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Q&A: Alexandra Lange on ‘The Design of Childhood’

From wooden blocks to city blocks, the Curbed critic’s new book explains why child-focused design is actually for everyone

child sitting on green sofa
Island Area and Media Lab, Vittra School Telefonplan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2011, Rosan Bosch Studio.
Photograph by Kim Wendt/Courtesy Rosan Bosch Studio

This week is a special one for Curbed: our architecture critic, Alexandra Lange—she of Black Mirror home conspiracies, teen space, Late Modernism championing, Museum of Ice Cream takedown, abiding love of A-frames, spy museum review co-authored with her 10-year-old, and much, much more—has a book out.

The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids is being published via Bloomsbury, and is available for sale as of Tuesday, June 12. We are totally biased, of course, but trust us! It’s great.

For more Alexandra, she appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, and an excerpt from her book’s “Blocks” chapters was illustrated for a standalone piece. The New York Times Sunday Review published her op-ed on the magic of a cardboard box, and the New Yorker ran her exploration of hidden women in architecture and design.

Alexandra Lange
Photograph by Mark Wickens

She’ll also be writing this week for Slate (on sandboxes) and Architect (on schools), and will be interviewed for Architectural Digest (on highchairs). more radio appearances include KCRW in Los Angeles with Frances Anderton and Studio 360 for Public Radio International with Kurt Andersen, plus the Google Design podcast, and the new Failed Architecture podcast. (Did we mention Lange is also possibly the hardest-working critic in the biz?)

Naturally, you can read much more from her right here on Curbed, via her twice-monthly Critical Eye column. Alexandra and I will also expound upon the following Q&A with a live appearance Tuesday evening in New York City. Now let’s get down to business:

Kelsey Keith: You’ve written several books, and written enough for Curbed to compile a book, but—what’s this book about? And why tackle this particular subject matter?

Alexandra Lange: Thank you, I would love to publish a book of my Curbed columns ;) This book is called The Design of Childhood. It has five chapters: one on blocks, one on houses, one on schools, one on playgrounds, and one on the city. Each of those is a space where children and design interact. As a mother and a design critic, I had all these questions, from Day One of my son’s life, that I couldn’t find the answers to. Where do blocks come from? Why did classrooms have rows of chairs when I was in school? Why don’t they look like that now? When did kids get their own rooms? When did they get a playroom too?

I am indebted to the research of lots of scholars, of architecture, of material culture, of education, of women’s history. But it seemed as if nobody had put all of these pieces together in a way that was readable and fun. I had so much fun with the research. I got to go to Japan and play in Isamu Noguchi’s last playground. I read Parents Magazine from the 1950s. I met wonderful teachers. I re-read all my favorite children’s books and they took on a whole new significance. I am part of the cult of the Betsy-Tacy books, by Maud Hart Lovelace, and in re-reading them I realized that Betsy and Tacy were free-range kids. There are some crazy people who think architecture is boring, but everyone loves toys.

Bri-Plax Interlocking Building Cubes, A Hilary Page Design. Made in England. 1939.
Photograph by Chas Saunter, hilarypagetoys.com
ZOOB Play System, Michael Joaquin Grey. Manufacturer: Infinitoy, San Mateo, CA. ABS Plastic. 1993-1996
Courtesy Michael Joaquin Grey

What kind of things? What kind of school did you attend as a kid? And how did that bear fruit in terms of your career track as a design critic?

I went to a hippie Quaker school in the woods called Carolina Friends School. A lot of the teachers there were people who were working on their Ph.D.s, which meant I was exposed to a really broad range of thinking quite early. I took classes in African-American literature and Native American history in high school, and read books like the Madwoman in the Attic, a famous work of feminist critique of 19th-century novels. Now I see that that was totally formative—I always knew that you were supposed to have an attitude and an interpretation of what you read.

When I was in high school my mother gave me a book of Ada Louise Huxtable’s writings. I’d already started writing a high school student column in the local newspaper and I’d already started taking architecture classes after school and in the summers. My mom thought she was the person I should be looking up to—which makes perfect sense, because my mother, Martha Scotford, is a feminist design historian who grew up going to kids art classes at MoMA. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The most revealing statement you make in the intro is “I had to get over my own unconscious bias toward writing about kids—revealing myself as both a critic and a mother—in order to take [books, toys, equipment, childhood spaces] seriously.” How have your approach and purview developed as you started “revealing” yourself as both a critic and a mother?

I think I have always had a fairly eclectic approach to being an architecture critic. I would get terribly bored just writing about buildings and indeed, just writing about large-scale projects. But I did worry about being taken less seriously if I revealed my interest in traditionally female subjects like children and the home. Ultimately, however, it is your interests that define you as a critic and this is my interest. There was too much literally sitting in my lap for me to ignore. And as I went along, I kept finding more women, fascinating women, who by choice and by necessity focused on the world of children. Once I found them I felt as if I was in the best company, never mind what other people might think.

DSS Plastic Stacking Chair with Table Arm, Charles and Ray Eames. Manufacturer: Herman Miller Furniture Company. 1960-1961. Fiberglass, steel, plastic laminate, wood, nylon, 24 1/2 x 19 1/2 x 32 in. (62.2 x 49.5 x 81.3 cm).
Courtesy Herman Miller
Node Classroom Chair with Wheels. Manufacturer: Steelcase. 2010.
Courtesy Steelcase

I was struck by your example of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier—both pretty macho male architects by standards of the time—citing their early education in Froebel’s technique as foundational to their practices. Should we be asking more male architects about their early-childhood education?

We should be asking everyone about their early-childhood education! But yes, definitely male architects, who did have a tendency, when told about the topic of my research, to tell me that their wives would be very interested in my book. I started this project because I had a baby, but I feel as if I learned as much about myself and the particular possessions and preoccupations of a 1970s childhood along the way. The reason I kept searching for unisex clothing for my kids, for example, was because that is what I grew up wearing… but that went out of fashion and out of stores in the 1980s. Did Norman Foster play on a geodesic dome climber (as I did)? Bjarke Ingels, as a Dane, obviously ate LEGO for dinner. Did David Adjaye’s mother sew?

Classroom, Crow Island School, Winnetka IL, 1940.
Photograph copyright © Hedrich Blessing Photographers. Courtesy Perkins+Will
Science Lab and the Mountain, Vittra School Telefonplan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2011, Rosan Bosch Studio.
Photograph by Kim Wendt. Courtesy Rosan Bosch Studio

In the book, you highlight the work of several overlooked/underrepresented women who have had an impact on cities, the classroom, and more sweepingly, the design of childhood. Tell me about one person you’re shocked isn’t better known.

My favorite person in the book, and the author of the first book I would recommend that you read after mine, is Caroline Pratt, creator of Unit blocks and founder of Manhattan’s City and Country School. Her book I Learn from Children is a wonderful read, all about her early years as a teacher and how she developed a curriculum based on block play, on exploring the city, and on giving kids responsibility. It is her blocks that are in almost every kindergarten classroom—you’ve seen them, I owned a set growing up, the basic piece is a brick of blond wood—and it was amazing to me that I had never heard her name. Like many of the other people I write about, what set her apart was her willingness to meet children where they are, and figure out what they need, through a combination of close observation and strategic direction. Earlier than most she realized that open-ended toys can last a lifetime, while toys that perform for the child quickly become boring.

“Architectures built purely for play” are, of course, fun for kids, and for their aesthete parents, but what do you think is the value for architects in taking a more playful approach?

I recently visited the brand-new Domino Park in Williamsburg, and my favorite part of it was the playground, designed by artist Mark Reigelman, in a very postmodern-revival style. Why? Because it was trying to pack so much action into a small space. You could go up, you could slide down, everywhere there was a different perspective. It made the elevated walkway and the sittable steps seem very staid. Designing for children can shake architects out of their workaday patterns, but I wish they would apply that color and movement to adult space too. We are also easily board. We also need more physical challenge in our day. I dream of playgrounds for teens but also giant climbing structures for adults. That’s what the Starn Twins’s Big Bambu is, after all, but then we call it art.

Plan, Adventure Playground for Central Park, New York, 1967, Richard Dattner Architect.
Courtesy Richard Dattner

I’d love to hear your take on (a) adventure—or “junk”—playgrounds and (b) forest kindergartens. Will the former ever come back? Will the latter experience a boom? I feel like those two examples of unsupervised, experiential play are coming up a lot lately.

Adventure playgrounds are back! I talked to organizers of junk playgrounds in New York City, Omaha, Providence, Seattle, Sacramento, not to mention America’s oldest adventure playground in Berkeley. What we need now is an organized movement that could help people who would like to start one in their own city over the regulatory hurdles, and give them seed money to get off the ground. Adventure play addresses so many of the challenges facing young people today: access to outdoor space, access to tools and materials for making, access to space that is supervised…but not too closely. When the first American adventure playground, The Yard, opened in Minneapolis in 1949 it was a cover story in McCall’s Magazine and was visited by President Harry S. Truman. That’s how important play was the to the country, and that’s how important adventure seemed to the nation.

I didn’t write about forest kindergartens in my book, because I decided nature play was outside my realm. My focus was man-made design. But I have been reading about, and watching films of, forest kindergartens all along, because they are based on the same idea of giving kids freedom. Children in forest schools spend most of the day in the woods, in all weathers, learning from their environment and making what they need to play. There’s something incredibly appealing for the desk-bound adult about the idea of the child getting away from it all, but I think urban schools, schools with a bigger student-teacher ratio, public schools, can still give children some of the same freedoms even if they don’t have the woods.

Alexandra Lange will be in conversation with Curbed editor-in-chief Kelsey Keith on Tuesday evening, June 12, at McNally Jackson bookstore in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Join them at 7 p.m. to hear more about The Design of Childhood, among other topics.