The 'Salierplatz' playable name apparatus

By Henrike Scriverius (Dipl.-Ing. (FH) | landscape architect, North Rhine-Westphalia Institute of Architects), Reinders LandschaftsArchitekten bdla

The 'Salierplatz' playable name apparatus

 

Who can get fastest from the 'S' to the 'Z', or the other way round, or with eyes closed, and on the high route mounted on the cross-bracing?

There are once-in-a-lifetime projects that a landscape architect never forgets. A new job lands on your desk, complex construction work is commenced and, if all ends happily, there is a grand inauguration ceremony on completion. You discover old photos, read the name of a manufacturer or landscaping firm that was involved and suddenly the old memories come flooding back. You remember driving home in silence following your disheartening first meeting with the local residents and the restless night you had when the larger equipment was to be installed on the following day. And then there was the time you were turning the corner, just a week after the site was opened, and heard the sound of the crowd of people present before you actually saw them. You still have a quiet sense of achievement because your concepts won through against all the odds and finally met with such enthusiastic approval.

For me, the Salierplatz in Düsseldorf was one such project.

It all began on a quite ordinary day in the early spring of 2009. On viewing the Salierplatz square located in Oberkassel, one of the more attractive districts of Düsseldorf, we saw what we had seen many times before when called in: run-down play facilities, doubtless originally planned with much care many years ago but now tired, faded and grey due to material failure, careless treatment and an outmoded approach. There were ugly concrete bases left behind after equipment had been dismantled and previously planted areas had been trampled flat by hundreds of children's feet. But there was still an imposing stand of mature trees that would make the heart of any landscape architect beat just that little bit faster; after all, there is nothing new that can provide the same effect as ten 80-year-old lime trees.

After we had inspected the site, the client, Düsseldorf's Department of Parks, provided us with detailed background information. There was considerable need for an appropriate facility on the part of the local residents as many of these were families with children who nearly overwhelmed the site, particularly in the summer months. Contrary to a widely-held belief, Oberkassel is home to many children and here they can enjoy a not unpleasant urban existence in its traffic-calmed streets. And from here, it's an easy trip on the bike to the bars of the Ratinger Straße to enjoy a local beer.

But the client emphasized the high expectations of the residents who had been complaining for months about the dilapidated condition of the square and who, the client also pointed out, would not be content with the standard swings/slides/sandpit configuration. There was talk of a water playground, a climbing terrain, a swing park and a slide course.

We uploaded the plans of the site and looked at the dimensions. The Salierplatz square is bordered by pavement pathways on three sides and a recently installed games field on the fourth; it has a total surface area of 1500 m2. But this includes the ground around the trees and we were not permitted to intrude on this for fear of damaging the roots. So, not that big after all. And our gross budget - €160.000 - did not seem particularly impressive in view of the demands we were required to meet.

We began as we always begin when planning a new play area: we looked for a suitable concept. Something distinctive, something unique that would be found only on this site. Ideally something that would be associated with the site's name, with local amenities, special features of the district or its users.

We thought of the East Frankish Salian dynasty of the 10th century AD for whom the square is named, but they did not offer much in the way of an exciting and resilient play concept. The vicinity of water and the herds of sheep grazing the flood plains of the Rhine near Düsseldorf were soon also quickly rejected as ideas. So, if we couldn't find something associated with the name, we came to the conclusion that we should do something with the name itself. We sat down with the playground manufacturer Spiel-Bau of Brandenburg and started designing. Our play apparatus was to have an elongated form like a room partition or screen that was to separate the calmer play areas from the more active ones. It should not be too high so that it didn't conflict with the low-hanging branches of the lime trees. It should offer as many different play opportunities as possible - climbing, ropes, nets, ladders, the slides requested - and, at the same time, not take up too much space. Last, but by no means least, it could not be too expensive. After deducting the costs of laying a new paving surface, providing the many seating facilities required and constructing the water play area, there was just €35,000 left for the large play apparatus and that would also have to cover installation and TÜV certification.

 

The 'Salierplatz' playable name apparatus

The result is the 'Salierplatz' playable name apparatus. It is 28.6 metres in length and has a height of 2.2 metres. It is made of core-separated Douglas fir and various stainless steel elements. Between the 'S' with its resting net and ladder access to the 'Z' with one of the two slides there are a balancing rope, belt bridge, suspended beam, various ladders with differing distances between rungs, slide poles, a net climber and Hercules ropes. With its extended form, it fits perfectly in the circular sand sea that makes the site seem considerable larger than it actually is. On one side of it there is a swing park with five swings at different heights offering very active play opportunities while on the other side smaller children can play happily in the water area, undistracted by all the nearby activity thanks to the presence of the transparent 'room divider'. The sand sea is surrounded by generously proportioned recreation areas, some paved, some water-associated, to ensure that bobby car users and boules players also get their money's worth. In order to comply with the demand for adequate seating facilities, we developed the semi-circular 'Salier' bench, 20 metres in length with and without backrests, on which it is possible to simply sit in the sun although it can also be used as an underlay.

We first had our design approved by the Department of Parks and then unveiled it to the residents of Oberkassel at a well-attended evening event. The result was disappointing to say the least. Opinions differed, specifically with regard to the large play apparatus. Some thought it too long, others too gaudy and yet others thought all the wood was inappropriate to an urban setting like Oberkassel. "You'll mess up the whole site," they said. You don't easily forget something like that, nor how depressed you felt in the car later on the way home.

But the Düsseldorf authorities remained firm. They thought the idea was good and the plan was viable, so the client prevailed and gave the green light to the planning process. The response to our invitation to tender was pleasing, the site clearance process ran without a hitch and so we were able to commence with work on restoration of the site in the winter of 2009.

We noticed that, as time went on, the faces on the other side of the site fence seemed to become more cheerful. The initial boundaries were marked out and the spatial concept was now discernible. The pathways were paved, the water supply for the water play area was put in place and the surrounding public pathways were also renovated. The swings were delivered, the natural stone paving was laid and the sand supplied.

Then finally, on 22 February 2010, Spiel-Bau commenced with the installation of the large play apparatus. And one morning shortly after, I drove full of apprehension to the construction site. What if the residents had been right? Was the apparatus too high? Or too long? Would it ruin the site or be totally out of place in this area of classically elegant buildings?

I could breathe a sigh of relief. It was exactly right. The height was ideal; it nestled perfectly under the tops of the lime trees. The colours were bright but not glaring and its length impressive but not overpowering. And instead of catcalls and jeers from the residents, children soon began gathering on the other side of the fence to ask when the playground would be opened.

The opening occurred on a sunny weekend in April 2010. It happened totally without fuss - no ceremony or speeches - the site fence was simply removed on the Friday evening. The residents were so eager to use the new facility that they were unwilling to wait until the mayor had time in his busy schedule to officially inaugurate it. Over the next few days, all was quiet - we received no complaints, no objections and, of course, no compliments. So, a week later, I decided to visit Oberkassel to see for myself what was actually happening.

This was the moment when I heard all the tumult before I actually saw the people. Because I had again failed to find somewhere to park and had to walk to the Salierplatz. There were perhaps a hundred persons present on the site; they surrounded the water play area, sat side-by-side on the Salier bench, talking, laughing and changing nappies, just as I had seen it in my mind's eye. Every swing was in use and the expressions on the faces of those waiting their turn showed that it might have been advisable to install more. The playable name apparatus was hardly to be seen under all the climbing, suspended and balancing children. Small teams had formed - it was competition time - who could get fastest from the 'S' to the 'Z', or the other way round, or with eyes closed, and on the high route mounted on the cross-bracing? Mothers standing in the sand were holding their little ones by the hand, some of whom took the shorter route directly from the ladders to the slides.

I stayed until late in the evening on the Salierplatz. And when the ice cream van arrived, I stood patiently in line in the long queue that formed. I was content with my quiet sense of achievement.

 

Images: Henrike Scriverius

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