PRINT September 2013


LONDON-BASED ARTIST NILS NORMAN has long challenged both the confines of artistic production and the pitfalls of urban planning. To this end, he has methodically catalogued two types of spatial engineering: the child’s playground, on the one hand, and what he calls “Urbanomics,” on the other—infrastructures of restriction, from fortified planters to antigraffiti patterning, in which the decorative effectively meets the deterrent. Since Norman began these ongoing archival projects more than a decade ago, both realms have only become more topical; as recreation and social interaction become increasingly capitalized territories and the panopticon extends to Prism proportions, attempts to reimagine our shared environments are proliferating (an entire section of this year’s Carnegie International, for example, will be devoted to playground design). For this special project, Norman puts these civic structures in dialogue via a curated presentation of his own photography and related source material.

BUM-PROOF BENCHES AND THE SEESAW might be two sides of the same coin: both symptoms of a profound reorganization of public space in recent times, a dialectic of control and play.

The Adventure Playground and Playscape Archive and the Defensive Architecture and Design Archive—two projects of mine from which the following images are drawn—address these very specific developments in how public space is produced, manipulated, controlled, and experienced, working together in a perverse feedback loop.

Since 1995, when I began photographing manifestations of defensible spaces—a concept I have taken from Oscar Newman’s influential 1972 book Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design—defensive design has developed into a global industry. At first it was a stealthy, specialized field that existed as an ostensible form of counterterrorism or security in the shadow of the IRA bombings in London during the 1980s, in Israel’s city centers and borders, and in the downtown areas and neighborhoods surrounding prisons in large US cities. After 9/11 and the deregulation of financial markets, that rapidly changed. This rationalization of urban space has been adopted by private groups and is now proliferating from financial centers of the city outward as legal firms, luxury hotels, and wealthier residents also seek security. Architects, banks, and the state collaborate with military advisers and the police to develop designs drawn from an archaic mixture of medieval, martial, and eighteenth-century-picturesque landscaping techniques: barriers, moats, ha-has, raised beds, strategic water features, checkpoints, sentry boxes, ramps, ramparts, viewing platforms, planters, bollards, and collapsible concrete.

One could argue that the opposite of the defensive enclosure is the open space of free play. So parallel to my research into defensive architecture, since the early 2000s, I have been documenting different types of playscapes from around the world. Early public playgrounds in the US were built, by and large, as a means of “civilizing” immigrant children, but in a utopian spirit I have been searching for more experimental, unusual, and innovative architectures of play that question the controlled structure of those earlier conceptions and offer an alternative to how spaces are being developed by corporate and state interests, in what writer and journalist Anna Minton sees as a return to the gated estates and privately policed enclaves of the early-nineteenth-century city. Certain types of play and playgrounds could be seen as an antidote to the ever-tightening and reactive enclosure of urban space—from the carnivalesque atmospheres of recent mass demonstrations and occupations around the world to trends in design such as “adventure playgrounds” and “informal” and “nature” playscapes, which move away from the fixed ironmongery of large, modular, off-the-shelf equipment toward the use of natural materials, den building, and simpler site-specific interventions, allowing children to explore risk taking without being constantly watched. There are many such examples of how play can transform public spaces, how users daily retune and tweak their environments in strategic ways, and how occupations and protests have employed ludic tactics to reinterpret ever-increasing restrictions, in a game of cat and mouse.

—Nils Norman