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Look back in play

By Maisie Rowe
Uncovering a stash of unseen photographs took Maisie Rowe back to her childhood and forward to a meditation on the importance of spaces for play.

By describing landscape as a place in space and childhood as a place in time, might we begin to understand how the two connect? Do we know what is really happening when children touch a landscape with the tips of their fingers and the soles of their feet? And is such an understanding of any use to us, makers of designed landscapes?

I have been engaging with such questions for two decades, motivated by an unusually vivid, almost synaesthetic, memory for the places I experienced as a child. One of these was the Camden Square Community Playcentre in north-west London, where my brother and I played with our friends when I was around nine and ten years old. Known as ‘the Square’, the play centre was a staffed play- ground run by Camden Council that existed between approximately 1972 and 1987.

I had tried and failed to find any trace of the play centre until Abdul Chowdry, a former play leader, handed me a scruffy folder containing the negatives of photographs he had taken at the Square in 1978 and 79 and developed in a darkroom in the Square’s shipping-container hut. Most of these 800 pictures had never been printed but, when I began scanning and archiving them, their artistic strength and emotional appeal was conspicuous. These pictures could take their place in the English school of social documentary photography. Curiously, they came to light just as the work of Roger Mayne and Shirley Baker, exponents of that tradition, began to attract renewed attention. 
It was mesmerising to compare my mental scrap- book of memories with photographic evidence of the real thing. As the lost playground came alive once more, something was given back to me. I learned to trust my fragmentary memories. They were not hallucinations or dreams. This place, which belonged to children, had existed.

Piecing together the playground’s history, I found that the land had an enduring association with play and leisure that exemplified the way in which certain activities can be enduringly imprinted within the landscape. Incorporated into communal gardens when the Square was built in the 1850s, the site had been paved for tennis courts in the 1880s, before becoming a recognisable playground in the 1950s. The playground supervisor’s hut had a moment of fame in 1970, when it appeared with local children on the cover of the album The World of Cat Stevens. In 1971, in a remarkable demonstration of community support, 943 local people petitioned Camden Council for a play centre. Architects drew up plans for a hut, which was formed of two shipping containers, and an adventure play area, made from reclaimed railway sleepers and telegraph poles. 
Children were drawn to the Square by curiosity about what might be happening there that day. Even though it had initially been built by the council, the Square belonged to us: we were always doing things to it with wood and rope and string and paint or burning bits of it. Abdul remembers going to the British Rug Company for carpet off-cuts that we used ‘for swings and other things’. There was usually a big fire smouldering away and we played endless games of Bordering, in which four or five children jump onto the swinging rope one by one, before dropping exhausted into the big cargo net. The knot in this rope was a mysterious lumpen object that evolved as things were added 
into it. 

There were arts and crafts going on; in my diary, my nine year-old self recorded winning a painting competition.

It is common to overlook the predominantly sociable nature of play but, at the Square, our play was all about hanging out – the highs and lows of friendships, conflicts, laughs, romances and drama. Sharon Sparkes, who played there in the 1970s, says: ‘There were four age groups and we all got on really well. Seldom were there fights or arguments. We always had each other’s back. The older lot looked after the younger lot, like a family’. Abdul’s pictures show older children holding babies or helping toddlers with toileting. ‘It was fun,’ says Abdul. ‘The whole notion of enjoyment was there.’
Resuscitated memories testified to the forensic quality of children’s attention to the details of their environment and the stories that often attach to these details. For example, there was a mysterious concrete plinth which we lit fires on and incorporated into our play. It turned out to be the plinth of the hut made famous by Cat Stevens which, being made of wood, had inevitably been burnt down. 

The playground’s fences told other stories. The main gate was in a very inconvenient location and children were always scrambling over the tall fence to get to the sweet shop, until the day that someone cut through a fence bar and bent it aside to make a little back door for the children. Sharon Sparkes says: ‘There used to be spikes on the fences but Martin Connelly slipped and fell on them, when he was trying to climb the tree in the corner, and caught his armpit so all the spikes got cut off’. I remember feeling empowered by this kind of child-centred manipulation of the fabric of the Square. And the little story of the gate remains embedded in the landscape: when the playground reopened in the 1990s, the main entrance had been relocated to the spot where we’d made our hole in the fence.

The Square may have been an urban project but great value was placed on camps and trips to the seaside, a reaction against the city that underscored the relationship with land and landscape that was at the root of the project. Abdul captured images of skinny city kids buried in sand, running wild in the hills and stick-fighting in the forest. It was hard work for the adults, who improvised and made do: rain-drenched children are pictured wearing bin-bags with head and arm-holes cut into them.

Today, playgrounds are often designed to cosmetic-ally resemble the adventure playgrounds of old, but the world has moved on and although genuine adventure playgrounds can still be found, it is hard to see how a project like the Square could be authentically replicated on a large scale. For one thing, children were given greater freedom and independence; they went to the Square without their parents and came and went as they pleased. By today’s standards of regulated social relations, the Square had a wonderful informality and lack of boundaries that enabled families to engage in ways that would now be unthinkable. Abdul remembers: ‘I would come on Christmas Day and the number of kids there was phenomenal. Even the parents came in, which was great because they’d bring Christmas dinner to me as well!’ The Square was inseparable from the community: ‘If somebody wanted help with moving something, we’d grab a couple of the youngsters, go across and help them move bits and pieces, or do little things’.

Cool, rebellious and hilariously funny, the Square’s play leaders were different to other adults. Employed by Camden’s social services department to work with the children, who came from all sorts of backgrounds and situations, their commitment to the children’s lives went beyond play. Abdul says: ‘You worked with them all. You didn’t exclude anybody. We were a stabilizing influence for quite a lot of folk. We could keep them in check.’ In the mornings, Abdul frequently found that children had slept the night in the Square: ‘It was an area they could go to, feel safe. A sanctuary.’ The children’s perception of this landscape as a refuge was invoked by the name they gave to the playground’s highest platform, a good twelve metres from the ground, which they called the Flood Level.

Being neither voters nor consumers, children are essentially powerless but our generation of Camden children benefitted from a progressive commitment to play, which the council promoted as ‘a child’s form of work’. The Square existed in a bubble of naive optimism and anarchic enthusiasm. Architecture students and activists were going into the inner cities and starting playgrounds, farms and arts projects, a radical counter-culture which counted children within its constituency. A screen- printed poster made for the Square perfectly captures its inclusive character and the messy and colourful exuberance of its festivals, which were legendary: Abdul’s photographs record donkey rides, steel bands, face painting, candyfloss, sack races and a huge beer tent. Pete Townshend played at festivals and members of Madness often dropped by.

Sadly, I uncovered a deadly reminder that play is a serious business, indeed, a matter of life and death. If Camden Town gave us fashion and music, Kings Cross brought us drugs and crime. For the area’s youngsters, trouble was never going to be hard to find. It was devastating to learn that at least ten children who played in the Square did not survive their early years. In a community that has known tragedy, the play leaders’ wisdom and compassion are remembered to this day. Sharon Sparkes says: ‘The play leaders had such a big influence on us, as we grew older. Even those that went astray. They tried their best.’
These anecdotes and memories attest repeatedly to the significance of landscape to the condition of childhood, to the intimacy with which children interact with landscape in the guise of play. Beach, park, garden, playground, forest. Climbing, hiding, seeking, sandcastles, dens, mud, fires, sticks, swimming, running. Beyond the confines of the internet, very little play is possible without some kind of engagement with the landscape outside your skin. If we are talking about landscape as infrastructure, we would do well to frame landscape itself as part of the infrastructure of childhood. It is problematic how little this is talked about within the profession.

However, one special corner of this discussion belongs to landscape architecture: the story of the adventure play movement, which originated in Denmark during World War Two when the landscape architect, C. Theodor Sorensen, watched children playing on bombsites and derelict land and noted the intensity and creativity with which they immersed themselves in outdoor play. At Emdrup, Sorensen created the first junk playground or skrammellegeplad, which was filled with junk: ‘wood, rope, canvas, tyres, wire, bricks, pipes, rocks, nets, logs, balls, abandoned furniture, wheels, vehicles, and an unimaginable assortment of other things’, according to Robert Dighton. Sorensen said: ‘It is obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.’ What I believe is happening is that such landscapes embody the inner turmoil of the child and, in doing so, give children permission to give expression to this chaotic and disordered emotional landscape.

In 1948, a second landscape architect, the forthright Lady Allen of Hurtwood, scored double points for the landscape profession by introducing the Danish model to Britain. Lady Allen instinctively grasped the significance of the concept: ‘I was completely swept off my feet... In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities,’ she said. Displaying a curious attitude to risk assessment, she made it a rallying cry to declare, ‘Better a broken bone than a broken spirit!’

Sorensen admitted that his playground looked squalid: ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.’ How curious that this most significant of contributions to landscape architecture should be a sort of anti- design, produced by child builders, with little aesthetic consideration and minimal involvement of the professionalised adult designer.

While this article predominantly concerns the minutiae of the child’s relationship with landscape in the guise of play, the discussion is incomplete without locating the child in the context of the city, however briefly. If we are to take this conversation forward, we need to talk about how city-makers blindly privileged the motor car over the child, sacrificed open space to bricks and mortar, and enclosed children within actual and virtual architectures that curtail their ability to spend time connecting with landscapes in the company of other children.

Maisie Rowe is a landscape architect with a particular interest in play.

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