We all, as you know, come from childhood, wherever we live. Two experienced designers in this field, Anastasia Yutkevich and Maria Pomelova, helped us trace the evolution of Moscow playgrounds.
The first playgrounds appeared in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, in Russia in the 1890s. Initially, they were a purely charitable project and appeared in connection with the general urbanization of the population. Masses of people moved from regions to big cities. Children from poor families were left to their own devices, there was nowhere to play, and the streets became increasingly dangerous due to traffic (first horses and trams, later cars). Therefore, charitable societies began to open special playgrounds for children of the poor. It was possible to get there for free, but only by pre-registration. Later paid platforms appeared.
These spaces themselves can be called analogues of a modern kindergarten rather than playgrounds in the current sense of the word. They were fenced plots of land where a gazebo with toys and tables were located. Teachers worked with children, so the playgrounds were designed, as they say now, in the spirit of minimalism: basically, it was a universal empty place, suitable for any games and activities invented by educators. By the beginning of the 20th century, the number of such places reached about a hundred.
The upbringing of a new, comprehensively developed “man of the future” lay at the very foundation of the Bolshevik project, so the organization of children’s and youthful leisure became a matter of national importance. The Soviet child had to grow up strong and politically motivated. “Ready for work and defense” – such a motto could describe the pedagogical policy of the USSR. This is how platforms appeared, which in many ways resemble modern ones.
The sports component was very important, so the pre-revolutionary playground – an empty space for games – was replaced by bars, horizontal bars and other exercise equipment. At the same time, few people were interested in safety standards and heights, which led to such extreme options that today’s parents would have had a heart attack. For the younger ones, there were slides, simple four-plank sandboxes, and carousels. At the same time, the playgrounds of the USSR began to serve as an instrument of communist propaganda. Next to the horizontal bars one could see catchy slogans about the world revolution and the victory of the proletariat.
After the Second World War, a new stage began. Firstly, with the influx of residents of devastated regions to Moscow and other cities, the return of soldiers from the front, and civilians from evacuation, the second urbanization in the country began. Secondly, during the war there was a kind of cultural exchange between the allies in the field of post-war development of European cities, including playgrounds. Soviet soldiers also managed to see how children live and raise in the West. Thirdly, during the war there was a serious ideological tilt in the national question. The Soviet system essentially abandoned the initially declared desire for the unity of peoples in favor of Russian imperial patriotism, which was necessary in order to rally the Slavic population of the USSR at its core against a common enemy. As a result of these three reasons, there were more playgrounds, they became closer in their structure to their Western counterparts, and Russian national motifs were clearly manifested in their appearance: epic heroes, wooden architecture and images from Russian fairy tales.
The process of creating these spaces had its own interesting features. For example, their design was considered a collective work – it is very difficult to find specific authors today. However, there were exceptions: in the presence of a special artistic vision and the political will of local authorities, original, piece projects periodically arose. The process was strictly regulated, each carousel and swing had its own regulations.
In the era of developed socialism, a fashion for metal silhouettes of animals appeared in the design of sites. And with the height of the Cold War and space exploration, the motifs of rockets and spaceships were added. In general, the playgrounds of the 1960s were of a very high standard.
However, this has begun to change since the Brezhnev era. The growth of typical housing and microdistricts required, on the one hand, a sharp increase in the number of playgrounds for children, but on the other hand, their simplification, if not primitiveness. These were mostly metal structures, easily rusting, freezing in winter and with constantly peeling paint – usually they had to be repainted every season. Their location has also changed. Before the emergence of microdistricts, playgrounds were usually opened in parks and near schools. Now they have appeared in the yard of each new high-rise building. In simple words, there are much more playgrounds for children, but they have become worse and dreary.
1990s and 2000s
With the collapse of the USSR, the creation of new playgrounds almost stopped for almost ten years. And the existing sites in residential areas, being at the late Soviet stage already boring and simplified, were less and less repaired. Sometimes there was no care for them at all due to the general economic situation. From here follows a typical picture of childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s: these are rusted, shabby and half-decayed remains of primitive late Soviet playgrounds. If spontaneous courtyard parking did not appear right next to the inventory, then this could already be considered good luck.
Approximately against such a post-apocalyptic background, Russia in the early 2000s was conquered by the products of the St. Petersburg company Ksil, says playground designer Maria Pomelova. With this domestic monopoly, whose plant near St. Petersburg is equal in area to a small city, a new page began for Russian children.
The standardized products from Xila’s huge catalog are easily recognizable by their pitched roofs and several iconic colors – yellow, blue, red and green. The products are based on waterproof plywood, but they look like plastic. For all their clumsiness, compared with the rusted remains of late Soviet equipment that had bent over the years, Ksil’s playgrounds were perceived as a breath of fresh air. But at some stage they became so ubiquitous that they became, along with panel high-rise buildings, an integral part of the Russian landscape. This product still dominates today. It is worth mentioning that, just like typical Russian housing, Ksilovo equipment does not age well: over the years, poisonous bright colors fade and gradually become covered with depressive smudges.
In the same years, other firms flooded the domestic market, each with a slightly different design. Thus, a very important process took place in the Russian sphere of improvement, which influenced the modernization and appearance of today’s playgrounds: massive residential development. The quality of the environment in the yards has become a tool of competition for domestic developers, especially in Moscow and other large cities. The better and more original the playground was, the more chances there were to sell the apartments at a higher price. First, better equipment for children appeared, then they learned how to arrange it better, and then the fashion for copyright children’s objects came.
As a result, for several years in Russia, the quality standard of playgrounds has increased several times and a request for originality has appeared. And this has already affected the improvement of large parks, especially those that had large funding: Gorky Park in Moscow, New Holland in St. Petersburg and Galitsky Park in Krasnodar. The appearance on the market of European manufacturers (Kompan, Proludic and others) coincided with the development of a strong domestic school of landscaping design.
One of the pioneers in this direction was the architectural bureau Wowhaus. Gradually, some public spaces in Moscow and the provinces, including children’s spaces, not only reached the modern Western level, but gradually began to outstrip it – they “re-Europeanized” Europe, so to speak.
But the most interesting thing is that if you look closely at the photographs of playgrounds from different eras, then children’s faces are equally happy smiles, regardless of whether the equipment is good or not.
Photo: N. Shchapov/vov.mos.ru, Boris Korzin/TASS, Anatoly Garanin/Russia Today news agency, Nikolay Bolotin/Russia Today news agency, Alexey Druzhinin/TASS, L. Porter, S. Preobrazhensky/vov. mos.ru, shutterstock.com