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Book Report: Aldo van Eyck, from playground to orphanage

An occasional series on noteworthy (if not brand new) books, starting with Aldo van Eyck by Robert McCarter.

Image of Nieuwmarkt Playground, Amsterdam in Aldo van Eyck: Works, Vincent Ligtelijn.
Image of Nieuwmarkt Playground, Amsterdam in Aldo van Eyck: Works, Vincent Ligtelijn.

Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was brought up in England, and spent his early years at a school where children selected their own curriculum from a set of assignments. Classes were often held outdoors in "Squirrel Hall," a structure built by the students and supported by the branch of an old oak tree. If biography is destiny, this story, from an early chapter of Robert McCarter’s recent monograph on Van Eyck (Yale University Press, 2015), is most telling.

Van Eyck has always seemed a Zelig-like figure in postwar architecture history,, rebuilding Amsterdam after World War II, popping up in seminal collectives like CIAM and Team 10, and anticipating the cellular experimentation of the 1970s with projects like the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage (1955-60). I’d seen the slide of the orphanage from above numerous times, a staggered, non-hierarchical structure, seemingly infinitely expandable, that pointed to office and university projects by Herman Hertzberger (who worked for Van Eyck), Walter Netsch for SOM and Roche Dinkeloo. But no professor ever bothered to take us inside, sidelining the difference between children and adults. Van Eyck, as McCarter shows, cared very much about that difference.

Sculpture Pavilion, Sonsbeek Exhibition, Arnhem (1965–66)
Sculpture Pavilion, Sonsbeek Exhibition, Arnhem, 1965–66. View into three galleries. Photo: Aldo van Eyck Archive

At the orphanage, Van Eyck used a limited array of simple geometric shapes to create the interiors, as he would do with the more than 700 playgrounds he designed between 1947 and 1978 as an employee of Amsterdam’s town planning department. Circles and squares, circles in squares, hexagons in circles, carving out and building up an interior landscape that would challenge the orphanage’s inhabitants at every stage of their development. In the infant quarters, a set of stacked cylinders of diminishing diameter became an indoor mountain. Through a plate-glass window, the infants could look at older kids digging outside in a covered circular sandpit, the valley to their hill. In the house for ten- to 14-year-old girls, residents would eat at a central communal table, a terrazzo hexagon, ringed with cylindrical stools. To create a sense of enclosure, Van Eyck added metal lamps on uprights and a tiny interior roof. An open kitchen in the same space encouraged group preparation of meals.

The materials for all of these installations are concrete, terrazzo and stained wood—sober finishes for high-traffic areas. Van Eyck added a bit of shimmer via glass, water, and inset mirrors. In the loggia outside the house for two- to –four-year-olds, there’s a play pool that is half covered by the roof, half open to the sky, and ringed with seats. On a sunny day, pink-tinted glass set between the concrete backrests catches light and reflects it onto the surface of the pool, where the water bounces colored reflections up to the underside of the loggia. In an interior party room, funhouse mirrors were set into the top of a concrete platform intended for use as a campfire-like sitting area, creating an object of interest that also suggested a view to another world. That glimpse proved to be too much. Van Eyck later said, "The children very much appreciated the distorting mirrors—they saw all sorts of things in them—which is why they were removed!"

Squares and circles and hexagons are mainstays of the preschool design palette, but you rarely see children’s spaces today without the tiresome palette of primary colors.

In period photographs there’s an endless variety to these spaces, with details taken from observations of children’s play everywhere you look. Squares and circles and hexagons are mainstays of the preschool design palette, but you rarely see children’s spaces today, even in contemporary schools, that are gray and brown, without carpeting, without imagery, without the tiresome palette of primary colors.

I’ve written before about the ongoing debate over what children need in their spaces (after a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food, and clean water are taken care of, of course). One school of thought offers up a cartoon of the child’s interests, via cowboy wallpaper or doughnut throw pillows. Van Eyck adheres to the minimalist school, where the architecture is a backdrop and armature for children’s creativity. The aesthetic is basic, the shapes are elemental.

In contemporary settings this leads to chalkboard paint for the nursery and whiteboard walls for overgrown children. Midcentury modern interiors like Marcel Breuer’s "House in the Museum Garden" for the Museum of Modern Art contain a multitude of multifunctional elements. See also Creative Playthings’s Hollow Blocks, which are both furniture and toy and allowed children to shape their own space, as well as enact a narrative upon it.

Hubertushuis in Amsterdam by Aldo van Eyck
Hubertushuis in Amsterdam by Aldo van Eyck

The same debate can be seen in contemporary playground design. The companies who sell most of the equipment to New York’s public parks favor plastic, primary colors, and a light frame of reference to pirate ship, racecar, or tree fort. Van Eyck never said whether the concrete cylinders that pop up in his playgrounds, placed in grids, were forest, columns, or rocks. Are "somersault frames"—bent half-rounds of steel—tunnels or stepping-stones, solid or void? That’s for the children to decide. It may be that the Amsterdam playgrounds do too little. In photographs they resemble Giacometti’s spatial sculptures, and it’s hard to tell whether neighboring buildings give them a sense of privacy or merely channel the wind to whip through. Of more than 700, only a few reportedly survive in their original state. Idea Books recently published a guide to the 17 that remain in Amsterdam’s city center. I want to visit soon.

Van Eyck celebrated those rare times when the children take over the spaces of the city, and the entire city becomes a playground.

Indoors or outdoors, we have to look at Van Eyck’s spaces for children as landscapes. He was searching for a modern language that would sit back, allowing the children to take center stage. Campfire, pool, mountain, cave. Even if children were in the city, that didn’t mean their movement or imagination should be circumscribed. Soon after I read this book, New York had its January blizzard, and the bike lobby responded on social media with images of children playing in the car-free streets. Van Eyck was ahead of his time in this too. As McCarter writes, "Van Eyck celebrated those rare times when the children take over the spaces of the city, and the entire city becomes a playground." Under the undulating roof of the Municipal Orphanage, children were king.