The Architecture of Modern Play

Find out how the 20th century saw a surge in new thinking about design for children's play.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

Illustration showing indoor and outdoor recreation (1944) by Architect: Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987)Royal Institute of British Architects

Designing the future

As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, architects and planners began to set their sights on rebuilding. They developed new bold visions for communities, neighbourhoods and cities fit for the future. 

What should the new world look like, and how could the next generation be prepared as citizens of the modern age?

Meanwhile, the optimistic spirit of modernism gained momentum internationally. This cultural movement considered architecture as a means to solve society's problems and positioned children as symbols of a bright future.

This drawing was exhibited by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs in 1944. It illustrates the Hungarian architect Ernő Goldfinger's vision for the reconstruction of post-war Britain, including recreation spaces for people of all ages.

Children playing in the street backs of workers' housing, Northampton (1962) by Photographer: Reginald Hugo de Burgh GalweyRoyal Institute of British Architects

Play was increasingly seen as a valuable tool that could hone children's social and educational development and help prevent 'delinquency'. But opinion differed about how this could best be achieved.

Children playing on a bomb site at Aldersgate (1940) by Photographer: Reginald Hugo de Burgh GalweyRoyal Institute of British Architects

Junk Playgrounds

In the UK, landscape architect and children's campaigner Marjorie Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood) was inspired by the sight of children playing on a bombsite. She campaigned to reimagine these sites as playgrounds, allowing children to reclaim 'junk' as a material with which they could play, build and destroy at will.  

The bombed-out St George the Martyr with Canterbury Cathedral in the background (1947) by Photographer: Reginald Hugo de Burgh GalweyRoyal Institute of British Architects

The approach aimed to bring the wilderness of the countryside to children in the city neighbourhoods, by allowing them to embrace these amorphous spaces, unimpeded by design strategies based on ideas about how children 'should' play. 

The resulting spaces were junk playgrounds, later known as adventure playgrounds. 

Danish landscape architect Carl Theodore Sørensen created the first junk playground in Copenhagen 1943, which inspired Allen's seminal 1946 article, ‘Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?’

Adventure Park (1970-11-30) by John ShearerLIFE Photo Collection

Junk playgrounds aimed to empower children to make their own choices about risk, free from the interventions of adults. They became an enduring international phenomenon. At least three could be found in New York City in the 1970s. 

Design for the Finsbury Estate: perspective view showing housing blocks and playground (1962) by Artist: Carl Ludwig Philipp FranckRoyal Institute of British Architects

Housing designed for play

An alternative approach to play was to design purpose-built recreational landscapes and play equipment into the heart of new housing developments. 

In the UK, architects and urban planners championed these abstract, often surreal playscapes within the new social housing developments that aimed to rehouse Britain's populations after the destruction of the Second World War. 

Park Hill Estate: the climbing frames (1963) by Photographer: Sam LambertRoyal Institute of British Architects

The playgrounds were integrated into the surrounding landscape through their materials and monumental forms. Constructed from wood, brick, and mostly concrete, they embodied the architectural style known in England as 'Brutalism'. 

Park Hill Estate: the children's play area (1960) by Photographer: John DonatRoyal Institute of British Architects

Like junk playgrounds, these playscapes took a hands-off approach to managing risk. Their hard surfaces and steep inclines highlight how attitudes towards health and safety have since changed.  

Churchill Gardens Estate: the flying saucer (1978) by Photographer: John DonatRoyal Institute of British Architects

They also departed from conventional playground design to give free reign to the imagination. Instead of traditional slides and swings, a more abstract play structure could at turns be a flying saucer, a stage, or a fort depending on the needs of the game. 

But in contrast to junk playgrounds, these playscapes were bespoke, highly designed spaces, integral to the architectural vision of the estates.    

Churchill Gardens Estate, Pimlico, London: Lutyens, Wedgewood and Chippendale House (1978) by Photographer: John DonatRoyal Institute of British Architects

Churchill Gardens, London

Churchill Gardens, a 1,600-home social housing scheme with bespoke children's playscapes, was among the most significant post-war developments to rehouse London's population. It was designed by young architects Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya.

Designs for Churchill Gardens Estate: the junior playground (1954) by Architects: Powell & MoyaRoyal Institute of British Architects

The estate's high-rise, high density residential blocks freed up open space for planting, green quadrangles and two play areas. 

This landscaping was a key feature, and appears to have been undertaken by the architects themselves. 

Churchill Gardens Estate: the boat playscape (1956) by Photographer: John MaltbyRoyal Institute of British Architects

The play areas were largely made of brick and concrete, and featured changes in level, a sand-filled boat, and the famous 'flying saucer'.

Designs for Churchill Gardens Estate: the flying saucer (1955) by Architects: Powell & MoyaRoyal Institute of British Architects

This drawing by Powell and Moya shows the design for the flying saucer, with its steep gradient. 

Design for Balfron Tower, Rowlett Street, London (1964) by Architect: Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987)Royal Institute of British Architects

Balfron Tower, London

Not long after Churchill Gardens was completed, construction began on a social housing scheme in Poplar, east London. 

Designed by Hungarian architect Ernő Goldfinger, the estate's first phase was the high-rise Balfron Tower. 

Rowlett Street housing: designs for the fitted play space (1960) by Photographer: Mike DowdRoyal Institute of British Architects

Goldfinger felt strongly about the importance of outdoor recreation and open spaces. He positioned the boilers at the top of Balfron Tower, freeing up space on the ground for children’s play.  The fitted play space featured a concrete slide.   

Balfron Tower playground: the slide (1968) by Photographer: Simon TerrillRoyal Institute of British Architects

The slide is one of the few British post-war play structures that survives today. It is captured here in a 2015 photograph by artist Simon Terrill. 

By Werner WolffLIFE Photo Collection

These Brutalist structures referenced play sculptures such as those by the Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi and Danish-Swedish architect Egon Møller-Nielsen, whose Spiral Slide was designed in the 1950s to offer an alternative to the standard swings and slides.

Park Hill Estate, Sheffield (1960) by Photographer: John DonatRoyal Institute of British Architects

Park Hill, Sheffield

The Park Hill estate in Sheffield, northern England, was constructed in 1957. It was designed by a group of architecture graduates from Durham University, including Alison and Peter Smithson, Jack Lynn and Gordon Ryder.

Park Hill Estate: the children's play area (1961) by Architect: John Lewis Womersley (1910-1990), Sheffield Corporation City Architect's DepartmentRoyal Institute of British Architects

The design aimed to create a community of 'streets in the air', by connecting the estate's housing blocks with raised walkways.  

The architects Alison and Peter Smithson made the case for the street as an extension of the home, pointing out its potential for child's play. 

The first residents moved in in 1960, and by June the following year the Sheffield Telegraph had declared it “a paradise for children”, thanks to its generous play spaces including a tunnel through which children could burrow.

The Brutalist Playground installation (2015) by Photographer: Tristan FewingsRoyal Institute of British Architects

Play Reimagined

While the 1980s and 1990s saw an increasingly standardised and risk-averse approach to recreation spaces, architects have continued to present fresh approaches to children's play.  

In the past 10 years, there has been a resurgence of interest among contemporary designers in the – mostly demolished – playscapes of the mid-20th century. 

The Brutalist Playground installation: the flying saucer (2015) by Photographer: Tristan FewingsRoyal Institute of British Architects

In 2015, artist Simon Terrill and Turner Prize-winning collective Assemble revisited the concrete playscapes of post-war British estates for the RIBA exhibition The Brutalist Playground

Using RIBA drawings and archives, they rebuilt now demolished play structures on a 1:1 scale, clad in reconstituted foam to simulate contemporary soft play spaces and aggregate material qualities of concrete. The Balfron slide and Churchill Garden's flying saucer were both given a second life.

The Brutalist Playground installation (2015) by 2019Royal Institute of British Architects

Part sculpture, part architecture, all play: the installation re-examined post-war playscapes from a historical and contemporary perspective, while questioning current attitudes to risk in play.  

Drawing for the Brutalist Playground "Elefanten" play structure, Designers: Assemble Studio and Simon Terrill, 2018, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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The Brutalist Playground installation, Oslo: the elephant, Photographer: Kunsthall Oslo, Designers: Assemble Studio and Simon Terrill, 2018, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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"Elefanten" play sculpture, Photographer: Kunsthall Oslo, 2018, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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The Brutalist Playground has toured internationally, each time bringing new play structures back to life. At Oslo Kunsthal in 2018, it featured a recreation of Norwegian artist Nils Aas' Elefanten play sculpture, originally made for the Norwegian town of Oppsal in 1968. The sculpture can still be found in Oppsal, 100 metres down the road from its original location. The accompanying seesaw and swing have since been lost, but the elephant is still climbed on by children. 

Drawing for "Aldo", Designers: Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster, 2919, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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"Aldo", Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, Photographer: Hyo Sook Chin, Designers: Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster, 2019, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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Werner Wolff, 1954-08, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Designed for the 2019 Seoul Biennale of Architecture, Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster's Aldo conceives of play space as a site for people from different economic, political and racial backgrounds to share experiences. The installation drew from the designs of Aldo van Eyck, a Dutch architect who championed and designed new playgrounds in Amsterdam infill sites following the Second World War. His abstract, tubular climbing frames were designed with flexible, child-led play in mind. 

Designs for a playground at Ecole Filles de la Charite, St Charles, Achrafieh (2021) by Designers: Let's Play with volunteersRoyal Institute of British Architects

Architects continue to recognise play's potential to foster healthy childhood development in the aftermath of trauma. The Let's Play Initiative aims to rebuild six playgrounds that were destroyed by the 2020 explosion in Beirut. 

Designs for a playground at Ecole Filles de la Charite, St Charles, Achrafieh (2021) by Designers: Let's Play with volunteersRoyal Institute of British Architects

The spaces feature abstract platforms, canopies and pathways that encourage directionless play. The ambiguous designs are intended to promote experimentation and social interaction, revisiting the play principles once found in 20th century playground design.  

Sculpture at Habitat warehouse, Wallingford (1974) by Photographer: John DonatRoyal Institute of British Architects

"The child cannot rediscover the city unless the city rediscovers the child."

Aldo van Eyck, 1968

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images from the RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Image: Sculpture at Habitat warehouse, Wallingford. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections Image: Children playing in the street backs of workers' housing, Northampton. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Children playing on a bomb site at Aldersgate. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: The bombed-out St George the Martyr with Canterbury Cathedral in the background. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Park Hill Estate: the climbing frames. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Park Hill Estate: the children's play area. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections 
Image: Churchill Gardens Estate: the flying saucer. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections Image: Churchill Gardens Estate, Pimlico, London: Lutyens, Wedgewood and Chippendale House. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections 
Image: Churchill Gardens Estate: the boat playscape. Rights: John Maltby / RIBA Collect


Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes 


This story was inspired by the 2015 RIBA exhibition, 'The Brutalist Playground', by Simon Terrill and Assemble Studio. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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