Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.
SAMPSON WONG: Hello, everyone. Let’s kick-start an afternoon about play and so our presentation ‘Making Space for Play’ starts. Everything starts from this image., this stunning image. Now it’s much more recognised because more people are asking questions about this playground since 2017. So we first came across the image of this playground in Shek Lei. Shek Lei is a, if you’re not sure about that, it’s located near Tsuen Wan, so it’s part of the former Tsuen Wan New Town. We first came across the image of Shek Lei Playground in the archives of the Information Services Department of the Hong Kong government. And the bold design and how this landscape was incorporated into the background, the playground had immediately caught our attention. And I guess, more people also find images about this playground in the Hong Kong Yearbook 1969. Actually, two weeks ago, a friend picked up these yearbooks in a flea market during the Chinese New Year in Sham Shui Po, and they were wondering about the playground as well. So, according to the yearbook, it reads that: ‘The playground, believed to be the first of its kind of Southeast Asia, was created by American artist Paul Selinger and was made possible by a donation of fifteen, fifteen hundred thousand dollar Hong Kong, fifty hundred thousand dollar’ . . .
[Fan Lok Yi speaks in Chinese]
[Sampson Wong laughs]
I’m confused by my own notes. I should just look at it. ‘150,000 Hong Kong dollars from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club’
[Fan Lok Yi and audience laugh]
So you can see Jockey Club has been doing things since Sixties. ‘Mr Selinger says he wanted to provide something people could look at, and also [to] use for recreation. He hopes it, this unusual playground will be the first of many.’ So we, our research is actually… is about whether this playground is the first or are there . . . is it going to be the first of many and . . . so upon following the initial discovery from the yearbook. Immediately, the quickest way to find more information through Google is to realise that an article was written by McCleary for the August 1972 issue of The Rotarian magazine. It introduces Shek Lei playground and other innovative examples in Europe and Japan in the Sixties. In October 1972, Paul Selinger was writing to the magazine responding to the article, he thanked McCleary for featuring his work and went on saying how American designers were hindered by bureaucracy and how he was given full artistic freedom in Hong Kong to carry out his ideas.
So this is all the background. Strangely, for such a ground-breaking playground, there had been very few discussions and very little information on the Internet. And we wrote something together to present the initial findings and asked people for more information. The article was quite well-received, and we received a lot of responses. Twenty people wrote back to us and shared their memories. Obviously, although the original Shek Lei Playground has been gone for at least twenty years now, it is still deeply embedded in the memory of many. It was only then that we realised how little information Hong Kong has regarding the historical development of children’s playgrounds.
Playgrounds are not like buildings or other forms of architecture. They’re not built to last for many decades. They are often replaced easily and there’s little documentation on their design. So the fact that Shek Lei Playground was so prominently featured in the Hong Kong Yearbook and in the magazine, plus the extremely overwhelming response from the former users, suggest that it functioned beyond just being a play facility. So actually the stark contrast between the generic off-the-shelf playgrounds today and the Shek Lei Playground in 1969 prompts our key research questions. Now if you look at the current version of Shek Lei Playground, it looks this way. And is similar to other Hong Kong playgrounds. Usually you see a collection of imported modular and proprietary equipment installed on safety-matted floors.
And these playgrounds may not be very different from the ones in Taipei or in San Francisco. However, in our research, we noticed that since the creation of Shek Lei Playground in the Sixties and until the 1980s, a number of local designers had broken with the tradition of pragmatism and in playground planning in Hong Kong. Among them, many worked in the language of abstraction and were likely influenced by the concurrent trend in Western countries of conceiving playgrounds as art.
So our research questions, so we asked what created Shek Lei Playground and other abstract playscapes, this is one of our arguments, that we identify the Shek Lei Playground belonged to a specific type of playground developed in the Fifties and Sixties. We named it the ‘abstract playscape’. So, are there any other examples and what caused the artistic freedom that Paul Selinger mentioned? And how do we situate Shek Lei Playground and similar playgrounds within the global and local playground histories? And how was this type of playground understood and so what set the abstract playscape apart from other creative playgrounds today? So . . . Just some basic ideas in play and playscapes. Frost, according to Joe L. Frost, he used playground as a design landscape that stimulates play behaviour. He used the word ‘playscape’ to describe different types of playgrounds, including traditional playgrounds, adventure playgrounds, and creative and adapted playgrounds.
However, in our study, we hope to establish and identify a specific type of playground, namely abstract playscapes which were mostly imagined and designed in the few post-war decades of the twentieth century. These were usually created by artists who were influenced by twentieth-century modern art and believed in the power of abstraction and art as a mean to inspire creative play. These playgrounds were designed as a total environment, and meaning that play equipment, furniture, and playscape are created in a way to form a complete whole. So in terms of the research methods, we went through a number of archives and more importantly, former users of the Shek Lei Playground were interviewed and some of them are here today. We have also interviewed the youngest son of Paul Selinger, we have also talked to Leo and Elaine, who are here with us today, they have been very good friends of Selinger family since the 1960s. And also a number of playgrounds were visited in Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. It was during the field trip to San Francisco that Helen interviewed the youngest son of Paul Selinger and . . . so . . . I will say a few more words about how has abstract playscape evolved since the beginning of playground design and to answer the question: Why were Shek Lei Playground and subsequent playscapes built, and how to understand their significance. We first need to look at the basic idea about playgrounds. So, this urban planner and curator from Switzerland, a Swiss planner, once described the playground as a by-product of the industrialised city of twentieth-century. So playgrounds come in many different forms, but all of them are attempts at tackling issues related to urban living. So playgrounds are not just there because children need to exercise their bodies, they are highly relevant to how adults imagine children should learn or live in the city.
The earliest playgrounds emerged in the nineteenth-century in the forms of outdoor gymnasia in Germany as a way to encourage physical exercise and counteract the harmful effects of city life. Sandgartens or sandboxes were developed later on to encourage creative play. These two models gradually morphed into traditional playgrounds with standard equipment or what playground scholars usually call the ‘4S’. ‘4S playgrounds’ include, because they include slide, seesaw, swing, and sandbox that we are very familiar with today. In the early twentieth-century, there had been increasing studies on child education and child psychology. Play was considered a beneficial activity so governments and organisations began to provide more playgrounds to keep children off the dangers of the streets and to ensure that they were supervised and using their time in the right way. In Hong Kong, the first playgrounds were built as an attempt to prevent crimes and ensure that children had a safe place to let off excess energy. For all of you who are parents here, you know in Hong Kong, we often talk about fong din, it is exactly the same idea. So following a fire in 1953 in Shek Kip Mei, I guess a lot of you are very familiar with the housing history in Hong Kong, would know that the Hong Kong government started to launch an extensive resettlement and low-cost housing programme. As you can see in these photos, there are already, there were already many, there were already children’s playgrounds included in the earliest housing programme. And so, the playground is seen as one of the basic necessities of modern living. Up to this point, the playgrounds in Hong Kong were still very traditional and functional. They were basically pieces of concrete floors where imported play facilities like these were placed. So these are more like the playgrounds we see today. And, however, since 1960 onwards, we begin to see the incorporation of some more sculptural elements in the playgrounds of housing estates.
So these are some of the findings we got, showing playgrounds before the Shek Lei Playground. Already some of the more abstract and sculptural elements are, we can see in Hong Kong’s housing estate. Like this rather elegant concrete slide and the concrete maze. So one particularly interesting finding we got is about this play sculpture called ‘Tunnel Bridge’. So these concrete tunnel bridges can be found in estates built by the Hong Kong Housing Authority and the Hong Kong Housing Society, they look very similar to the Tunnel Maze designed by American artist Sidney Gordin. But who is Sidney Gordin? This connects us to the movement that we’re interested in, how the playground connects to modern art, so . . . In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Parents Magazine, and a toy manufacturer called Creative Playthings co-sponsored a play sculpture competition. The Tunnel Maze designed by Gordin won the third prize. So we can see that these are tunnel mazes then being installed in Hong Kong as well, but we’re not entirely sure if this is a copy or really an imported play sculpture. So . . . but the trend of using sculpture, especially abstract sculpture, as play pieces can be traced back to as early as the 1930s, when artists like Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, began to explore the creation of playgrounds by sculpting a piece of landscape. In the Sixties, he even collaborated with architect Louis Kahn on the design of another playground. This playground was not realised, and in around the Fifties to the Seventies, there were other artists and designers who held a similar belief that abstract play sculptures can better boost creativity and imagination in children than traditional play equipment. These sculptures were usually made using cast concrete and there was not a prescribed way to play. The active involvement of the Museum of Modern Art and modern artists helped to elevate playground or play equipment design to the level of art, and play sculptures became associated with taste.
If we look at Hong Kong, although the tunnel bridges were popular from the Sixties to Eighties, local designers had mostly worked from a fairly pragmatic approach, and playgrounds had always been designed by architects or engineers, but not artists. So the strange case and interesting case about the Shek Lei Playground is that it was created by an American artist called Paul Selinger, and he felt that the playgrounds in Hong Kong were too uninspiring at that time. He proposed to the Urban Services Department that he wanted to build a sculpture playground for the children of Hong Kong. So Helen will continue to tell you the wonderful story about this playground.
FAN LOK YI: Thank you, Sampson. So, Paul Selinger studied art in UC Berkeley and San Francisco Art Institute from the late Fifties to 1961. He came to Hong Kong in the early to mid-1960s and taught sculpture at the Department of Extramural Studies of the University of Hong Kong. So as an artist, he has achieved a certain level of success in Hong Kong. For instance, in 1966, he was commissioned by Caltex to create a large steel sculpture, which, that one, top left corner, for the concourse of the newly opened Ocean Terminal. He had also exhibited alongside other prominent local artists like Hon Chi-fun, Van Lau, and Wucius Wong, and had connections with the most active and highly regarded young designers like Tao Ho and Henry Steiner. And so, these images can give you a sense, give you an idea of his style. So his works are very bold, and they’re full of curves and can be quite masculine at the same time. The dragon was made of steel, and the gallery pieces were in fibreglass and epoxy.
So, Selinger had cited abstract painters Clyfford Still, Mark Tobey, and Stanley Hayter as his influence. He was also inspired by left-wing intellectuals including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. So, he’s a very socially conscious person. He did not want to just work with the galleries, he really wanted to create art that common people can appreciate or even interactive, interact with. So, he noticed that as much as forty percent of the Hong Kong population was under eighteen years old at that time. So, the society was changing rapidly and many of these children suddenly had to move from villages into modern skyscrapers. So, Shek Lei Playground was his attempt to answer to the needs of the time and he wanted to make a playground that could help these children to develop individuality and creativity, apart from exercising the bodies so that they can adapt to the challenges of living in a modern city. In a media interview, he had mentioned the new idea of using sculptures in playgrounds in Europe and in the United States, and he was also aware of the adventure playground movement in Europe.
While the earlier playgrounds in Hong Kong were built as welfare facilities, which allowed children to have physical play on swings and slides, Paul Selinger wanted to go one step further to create a sculptural environment to encourage creative play. He was probably appreciative of adventure playgrounds in Europe which allowed children to build their own play environment using scrap materials like wood and metal and bricks under the supervision of a play leader. But in Hong Kong, he had to deal with various constraints, he had to consider how he could possibly retain that risk-taking spirit of adventure playgrounds, infuse that into his idea of a sculpture park, but at the same time, because of limited resources, no play leaders could be provided to Hong Kong’s playgrounds. So how could children play safely without any adult supervision but at the same time, keeping that adventurous spirit? So in around 1967, he had successfully persuaded the Urban Services Department to provide a 34,000 square feet site adjacent to Shek Lei Estate. As mentioned at the beginning of the presentation, the construction cost was covered by a donation from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. Shek Lei was a very large resettlement estate with 80,000 residents, and half of them were children. To give you an idea of the scale, this is the site of Shek Lei Playground, and that’s the current Shek Lei Estate at the back. So, the housing blocks of the estate went all the way from here, that’s the basketball court, to there, at the back. This photograph showed the old estate and the original playground designed by Paul Selinger. So, that’s the primary school behind the playground and the people who studied there told us that it’s almost like their home turf. They always spent their time in the playground before and after school. So, the redevelopment of the estate started in around year 2000 and the original Shek Lei Playground was probably demolished a few years before that.
And this is a model of the playground made by Selinger. The site, as you can see, was bounded by large retaining walls on two sides and a long staircase to its west—that’s the staircase—and, as well as a main road. That’s Castle Peak Road. And for this site, he designed a series of play sculptures, one roller-skating rink, and a large mural on the retaining wall. This model had been exhibited at City Hall and there seemed to be quite a lot of excitement around the construction of this new playground. The fact that it was exhibited at the City Hall also reminds us of how museums in America like the MoMA helped to promote the idea of playground as art. So for the actual playground, Selinger worked with concrete and bricks instead of steel or fibreglass. Because of the larger scale, he also had to rely on construction workers to realise his design. Perhaps for this technical reason, the forms of the sculptures were less complicated than his gallery pieces. Now, as you can see, Selinger had actually given names to some of the sculptures. But these names were only known to himself. He actually had not put a nameplate on the sculptures. So that’s why actually many former users of the playground would make up names by themselves and . . . So, all these names actually show how Selinger really treated the playground as a piece of artwork. It’s very cute. Sam’s Handkerchief, I don’t know who Sam is.
[Fan Lok Yi giggles]
And who’s Julian?
[Fan Lok Yi giggles]
The playground was opened on the 4th of September, 1969. There had been a lot of celebrations, the opening ceremony was attended by the prominent banker and politician Kenneth Fung, who was also a board member of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. There was a lion dance, a roller-skating performance at the . . . that roller-skating troupe team was actually, they actually came from Morse Park, and possibly a modern dance performance choreographed around the play sculptures as well. This is probably taken during a rehearsal. Otherwise, if it were a real performance, there would have been many spectators around the sculptures. So from the opening to its demolition in around the late Nineties, the playground had been enjoyed by generations of Shek Lei residents. The locals liked to call it the ‘sandpit’ or ‘three-level park’. Families used it as a photo backdrop because their homes were too small. Teachers from the nearby primary school let their students roam free in the playground during PE lessons. Some of our interviewees told us that when they outgrew the playground, they would still introduce it to their outside friends as if it were a very remarkable tourist destination.
And one of the interviewees, Lau Wang-tat, Mr Lau is also with us today, had even created drawings and ceramic sculptures inspired by his memories of Shek Lei Playground. These are all evidence of how a well-designed playground can function beyond a place for children to play. In the case of Shek Lei, the playground also served as a community icon and a gathering space for residents of different generations. It invited creative interpretations, as evidenced by the work of Mr Lau, and its impact can last for a long time.
So shortly after the opening of Shek Lei Playground, Selinger returned to the United States. The government had not built other similar sculpture playgrounds as he wished, but there were architectural designers who continued to create abstract playscapes in different ways. We are going to quote two cases and compare them with Shek Lei Playground. So, for instance, Palmer & Turner was responsible for the design of Ping Shek Estate and its play areas. The project was completed in the early 1970s. So, at the southeastern corner of the site, P&T had created a series of abstract sculptures in concrete and metal. The designer had made use of the slopes to embed a number of terrazzo slides, and carved into the ground to create a sandpit. So, that’s the sandpit at the top and there are slides scattered around the site. So everything has been demolished except for the hut and the bench and the blue slopes. So if you go there, you can still see these historical remnants. So these are some of the . . . Oh, okay, yeah, yeah, I guess that’ll be fine. Yeah.
[Fan Lok Yi chuckles]
And one of the most intriguing elements of the playscape is a structure called the Ruin. What is a ruin? Why do you have a ruin in a children’s playground? It was a set of intersecting concrete planes and frames. Our guess is that it is a modern interpretation of the picturesque ruin in traditional landscape gardens. So, in 1975, the Peninsula Jaycees, which is a charity group, organised the New Playgrounds Concepts Competition. The winners were a team of architecture students from the University of Hong Kong and their friend who’s a young designer graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic.
Their design concept was to create a series of connected sculptures to encourage group activities, cooperation, and imagination. The designers had also considered incorporating elements like metal pieces which children can strike and make sounds. These were all new ideas in the field of playground design in Hong Kong at that time.
So that’s the actual playground. After the competition, the playground concept had been accepted by the Urban Council, and the Architectural Services Department had incorporated the design in Sheung Shing Street Park in Ho Man Tin. The park is still there but everything has gone.
Again, the play structures were mostly made of intersecting concrete planes which were connected by metal frames and chains. If we look at playscapes designed by Paul Friedberg for housing estates in New York during the mid-Sixties, we would notice that the two designs actually shared a very similar language.
Paul Friedberg is a landscape architect who advocated the concept of linked play. For Jacob Riis Plaza, he tried to blend adult spaces like an amphitheatre and landscape gardens together with facilities for children like the playground. By connecting different uses, he created an ever-changing landscape that was stimulating to the senses and attractive as a multifunctional community space. So, there is a good reason to believe that the designers of Sheung Shing Street Park had used the idea of linked play as a reference. If we compare Shek Lei Playground, Ping Shek Estate, and Sheung Shing Street Park, we would notice that although they had all employed an abstract language and used that as a way to inspire free play or free interpretation, they are different in how they were initiated. Therefore, Shek Lei Playground, it was initiated by an artist but the other two were commissioned, and the latter two examples were more architectural and not really meant to be appreciated as a piece of art.
So what were the conditions that created the kind of artistic freedom that Paul Selinger described, which allowed similar abstract playscapes to appear in Hong Kong between the Sixties to Eighties?
The profession of landscape architecture was not formally introduced to Hong Kong until the 1970s, when the Hong Kong government launched the Ten-year Housing Programme and started to build new towns. Around the time when these playgrounds were built, the profession was not that mature as compared to today. The Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines were still in the process of formation. Adding to these factors, most resellers of proprietary playground products were founded in the Eighties, meaning that playground designers had to rely on their own creativity or imagination before these commercial products became more common or easier to import. So we believe that these constraints, including the lack of regulations, created a kind of accidental freedom for playground designers.
SAMPSON WONG: Before we conclude the presentation, there is actually a, almost world premiere of a documentary, a film. And we hope to take this chance also to thank M+ and Design Trust because without their support of this research, I think the film would have definitely been buried in Selinger’s son’s own home. And we, no one in Hong Kong would be able to see it. So through this research, one of the biggest findings is to rediscover this documentary. Selinger returned to the US and he came back for few times to complete this film and he was struggled to, and sorry-
So he struggled to complete the film, and it was finally made and screened on the television but it was not subsequently seen ever since that time. So, you’ll be able to see the construction process of Shek Lei Playground through the film and get an idea of children’s lives in the public housing estate of the Sixties. So, it was only screened once in the US and this is the first time it will be seen after almost four decades, more than four decades.
SAMPSON WONG: So, it has already taken for more than four decades so we’ve, why don’t we wait for a little more?
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FAN LOK YI: Selinger actually made this documentary to try to pitch to the parks departments of American cities. He was trying, he hoped to build more playgrounds like this in the US, but he got a few very small commissions, so the scale cannot be compared to Shek Lei at all. So, abstract playscapes are not just about a certain image or style. They reflect an era in which artists and designers believed that their own vision could be translated into complete playscapes. Such endeavours were enabled by institutional freedom surrounding playground planning and design, before these were incorporated into more professional working procedures and workflows which determine how playgrounds should be made. Through the latter process, playgrounds are made through the collaboration of different parties and greater weight is given to various utilitarian concerns, such as cost-effectiveness, durability, maintenance, or safety, rather than artistic merit or inventiveness. Under this setup, playgrounds are often considered facilities to fulfil certain practical functions, rather than a playful landscape which maintained a level of flexibility and open-endedness. In the case of Shek Lei Playground, we can see that the abstract landscape, because of its uniqueness and distinctive image, could also become a site of sociality, community memory, and inspirations. It is also significant that the playground was not initiated by municipal authorities. It was a bottom-up project initiated by an individual who tried to respond to the absence of stimulating play spaces. So, and, I’ll pass to Sampson to wrap up our presentation.
SAMPSON WONG: So as such we believe that abstract playscapes are not just about their distinctive look, they are also products of a different social condition for design and a particular conception of what spaces of play should be about. And, if we were to ask what one can learn from abstract playscapes in contemporary cities, in the contemporary settings, and we have a lot of current debate about design, we would not make the simple conclusion that playgrounds of this style should be built again, this is not the point we want to make. Instead, we think that design and design cultures and professional procedures of playground planning have substantially evolved since the last century. And more concerns and calculations need to be taken into account in contemporary design. So as play scholar Joe Frost said, the best playgrounds are never finished. Play spaces need to be constantly evolving to meet the changing needs, but through the study of abstract playscapes, particularly the Shek Lei Playground, we were reminded of the very rich potential of playgrounds, other than the utilitarian ones, and how we might possibility revive the creative and risk-taking ethos in the planning of future playscapes. And we are particularly happy that we are able to show this film fifty, exactly fifty years after Shek Lei Playground opened to the public and remains to be a particularly important piece of art in Hong Kong history. Thank you very much.