Architecture at Play

May 31, 2012

Architecture is serious business. But Andre Rodrigue, senior in the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA), is learning about how it can be seriously playful. Through a unique partnership with the Arizona’s Children Association (AZCA), students from CALA have designed and are completing construction of a new playground for the association.

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“To say a playground can be architecture starts to move our minds around this idea that with design comes endless possibilities,” he says.

Where once stood a blank dirt area at the AZCA facility now sits something that looks like the Death Star crossed with a giant spider crossed with a robot. Whatever it is, it’s all fun and imagination and play.

“We made a dirt mountain to form a canyon and bind that by two retaining walls,” says Chris Trumble, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, “and then we have what the students have come to call ‘the tarantula’ that crawls over the canyon, creating this experience of over, under, in and out – this multifaceted, multisensory, multi-experiential play experience.”

For senior architecture major David Koenst, the playground represents a special opportunity to work on a project not just through its design, but through every aspect of production.

“What this playground has come to mean to me is working through a project holistically,” he says. Not only did the team perform the research and design every aspect of the playground; they are pouring the concrete, welding the structures, turning the screws, procuring the materials and organizing the labor. “Every little bit that goes into it…the experience is incredibly valuable working on a project from start to finish. We’re designers, we’re contractors.”

Every piece of the playground was hand-made, custom-made and custom-designed – which makes Koenst and all the team members very proud indeed.

That Sieve of Reality

Working on the playground has been much more than just applying skills. As opposed to working in hypothetical and abstract conditions in the classroom, these kinds of design-build projects allow students in the School of Architecture the unique opportunity to go beyond proposing designs for evaluation by professors and professionals. Their proposals are tested against variables like budget, technical feasibility, scheduling and more – what Trumble calls “that sieve of reality” in which every real-world architect must function.

“It is an opportunity for them to taste materiality, taste fabrication processes,” he says. Through the process, these architecture students learn how designed concepts must eventually move into construction, and they gain a clear understanding of that relationship. “They cut wood and they weld, and they dimension and finish materials in their structures classes, their materials and methods classes, and in their studio projects.”

An Expertise in Play

Before they even started the project, the students needed to familiarize themselves with much more than design principles. They needed to become experts in playtime through researching topics like early childhood educational theories and philosophies. They also needed to look at the history of play and playground design.

Only then were they able to truly put their ideas into practice. And the results have been, in a word, fun. The result is a playground designed specifically around the needs of children between 2 and 5 years of age. But the designers have had to find a balance between letting their imaginations run wild and playing by some very strict rules.

Playgrounds for this age group are highly governed by codes. They cannot have fall heights greater than 4 feet, nor can they have openings between 3 and 9 inches that might entrap a small child’s head. 

“Certain openings, inclines fall heights, impact attenuation…this thing is highly governed by codes,” says Trumble. “For the first time, students can’t just come up with an idea.”

“We provide unobstructed and clear lines of sight, lots of places to hide, the whole concept of over-under, in and out, the ability to weave a path,” says Koenst, “helps a child in their development of these special skills.”But those rules have served as a structure upon which these talented students have built something amazing. They have built something that engages the imagination as well as creates mystery and encourages experimentation and discovery.

While the students and professors all enjoyed and learned from the collaborative experience of designing and building the playground, what they’re really looking forward to is opening day when the playground will fill with children, climbing, playing, running, laughing and imagining.

“It’s going to become their playground,” says Trumble. “They’re going to find ways to use it that we never anticipated, and that’s really exciting.”