Aldo van Eyck, who was born in the Netherlands and educated in England, started working for the Department of City Development at Amsterdam Public Works in 1947 when he was 28 years old. World War II was over and Amsterdam was largely dysfunctional with little available housing for families with children, even less for the coming postwar baby boom children. For Amsterdam's children, the only existing play spaces were private and only for the wealthy.
Aldo at first worked on the needed city expansion, but within his first year he was asked to design a playground for Bertelmanplein as an experiment. Aldo's supervisor, Jakoba Mulder, had the goal of providing a small public playground in every neighborhood of Amsterdam.1 This first playground consisted of a sandpit with four round play stones and a set of tumbling bars. The play center was in one corner of the lot across from more tumbling bars and surrounded by trees and benches.
His design was purposely very minimalist in order to stimulate the minds and imaginations of the children.2 This playground was a success, and Aldo went on to design about 60 more playgrounds over the next 8 years. These play spaces were largely modular, utilizing his characteristic minimalist combinations of simple basic equipment, such as sandpits, tumbling bars, stepping stones, chutes, and hemispheric jungle gyms.
Aldo's playgrounds had to fit the leftover city lots that the Site Preparation Service of the Department of City Development indicated were at least temporarily available for a playground. His designs included integration with the surrounding neighborhoods and doubled as social gathering places to encourage communal connections.
By 1951, Aldo had set up his own office independent of the Public Works, though he continued to design playgrounds for the city of Amsterdam.3 During the 30 years that he designed playgrounds, over 700 of his playgrounds were established in Amsterdam and echoes of his designs were being used throughout the Netherlands. During this time Aldo designed only a few buildings, one of which was the Municipal Orphanage of Amsterdam.4
In postwar Amsterdam, urban planning was dominated by the modernist concepts of functionalism that was building new neighborhoods with “large amounts of light, air, greenery, and monotony.”5 This movement was supported by the Congres International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM),which was led by Cornelis van Eesteren. Beginning in 1947, Aldo worked directly under Cornelius and became active in the CIAM conferences.
However, by 1953, Aldo was critical of the CIAM movements and became a part of Team X, a group of young architects within the CIAM who believed in humanist architecture.6 Aldo, writing in both English and Dutch, was vocal in his opposition. “Functionalism,” he declared, “has killed creativity. It leads to a cold technocracy, in which the human aspect is forgotten. A building is more than the sum of its functions; architecture has to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction.”7
Led by Aldo and Jacob Bakema at the 1959 CIAM Conference, the waning functionalist architecture was replaced with structuralism, a modular and participatory architecture. Aldo illuminated this difference when he challenged functionalism, which was being defined as the merger of space and time that would create movement. Aldo countered this prevalent philosophy with: “Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.”8 Increasingly architecture was being utilized to reflect the essential spirit of man, which, according to the Situationists, was the playful or creative man.
The Situationists were a separate movement from the CIAM architects, but a supportive one. Beginning in 1949, Aldo hosted the premier exhibit of the Cobra group in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The Cobra group of artists celebrated children's art and imagination at the same time as Aldo was building playgrounds to facilitate children's imagination. Cobra lasted just three years, but two Cobra artists, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Asger Jorn, co-founded the Situationist International in 1956.
Building on the philosophy of Homo Ludens,9 the Situationists believed that play was a strategy “to rebel against modern captialism and modernist architecture.” They believed that the playful and creative man, a ludic man, was a higher evolution of the “traditional working man of industrial society.” To them, play was a serious matter and vitally important for society.10
Though the functional Modernist architects were replace in the CIAM, they were still in power within Amsterdam. The final shift in power came 15 years later in 1975. The Modernists planned to gut the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood, an old and popular neighborhood in the center of Amsterdam, to put in a metroline topped by a four lane innercity highway at ground level. They felt that functionally this was necessary to facilitate transportation within the city.
Students, artists, residents, and activists moved into the vacant buildings to protest the plans. Nicknamed the Dutch spirit of '68, this resistance resulted in a violent riot in 1975, after which the Modernist's power was broken. The metro was finished but the highway plans were dropped,and Aldo was the architect who began “building for the neighborhood” by redeveloping Nieuwmarket.
Like his friend Constant, Aldo believed the ideal city to be “a labyrinth of small, intimate territories.” His playgrounds on every street corner was a beginning to building a “ludic city,” a city of play. Aldo wrote in his book, The Playgrounds and the City, “If they are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either. If they are not meant for citizens – ourselves – they are not cities.”11
- 1. “Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck.” Top_Down/Bottom Up. < http://top-down-bottom-up.com/playgrounds-by-aldo-van-eyck/ > 16 March 2011.
- 2. Oudenampsen, Merijn. “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground.” Flexmens.org. < http://www.flexmens.org/drupal/?q=Aldo_van_Eyck_and_the_City_as_Playground > 16 March 2011.
- 3. Van den Bergen, Marina. “Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck.” Architectuur. 15 July 2002. < http://www.archined.nl/nieuws/playgrounds-by-aldo-van-eyck/ > 16 March 2011.
- 4. McGuirk, Justin. “Aldo van Eyck.” Iconeye, Icon Magazine Online. < http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3426:aldo-van-eyck > 16 March 2011.
- 5. Op. cit., “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground.”
- 6. Op. cit., “Aldo van Eyck.”
- 7. Op. cit., “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground.”
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Written by Johan Huizinga in 1938.
- 10. Op. cit., “Aldo van Eyck and the City as Playground.”
- 11. Worpole, Ken. Rev. of Aldo van Eyck: The Playgrounds and the City, ed. Ingeborg de Roode & Liane Lefaivre. 13 Feb. 2006. < http://www.opendemocracy.net/arts/playgrounds_3260.jsp > 16 March 2011.