Designers aim to unite people through the power of play

by David J. Hill

Published October 9, 2019

“Where otherwise there seems to be lots of division and ways of separating people, playgrounds bring them together in a seamless, natural way.”
Julia Jamrozik, assistant professor of architecture
University at Buffalo

Uniting people through play. That’s the idea behind an installation representing Buffalo as part of the Cities Exhibition of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in South Korea, with the theme of “Collective City.”

It was created by Julia Jamrozik, assistant professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, and her design partner Coryn Kempster, an adjunct assistant professor in the school.

They are the design team behind “Full Circle,” a swing structure situated on a vacant lot on Buffalo’s culturally diverse West Side.

Their Seoul Biennale structure — titled “Aldo: a social infrastructure” — was conceived as a statement about political and social division, and people’s penchant for burying their heads in their smartphones, ignoring the people — and the world — around them.

Their message? Simple social infrastructures like “Aldo” can bring people together to share a playful exchange and acknowledge commonalities, if only for a few moments.

“In a time of grave disunity in the United States, these simple sparks of interaction have the potential to, however briefly, bring together people who might otherwise occupy different worlds,” Jamrozik explains. “They offer a chance for people to leave the echo chamber of social media and interact in real time with a neighbor.”

Jamrozik and Kempster found inspiration in the opportunistic infill-urbanism of Aldo van Eyck, the post-World War II Dutch architect renowned for creating playspaces in bombed out and vacant areas across Amsterdam.

They saw parallels between the derelict spaces that van Eyck worked in across his city and the abundance of empty lots and oversized streets across neighborhoods of Buffalo still struggling to regain their footing after decades of decline. Both presented opportunities to convert underutilized urban spaces into something that could unite people.

“One of the things we observed in Buffalo is that playgrounds are some of the only places where people from different economic and racial backgrounds come together and find commonalities,” Jamrozik.

“Where otherwise there seems to be lots of division and ways of separating people, playgrounds bring them together in a seamless, natural way,” she adds.

Measuring 14 feet by 16 feet by 8 feet, “Aldo” appropriates van Eyck’s signature climbing frame and reconfigures three of them to construct a striking magenta collective space, a sort of pavilion that visitors are encouraged to occupy and interact with by climbing, leaning and lounging in it and on it. The structure is on display in Donuimun Museum Village in Seoul.

“We were influenced so much by van Eyck because he saw opportunities for making the city a more humanistic place through a network of play areas that he saw as urban furniture that could be occupied by people,” Jamrozik says.

She and Kempster were invited by curators Dongwoo Yim and Rafael Luna to submit a proposal to the “Cities Exhibition,” which spotlights conditions and interventions that exist in more than 80 cities across the globe, including Buffalo, Madrid, Beirut, Boston, Detroit, Sao Paulo and Stockholm.

“Aldo” is the latest in a series of play structures created by Jamrozik and Kempster, who were commissioned for similar projects in Toronto, as well as Cleveland. They are constructing more playsculptures in Western New York — in Jamestown, Cassadaga and Lyndonville — as part of funding they received through the “Play Everywhere Challenge” organized by the non-profit KaBOOM! and supported by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

Jamrozik and Kempster envision a Buffalo where a series of social infrastructures across the city can contribute in different ways to the making of community and public spaces through small, incremental efforts.

Once the Seoul Biennale concludes in November, the designers will work with the curators to find “Aldo” a new life, perhaps in a new configuration in a public space somewhere either in Seoul or Buffalo.