Examples of a sense of play in public spaces?
December 1, 2013 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples, ideally with pictures, of public spaces that foster a sense of play, whimsy, imagination, etc.

I'm putting together a presentation which I will be taking to my urban design professor. I would like to show examples of public spaces - ideally urban, but the design components could well carry over anywhere - that foster a sense of play. Ideally these should be things that would draw in a casual pedestrian, or which might add a sense of enjoyment to someone's day. They may be interactive or not, and temporary installations will work as well.

Age and demographics don't matter, but designated playgrounds don't really count, unless they have been built into unique places somehow or have some other special quality about them.

Feel free to use local examples - I'll gladly look up locations on Google Maps.

Thank you!
posted by Urban Winter to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The Chicago park with the shiny jelly bean?
posted by amanda at 5:06 PM on December 1, 2013

posted by cestmoi15 at 5:07 PM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lancaster, Pa. has hosted Keys for the City:
Keys for the City 2013 marks the fourth consecutive summer that MFE has brought this fun, funky, interactive exhibit to the streets of Lancaster. This year, twelve pianos, all designed and painted by local artists, will be accessible to the public 24/7 from May 17 through the end of September.

The objective of Keys for the City is to provide access to musical opportunity, foster creativity and build a sense of community among the public and, in the process, raise awareness for local music and visual arts education initiatives.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:10 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Play me I'm yours also does the street piano thing.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:11 PM on December 1, 2013

What about the High Line in NYC? If that's in the right vein, there's a similar project underway in Chicago right now, called The 606.
posted by JannaK at 5:12 PM on December 1, 2013

Speaking of the key to the city I thought the Key to the City project in NYC was a neat idea.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:15 PM on December 1, 2013

I like this musical swing set at a bus stop in Montreal.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:16 PM on December 1, 2013

The City Museum of St. Louis. Technically a private space, mostly indoor, but full of local kids and adults playing and really great.

The street artist Space Invader often talks about his works as being like a game, attaching point values to each of the mosaics he's placed around various cities. He has an amazing sense of how to place a bit of street art in a way that's not obvious and not intrusive, but also still findable.
posted by Nelson at 5:16 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The shiny jelly bean is called the Cloud Gate. In the same park is the Crown Fountain. I've never been to either of these but they sure look fun.

Anything designed with an accessible fountain like Jamison Square in Portland is designed for fun. That one has a fountain that ebbs and flows like the ocean, draining away and then pouring out again through a ledge made of blocks that you can sit or sun-bathe on. It's pretty great.
posted by amanda at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, I stumbled across Pierce's Park in Baltimore the other day too, and that might fit the bill as well. Lots of interactive things to climb on, big xylophone style pipes with mallets, tunnels, etc. It was pretty cool and I definitely stopped to play for awhile.
posted by JannaK at 5:18 PM on December 1, 2013

A park where I worked last year has two interactive musical toys - enjoyed by kids and adults alike (including me).

Here's a blog entry on the two toys. I used to intentionally walk across the chimes when there were tourists around just to get them to play them. Much nicer than the whistle ones which were high pitched and somewhat annoying.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:19 PM on December 1, 2013

I know you said no designated playgrounds, but I couldn't help but think of Luckey Climbers. It is a jungle gym but also acts as an art installation. Definitely play and whimsy. More images here.
posted by KMoney at 5:27 PM on December 1, 2013

DC hosted the Party Animals, another temporary animal-themed exhibit (map here.) I thought they were much better than the later Pandamonium and I still love seeing the ones that were bought and are still on semi-public display. There was just something great about seeing a vase-painted giant elephant or donkey on a staid corner.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:33 PM on December 1, 2013

There's a great musical installation called "Reach New York" in the Herald Square subway station

And Volkswagen sponsored these (1, 2, more) outside art installations to get people to act more conscientiously by having fun
posted by Mchelly at 5:37 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Taranaki Wharf Jump Platform in Wellington, New Zealand. There's a spot on the wharf that has always been popular for jumping; any time there's a hot day, people jump into the water to cool off. It's not just kids, adults jump too; in summer it would not be unusual wander down to the wharf after a long day at work and jump in fully clothed. Instead of banning the fun, the city commissioned a jumping platform. This has also discouraged the more dangerous practice of climbing a nearby building and jumping off its roof. Here's a video of the platform in use.
posted by embrangled at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2013

There are some fun bus stops. Warning: first link is slightly NSFW do to other "photos" on that page.
posted by oceano at 5:50 PM on December 1, 2013

Popup Design (principal artists Joshua Howell and Kagan Taylor) giant comb/bike rack in Roanoke City, Virginia

Artist-designed phone booths in São Paulo.

The colourful blocky chairs outside the Vienna Museum of Modern Art

The Stravinsky Fountain by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

All of Gaudí's Park Güell in Barcelona
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:50 PM on December 1, 2013

Whimsical miniature murals around the town of Palo Alto, CA! It's always fun to spot one I haven't seen in the wild before, but this page has a full inventory.
posted by Nomyte at 5:54 PM on December 1, 2013

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, with its iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry, comes to mind immediately - it is nestled right into the Loring Park area of MPLS and is a common area, though technically private land.

There is also the Franconia Sculpture Park, which is even more playful though slightly less public, as it is not integrated into an urban environment. It's a destination one must intend to visit, though it is free & open to the public.
posted by kitarra at 5:57 PM on December 1, 2013

Can't believe I forgot Philadelphia's awesome Mural Arts program, especially Love Letters, as seen from a train. There's also the Magic Gardens, though I don't know if it qualifies as a public space-- similar decorations pop up across Philadelphia though.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:16 PM on December 1, 2013

This installation outside the Blanton Museum at the UT Austin campus was pretty fun while at lasted.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:26 PM on December 1, 2013

I came in to say Crown Fountain in Chicago as well. I've been there a couple of times and those faces spitting water are absolutely fascinating and fun. People love to wade around in the water and play in the spray there during the summer.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:37 PM on December 1, 2013

This is corporate sponsored whimsy and interaction, but itself favorite thing about Bradley International Airport.

posted by slateyness at 7:55 PM on December 1, 2013

Some of the stuff VW is doing with The Fun Theory like the Piano Staircase, the World's Deepest Bin and Bottle Arcade is really cool stuff in public places, but I'm not sure if it's long-lasting/durable or just temporary.
posted by clerestory at 8:10 PM on December 1, 2013

Whoops, missed Mchelly had already posted those!
posted by clerestory at 8:15 PM on December 1, 2013

I love the Water fountain at Crown Casino
posted by Wantok at 9:53 PM on December 1, 2013

The Alamo, also known as the Astor Place Cube in NYC rotates if you push really hard.

The Pod sculpture is similar in Portland.

There's also bike lane video game art in Portland that has you riding over drawings of powerups found in Nintendo's Mario Kart.
posted by funkiwan at 12:47 AM on December 2, 2013

Greyworld in London does a lot of projects like this. Their website is a little hard to navigate, so if you want a complete list of their projects, you might visit the Wikipedia page on them. Check out their Trafalgar Square Sun, their musical railings, their monument to an unknown artist, and bins and benches.
posted by yankeefog at 2:24 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a series of little interactive play-thingys along the pedestrianised shopping street in Wolfsburg, Germany, Porschestrasse. Google Maps has no Street View of it but there are good photos on there of the various things: a rocker kids stand on that pumps water up, big steel reeds to spin round on, two "ear horn" shapes sticking out of the pavement connected by a tube so you can speak and listen down it, random steel globes to sit on that spin round, etc.*

Also! In Köpenick outside Berlin there is a random jungle-gym thingy just on a back street, not specifically as a playground, just so you can climb as you pass.

*(The pleasant even fun-ish street that this nice friendly people/children-centric design is placed on remains of course named in commemoration of the guy who commissioned Himmler to provide slave labour to work in the town's Volkswagen factory while hundreds of their children were starved to death close by....)
posted by runincircles at 3:20 AM on December 2, 2013

This is the best question, these sorts of things are pretty much my favourite things in the world. A lot of the pieces I love have already been mentioned, but I also really like:

Appearing Rooms, at the Southbank Centre: a set of fountains that make the walls of four "rooms" that appear and disappear at unpredictable intervals. (Pretty much any unpredictable fountain you can walk around in, really, including the Crown Casino fountains mentioned above.) There are loads of pictures on Flickr etc.

The slide at Utrecht railway station, running next to the steps.

Hello Lamp Post was a temporary installation in Bristol where you could have text conversations with street furniture.

Anywhere with echo chambers, for example Portland's Pioneer Square.

The pattern on Central Park Bridge in Olympic Park in London: a big wide plaza with a slightly rubbery surface, and brightly coloured blotches all over it. Pretty much every child walking over it, and about ten percent of the adults, would choose one colour and try to stick to it as they crossed, jumping between their chosen blotches.

This is a weird one, but the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin really, really prompts some people to play. It's a grid of big rectangular slabs of stone, set on undulating ground that gets lower towards the centre of the square (even as the slabs get higher), and there's a sense of gradually growing separate from the world, and losing track of where your friends are. People are not, I believe, allowed to play in it but they do anyway, usually a variant on "try to be the first person to spot the other and take a photo of them without being seen".

Otto Hajek's City Sign in Adelaide is a big plaza with lots of bright blocks in grids that you can walk between, jump on top of etc - though for some reason it's never been all that popular (I guess it gets a lot of sunlight, and the sculpture doesn't offer a ton of shade, plus it's right near a grassy riverbank with trees and a bandstand and cafe and so on).

(Also I did a thing with Hide&Seek where we designed ninety-nine site-specific games around London - hiding on a giant sundial, looking over a balcony, etc - and put the rules on big vinyl posters around the city for a month last year: 99 Tiny Games.)

(Also I'd love to see a copy of your presentation if you feel like sending it around to anyone...)
posted by severalbees at 4:35 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The two that sping to mind are the Calder mobile "Pittsburgh" at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

And the Piccaso Afghan Hound in Daley Plaza in Chicago.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:30 AM on December 2, 2013

Kansas City Library has a unique outside
posted by Jacen at 6:40 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is (was?) a "sound sculpture" installation in Ottawa -- outside City Hall, I think -- that a friend and I had an absolute blast learning how to manipulate when we were visiting there. It reacted to people walking in front of certain objects.

The library at the University I went to has an installation along the escalators that reacted to people touching it by lighting up and making sounds, but the sounds were disabled due to the request of librarians and people studying and then when the lights died, they were too costly to replace, so now it's just a weird plexi-glass wall full of dead light bulbs and even deader bugs.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:49 AM on December 2, 2013

For the non-interactive side, downtown Denver really surprised me. The convention center, which has an enormous glass facade, has a giant, two story high blue bear that is peaking in at the people milling about inside. People on the second floor take photos of it looking at them. An escalator down from that second floor also has the sound of people laughing, which is hard to distinguish at first because there is a cafe where it seems to be coming from. It brings a smile to a lot of faces.

The two grates visible in this image (15th and Curtis) have sounds playing from them. One is gurgling water and the other is birds chirping.

There was also a modern art sculpture, possible on the 16th street public mall but I can't find it, which was neat. It was essentially an upright rectangle with holes through it, somewhat like swiss cheese, but the holes were perfectly oriented to the walk and don't walk sign a few feet behind it. So we'd basically be looking down a little tunnel to see when it was time to cross. There were holes in other directions but I didn't think to see what they focused on.
posted by jwells at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2013

How about Tom Otterness's installations? I especially like the 14th street subway stop in Manhattan.
posted by benbenson at 1:18 PM on December 2, 2013

I was looking for video of the sculpted arbor in Belmar, Colorado where you walk through a sort of tunnel of sculpted leaves that chirps and hoots as you go through. I couldn't find it but I did find this little promotional video that may be relevant and this Wikipedia article on sound sculpture. Around Christmas in Belmar they also have Christmas trees made out of unusual things, license plates, old tires etc. and a large movie screen way up on one of the buildings playing old black and white Christmas movies.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:09 PM on December 2, 2013

I almost forgot this little statue in Belgium in answer to all of the "little boys peeing statues everywhere.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:14 PM on December 2, 2013

Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco has the nonsensical looking Vaillancourt Fountain that invites visitors to walk under, around, and climb on top of the structure. It's a truly memorable and wonderful piece of art in San Francisco that looks like a child's playset super-sized.

It has not been without controversy (see wikipedia page): one critic called it, "Stonehenge, unhinged, with plumbing troubles".
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 2:47 PM on December 2, 2013

Granary Square, near King's Cross Station in London, has grids of little fountains; they're clearly computer-controlled, with their heights - and, at night, coloured lights - being manipulated to make patterns.  In the warmer weather, there are always children playing in them.

Close by, for about 18 months, there was a giant birdcage ("Identified Flying Object" by Jacques Rival)  complete with a swing big enough for an adult to play on.  At night, it was lit up.

Not too far away is Joseph Grimaldi Park where the eponymous clown is memorialised by a musical tombstone.

Meanwhile, in Bloomsbury there's an interactive ghostly iron fence.

In Frankfurt, Frau Rauscher spits at amused (or startled) passers-by, and Bockenheimer Warte U-Bahn station erupts from the ground.

In Basel, the Tongue King (scroll down) guards a bridge over the Rhein, while nearby another Tinguely fountain delights the public.

In Brussels, a cheeky chappie trips a policeman ("De Vaartkapoen").

And under the main station in Osaka, there are passages lined with trick art.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:33 PM on December 2, 2013

...and this, I love this one.
posted by BoscosMom at 9:36 PM on December 2, 2013

In Toronto, there are the TD Cows (a public sculpture called "The Pasture") which are very fun.
posted by apcmwh at 12:28 PM on December 3, 2013

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