These were attempts, however flawed, to improve people’s lives and produce clean, well-designed 20th-century living in contrast to the squalor and exploitation of the 19th-century. Something as seemingly extraneous as a playground being reconceived as a part of the architect's mission is as good a symbol of this idealism as any.

Assemble – with its extensive work around public space and Turner Prize nomination for a housing project that explicitly works with community engagement in Toxteth, Liverpool – is, you suspect, sensitive to this. While the practice is quick to deny proselytising (“This isn’t an exhibition about how great a thing brutalism was and how it's now lost,” says Hall, “it’s about exploring and understanding brutalism”), an affection for the playgrounds it has reconstructed, and the ethos they embody, is hard not to detect.

In this vein, the choice of reconstituted foam becomes significant: surprisingly, it looks a great deal like the original brutalist concrete. The joints between foam panels resemble concrete seams, while the pebbledashed colouration allies the material to the rough texture of a bush hammered slab. Visually, there is no vast difference between the foam playground and its concrete forebears.

Yet this material change transforms something hard, ungiving and dangerous into a functioning, charming playground. Even a structure as goofily preposterous as the original Flying Saucer becomes a (semi-) coherent piece of play equipment. In light of the continuing government-sponsored decline of social housing and the steady dismantling of the welfare state, this notion of refinement is worth remembering. What the idealism of the postwar welfare state needed was evolution and development, not wholesale abandonment.