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Design for Play: Concrete Animals and Urban Toys

The 20th Century Welfare State national project included as one of its main components the provision of social housing to cover one of the most urgent needs of a city in the economic boom. A notable examples of these is the President Aleman Urban Center (CUPA)— a housing complex designed by architect Mario Pani in 1947 - 49 that also served as the first multifamily housing unit of the country. The complex integrated a play area garnished by a wildlife motif mural by Carlos Mérida. Another of these was the Unidad Independencia Housing Unit that was built in 1959 and designed by Alejandro Prieto. Prieto invited the artist José Chávez Morado to oversee the Plastic Integration component of the design and brought on Pedro F. Miret, who would later be involved in designing spaces for children in Mexico City, to design the unit’s playground. Later, Miret created the playground piece “Sputnik 1” for Tlatelolco’s Nonoalco Housing Unit—an iconic and imaginative rocket-themes slide that was torn down during the 1970s.

Sputnik 1, Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco.
Sputnik 1, Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco.

Sticking with the idea of urban playgrounds, the National Institute of Child Protection and the Department of the Federal District commissioned the sculptor Alberto Pérez Soria to design playground equipment for children, resulting in the well-known concrete animals inspired by the childlike wonder and fascination of fairy tales. The toys were conceived to be reproduced throughout the whole country and many concrete animals remained in active use for more than four decades; some are still in use today. It was not until the 1980s that the arrival of prefabricated playground equipment caused general interest in the animals to dissipate. However, the memory of these playground figures remains in Mexico’s collective imagination not only because they were part of the post revolution promise of urban progress, but because they were the physical representation of Mexico’s prioritization of child development in its urban and social agenda.

Many things have changed since the visual exploration of architects and sculptors lured the interest of children to public spaces. Nowadays, the complexity of the city intertwines children’s experiences of home, school, parents work and streets. Currently, the lack of equity in the distribution of public spaces has a demonstrable impact on the quality of children’s play experiences as well as their general interaction with public spaces. This disproportional drought in play areas becomes exacerbated when the few available square meters of interesting park space are left severely underused. Urban Toys is a public competition to design temporary playful interventions with the aim of re-activating underused public spaces located in proximity to areas with a high population of children. The challenge was to design artifacts that pushed the boundaries for traditional playground—defying the standardized plastic modules—and to respond to children’s desires to explore the world through play by creating multi-functional objects adapted to the three selected spaces.

Proyecto Aros en Plaza Loreto, Centro Histórico.
Proyecto Aros en Plaza Loreto, Centro Histórico.

The design guidelines for the urban toys were previously co-designed with children that were living nearby or were avid users of the selected spaces. Through a series of workshops on ludic uses of space, participants were asked evaluate the current functions of the spaces and to identify areas that could be improved. Participants were then tasked with thinking of new play experiences that could be created using common objects and were asked to conceive a “perfect playground”. The spaces in question were located within two areas of the historic city center and were selected because of their proximity to populations with high concentrations of children (i.e. blocks with more than 200 children). These spaces were typically occupied by activities that did not address the community’s needs and tended to alienate children from playing in them.

Proyecto Polerama en Plaza Santa Catarina, Centro Histórico
Proyecto Polerama en Plaza Santa Catarina, Centro Histórico

From April to July 2018, three proposals (out of 86 received) will be installed on site. A series of community led activities will then be held as a placemaking strategy in the hopes of changing both the dynamics and perception of the spaces. The project aims to develop a replicable methodology that can be used in other cities to advocate for the importance of play in urban areas; it will encourage cities to consider urban development and planning from the perspective of younger generations in order to come up with new and innovative ways of designing public spaces.

Project name Alberto Pérez Soria's Playgrounds
Period Circa 1970
Contributor Alberto Pérez Soria
Location Eje 3 Pte. (Av. Coyoacán) 1435, Col del Valle Centro, 03100, CDMX