How did the Burgschule (Castle School) get its name, although there is no castle anywhere in sight? This question was raised by landscape architect Verena Dörhöfer when she was awarded the planning contract for the redesign of the...
by Heike Denkinger, KuKuk GmbH
Geneva, Switzerland, Chandieu district. In this district this year the well-known firm of architects, Atelier Bonnet is constructing a large complex with nursery school, school, sports hall and swimming pool. The modern, high-end architecture is implanted into the green belt of public parks, which surround Geneva. The architects wanted to create the connection between Nature and state-of-the-art construction methods both in front of and around this building and so they approached KuKuk GmbH from Stuttgart. The assignment is to create play facilities which have both structural affinity with Nature and modern design.
Four play islands are planned, with a clear circular shape, which cuts through Nature and abstracts from Nature. Two of the islands are in front of the building and thus are accessible to the public. Inspired by Urs Wehrli and his books, "Kunst aufräumen" [Tidying up Art], KuKuk here created an island, on which wood and rope lie in stacks and rolls. The stacks and rolls can be climbed by older children and also have an inner space for toddlers to creep into and crawl about. This material almost "flies" across to the other island in the form of an arch made of logs, which are concentrated on the island in a sort of wooden drey. The space in between is spanned by a network of plenty of ropes, forming a climbing structure.
The two islands are created from organic natural materials and thus reflect the close proximity to Nature in the surrounding parks. The other two play islands are on the roof of the building, or more exactly, on the roof of the swimming pool.
The roof is a very wide, spacious terrace, which becomes the playground for the schoolchildren. It is intended to invite the children to linger, but also to encourage play and movement. The architects have already organised this playground with several round pavilions. It is a very well-defined, spacious structure. The point is to make use of this structure and to feel the influence of the original philosophy of linking Nature and design.
KuKuk had the idea of creating a sculpture which is an organic design and at the same time an item of play equipment. It was decided to use stainless steel as the material. One of the reasons behind this was that this decreased the inhibition threshold for older children, so that they would be daring enough to use an item of play equipment. KuKuk's designers designed two sculptures, made completely from steel. Each individual element is intended to be formed from one single piece of steel and not, as is usual elsewhere, made from several pieces welded together. The challenge is rather to shape the steel in 3D to represent the organic in sculpture. The structural analysis has been calculated in such a way that the structure will stand alone, without additional support. One sculpture has zones for climbing, sliding and moving hand over hand. In this area the steel tubes are 60 mm in diameter to make it possible to grip and hold on to them. The opportunity for gymnastics is even provided in one zone. The other sculpture invites you to lie or sit down, balance and "chill out". Here the tubes are larger, with a diameter of 76-80 mm. This makes them more attractive in proportion. The idea is new and has never before been implemented in this way.
However, the architects are impressed both by the beauty of the sculptures and their high degree of functionality and were able to convince the Municipality of Geneva to give the green light for the construction to go ahead. Although there is no object to be seen which shows that the idea works and can be implemented, they have had the courage to agree and to take on the risk.
Now the design has to be turned into reality and time is short. However, the idea and the design have been well thought through and can be implemented almost without any hitch. The result speaks for itself. Both the steel sculptures fulfil all the requirements desired. The link between Nature and state-of-the-art design, functionality and aesthetics is a success. On the roof of the school in Chandieu a work of art has been created, which offers the schoolchildren in equal measure possibilities for movement and islands of peace. These play islands have landed on the roof of the school like two UFOs. They are fixed in place by their own weight and by the EPDM fall protection flooring, which has been installed beneath the steel structures. Moreover, this flooring is not smooth, but is modelled with irregularities in evenness and slight waves, so that this also forms one with Nature.
These play islands are more than items of play equipment. They offer a range of possibilities, none of which is predetermined. Rather, they send out a variety of invitations. They encourage climbing, sliding, sitting and in the urban space they offer a welcome obstacle even to traceurs, the sportsmen and women who devote themselves to the urban trend sport of Parkour. The objects are a welcome product for towns, cities and local education authorities. The steel in the sculptures is completely maintenance-free.
However, the question remains: What is natural about a steel sculpture? There are no mirror-image symmetries in Nature. A lime tree leaf is always heart-shaped, but no one leaf is exactly like another and the two sides of an individual leaf are never identical. Nonetheless each leaf, each tree has a harmonious symmetry, a balance. The organic curves of the shape emphasise this harmony. The bough of a tree always grows in three dimensions, seeking light and the best structure. This gives it its organic shape. In addition, Nature is always creating transitions. There are seldom any hard breaks, the transitions are always more inclined to flow into one another. In Nature a river never has an angular bank; there is always a zone in which water and dry land are present in equal measure. Sometimes one element is more apparent, at other times the other element predominates.
These elements can also be found in KuKuk's play sculptures. The organic essence of Nature is felt through the three-dimensional shape of the steel. There is no mirror-image symmetry in the sculptures and yet they seem symmetrical when you look at them, because they are so harmonious. Instead of corners and edges there is nothing but flowing transitions.
And the sculptures are also very transparent. They can be perceived as a whole as structure, but they also seem to recede and allow the background to fade into the foreground and thus they integrate themselves into the landscape. The sculptures are easy to reproduce. Versions of the sculptures are possible in various forms and have already been planned. They can be adapted to suit individual requirements. Because they are maintenance-free and have indestructible stability, they are a successful option for equipping urban spaces. They can be used anywhere where aesthetic play equipment is wanted, even in places where it is difficult or even impossible to create foundations. In public squares, in pedestrian precincts, on the roofs of houses and basement garages – anywhere, where Nature has very little space left to offer, they still offer the opportunity to gain sensory experiences from play. At the same time the aesthetic aspect and the organic design of the steel sculptures mean that they are not stuck in a purely practical and functional role.
The challenge of creating play space and outdoor space and of offering an area for communication has been realised with this project. The challenge of creating spaces which encourage perception of aesthetic elements and proportions has found a new dimension in this project.