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A Utopian Midcentury Neighborhood Gets Updated For Helicopter Parents

When your neighborhood was built by Walter Gropius and crew, a high-design play structure has to fit right in.

In the early 1950s, a collective of American architects developed an 80-acre parcel of farmland in Lexington, Massachusetts, into a midcentury modern neighborhood. Called Five Fields, it featured 68 plots of land on which the architects–including the renowned Walter Gropius–built a series of modest midcentury-style homes centered around 20 acres of common land designed to anchor the community. Five Fields is a quintessential model of the collective’s 1950s utopian ideals; the architects hoped to create a neighborhood-centric communal society based on the shared maintenance and care of the common land.

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Fast forward 65 years. Today, the Five Fields neighborhood is experiencing a resurgence. About one-sixth of the homes are occupied by architects, many of whom are drawn to the place’s history and the style of homes. And with only one homeowner still left from the original development, the neighborhood has seen an influx of families with young children. With all the kids moving in, the community wanted a play structure–one that would reflect the utopian ideals of the neighborhood. It would be situated on the community’s common land, complementing an existing play area. But since not everyone in the community has young children, it also needed to be pretty to look at.

“That piece of common land is actually incredibly important to the creation and sustainability of the neighborhood,” says Michael Schanbacher, the chair of the landscape architecture committee and an architect by training. “It’s not just that we go and gather, but we have to care for it. The vision of the common land becomes an important issue because everyone cares really deeply about that space.”

Schanbacher suggested a custom built structure–something that he had no trouble convincing his neighbors was worth the money and time because of a common appreciation of good design. “Because we all have these pieces of architectural history as our houses, we then put a premium on design,” he says.

Schanbacher brought in an old friend, the architect Brandon Clifford of Matter Design, to help. In keeping with the historical ethos of the place, Schanbacher and Clifford looked to the philosophy of Creative Playthings, a Cold War-era toy company. The company emphasized learning and creativity in children’s toys, the idea being that kids who had learned to play with toys that didn’t demand a prescriptive solution would be better equipped to fight off the Russians.

The architects hoped to encourage open-ended creativity with their structure in a similar manner. “The approach was to come up with a creative play structure that was ambiguous enough that the kids could imagine new possibilities on a daily basis,” Clifford says.

That was harder to do than it looked. Over the course of the summer of 2016, the two architects worked on the weekends to build a play structure that would uphold the spirit of the neighborhood. They imagined the structure as a thin wall running up the side of the common land’s hill, and designed structural offshoots that would encourage different types of play and appeal to children of different ages. And they had plenty of willing test subjects. At the end of many summer weekends, the neighborhood would have a barbecue and the kids would explore the half-built play structure.

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These weekends offered valuable insights. Schanbacher recalls his daughter being unable to climb a rope bridge that connects to the structure’s zip line, which she complained about. They contemplated changing the tautness of the rope or moving it altogether. But the next day, she was able to climb it.

“She solved it on her own,” says Clifford. “Not to say you shouldn’t design things to work, but in dealing with play, there’s this mind-set of not just designing things to work the way you originally intended, but allowing for growth.”

Now finished, the wooden structure looks nothing like your average plastic and metal jungle gym. Instead, it has a short climbing wall, a zip line, a ladder to climb to the roof, and plenty of spaces that encourage kids to imagine new worlds–jutting out of the side of the hill, it could almost be a fort or a landlocked pirate ship.

“By the end of the summer they were all over the thing,” Schanbacher says. “We could barely keep them off it.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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