Architecture collective Assemble and photographer Simon Terrill have resurrected an almost forgotten piece of post-war British design: the outdoor playgrounds of Brutalist housing estates. The wildcard Turner prize nominees Assemble have brought their characteristic playfulness to the strange and surreal concrete playgrounds of the 50s, 60s and 70s by recreating large-scale fragments in reconstituted, freckled foam and Memphis-esque pastels inside the Royal Institute of British Architecture in London. Continuing their work with public spaces the collaborators have dug into RIBA’s housing archives for an installation that deliberately lacks the fundamental austerity of Brutalist design and virtually undoes – either for better or for worse – everything these gestures of failed utopia represent.
Walking in I was immediately struck by how much the playground dominates RIBA’s very modest gallery space. For structures conceived and built in the looming shadows of raw concrete housing estates The Brutalist Playground is exhibited in an incredibly claustrophobic room. Reached by sidling up some narrow steps and crawling through a tunnel, the pink foam lookout platform taken from Balfron Tower in east London is pressed up against a skylight, whilst the flying saucer from Churchill Gardens feels like its crashing rather than taking off. Even after learning this was a conscious decision, I remain unconvinced this does anything but detract from what otherwise has all the makings of a great installation: a reworking of excellent design references helmed by exciting British creatives.
To their credit the creators have managed to take a neutral stance on these knee-scraping play spaces, neither criticising nor glorifying them. Instead they are reimagined for the 21st century as works of art. To exhibit The Brutalist Playground in a gallery space was another considered move. When I was there everything was deathly quiet save for the whir of the projector casting archival images on the wall, and people assumed the same tentativeness you expect somewhere like the Tate, exchanging very few comments in hushed voices. In this kind of context everything takes on new meaning.
Through a series of such careful considerations, these relics of post-war play – many of which are no longer standing – have been painstakingly recreated with all the wit we have come to expect of Assemble. Whether or not certain logistics appear to threaten the installation’s evocative impact, the collective head off such criticisms with their intentions. Their wry take on today’s hyper-cautious attitudes to play has managed to spark a debate whilst building a contemporary narrative around the stiff-upper-lipped optimism in which these spaces were championed and built by socially-minded architects and urban planners. In doing so they have written a thoughtful post-script to an often overlooked and controversial aspect of British architectural history.
The Brutalist Playground is on June 10 to August 16 at the Royal Institute of British Architects.