Playground design

Monstrum

Danish playground designers Monstrum have revolutionised playgrounds, creating statement spaces which become landmarks for their neighbourhood. Founder Ole Barslund Nielsen speaks to Kath Hudson about giant bears and the need for risk


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The opportunity for unstructured outdoor play seems to diminish with each generation. A 2016 study, funded by the UK government, revealed that time spent playing outside has shrunk drastically, and 10 per cent of children hadn’t been to a park, forest or beach for 12 months. Technology is partly to blame, but also time, fear and a shortage of opportunities play a part.

Given this situation, accessible, challenging and inspiring playgrounds are vitally important. Monstrum is on a mission to liven up play areas, creating wildly imaginative spaces that feature funky colours and beautifully crafted, oversized creatures which lead the way to adventures.

Co founder Barslund Nielsen says his job is to create spaces which tell a story, inspiring play and bringing smiles to both users and passers by. The installations are about more than just play equipment, they are sculptures which create an identity for an area: a small park in Partille, Sweden, has become famous for its giant beaver, nicknamed Justin Biever by the locals.

How did you get into playground design?
When I was working in theatre set design in 2003, I offered to redesign the playground at my son’s daycare centre and realised this was what I wanted to do: it’s a wonderful combination of art and architecture. At the time, all playgrounds were very uniform, and no one was telling stories, so I realised there was a gap in the market for something creative.

Monstrum wants to make different experiences each time and to entice people as they walk by. It’s not just about swings and slides and colours; we believe there has to be a story, which conveys a feeling, whether it’s a flower playground, or an underwater scene. Our playgrounds create an identity for an area – people might talk about ‘meeting at the parrot’.

What makes a good playground?
Playgrounds must incorporate usability and adventure and have clearly defined areas for different ages. Very young children need security, proximity to parents and small challenges. School children need a playground with speed, consistency and elements which smaller children cannot use, such as a high cave which is difficult to get into.

Small children are inspired by looking at bigger children’s skill and opportunities and the bigger children measure their own progress in the small victories as they get higher, longer and faster. A good playground also has an element of risk. Climbing a wall is not about getting to the top but feeling the thrill in your stomach as you climb. Failing and falling can be a good thing.

How have you grown the company?
We have a passive marketing strategy, with no sales and marketing department. Our work is our marketing and our clients all buy into the Danish design tradition.

This approach has enabled us to evolve from a small company to one where 80 per cent of our playgrounds are exported. Currently, we’re having a really good time working around the world – China, US, UK, Mexico, Hong Kong, Russia – meeting bigger clients with bigger ambitions.

Landscape architects are also developing a better appreciation of the importance of playgrounds and we’re being invited to start work on projects at an earlier stage, as opposed to being saved a square of land at the end. That’s very rewarding.

Was there a breakthrough project?
I think it was Dokk1 in Aarhus, Denmark, in 2015. The architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, pushed us to create something iconic. It was for a big library, which we made the centre of the universe. To the east is a Russian bear, to the west is an American eagle, to the south, a jungle and to the north there are ice fields. The five play areas encompass numerous stories about nature, animals, landscapes, geology and culture.
My favourite aspect is the 7m-tall giant bear: he is the park’s icon. Children can climb up his leg, get inside him and then slide down the trunk he holds. The eagle is also fun with lots of rope and climbing opportunities. The jungle has high grass; there is a Chinese dragon with separate elements for smaller kids and a volcano which children can hide inside.

The sea of ice lakes with springs underneath are really nice for all ages: parents tend to want to play with their kids but are scared of their pants getting dirty, so here they can play without losing their dignity!

How do you approach a new project?
We work with the client to develop the concept and story, which reflects the locality. We have 30 builders and 10 designers who develop the concept with hand sketches and 3D models.

The process is much the same the world over, with just a few differences. For example, in Dubai you have to take the sun into account and the disability legislation in the US means there is more focus on accessibility, to make sure all children have the same play opportunity.

What are you currently working on?
We have just pitched on a really nice project in Northern Ireland called the Gosford Adventure Playtrail.

We want to tell a story about Captain Gulliver and Jonathan Swift’s connection with Gosford forest park and Armagh, in a way which brings learning, play and adventure together as one experience, creating a world which captures kids’ imagination and fires their own fantasies.

We have created scenography in different scales, so you see the story from different perspectives. In one scene you see the Lilliput people tying down Gulliver. In another scene you are Gulliver himself fighting the bees. Later you are Jonathan Swift courting Esther Johnson at Sir William’s mansion.

The Needlefish
Manhattan, US 2018

“The landscape architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh, were telling the story of the marine life in the Hudson River and the transformation of the harbour, so we wanted to make something which reflected this and interpreted the fauna of the river.

A nice aspect of the playground is that it’s built on a hill, with slopes for climbing and sliding. The main element is the 22m yellow and blue needlefish which winds its way between seaweed, snails and mooring poles. There is also a large slide which rolls down to sculpted seashells. Inside the needlefish there are cavities, like playhouses, for small children to play inside and crawl through, with gaps in the boards to see out or for parents to look in.”

The Needlefish at the Chelsea Waterside Park Playground
Liseberg theme park
Gothenburg, Denmark, 2016

“This is a very adventurous playground and was part of Liseberg’s bid to make more of its natural elements and enhance its gardens. They created a very symmetrical Victorian garden and asked us to design something in the same style. We worked closely with the architects to create a playground, in the shadow of a rollercoaster, with numerous playing opportunities.

We made a tower which looks like Crystal Palace: with lots of windows and white on the front, dissolving at the back with flowers, which children can climb up. There is a 3D maze, a ladder to the roof where they can look out through the windows, slides coming out either side and a suspension bridge leading to four bird cages housing giant canaries.”

Monstrum created a Crystal Palace-inspired climbing frame
The Legohouse playground Billund, Denmark 2017
Monstrum designed nine small playgrounds on the roof of the new Lego House in Billund

“This was an iconic project to work directly with the Lego designers and architects to create playgrounds on the roof of the new Lego house, designed by BIG. We have lots of synergies with Lego including the same sense of play, and storytelling.

We had lots of talks and ideas but settled on the theme of how to get to the Lego House. So the nine playgrounds all tell stories involving transport: there is the rocket surrounded by clouds, a camel which children can ride into the sunset on, surfboards being chased by a shark, a submarine which has been damaged by a sea monster, and a wood with small woodland animals.

It is very successful: the children dash from place to place afraid they will miss out on something. It was challenging in terms of time scale and the rooftop location threw up many logistical challenges.”

The Lego House playgrounds took the theme of travel as their inspiration

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Playground design: Monstrum
Setting the (monkey) bar high: Monstrum's amazing playgrounds @Monstrum