March 25, 2009

PlayCubes: The Richard Dattner MidCap That Didn't Stick

Along with Paul Friedberg, architect Richard Dattner has been one of the most influential forces in modern playground design in the US. They both championed the adventure playground concept in the 1960's, which called for the transformation of underused urban spaces, even vacant lots, into pocket parks and freeform play areas for kids. The stone and concrete pyramids of Dattner's classic Adventure Playground in Central Park at 67th St still beckons kids who are ready to graduate from the padded sandbox kiddie park next to it.


Dattner also coined and trademarked the term StreetScape while his firm was designing street furniture in New York City. In fact, he's the guy who made those little fiberglass pods the taxi dispatchers sit in. You used to see them all the time, but they suddenly feel like The Future to me. Or at least The Future circa 1974.


As the ticket pods demonstrate, Dattner has a thing for the fiberglass. In 1969, with the pocket park playground movement in full swing, he designed and patented PlayCubes, a modular system of fiberglass cuboctohedrons for assembling play structures in a hurry.


Susan Solomon talks about PlayCubes a bit in her excellent history, American Playgrounds; as late as 2003, there were still some PlayCubes installed in San Francisco's South Park [see photo up top]. But unlike StreetScape, which became a foundation of urban planning, PlayCubes didn't really catch on in the US. Though Solomon says that knockoffs did very well abroad.


update: Now I wonder. I know there aren't PlayCubes in every backyard, but I've seen what looks like a PlayCubes cataloge from 2001. And according to Google StreetView, they're going strong in South Park--though one photo shows the playground fenced off and under construction, the other shows it full of kids--at least one of whom has been blurred out, probably at the request of Google-savvy parents.


Personally, I kind of like them; they're a nice-looking combination of Expo '67 and Habitrail that looks fresher than the lawsuit-driven, plastic tube & padding contraptions that fill our nation's McPlaylands.

Read a preview of American Playgrounds by Susan Solomon or just buy it; it's awesome [google books; amazon]
Patent No. 3,632,109: Richard Dattner, Modular Recreation Unit and Combinations Thereof [google patents]

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