Courtesy Matter Design

When most people think of an outdoor playground, they picture swings, slides, and monkey bars, but two principals from two Massachusetts-based design firms are redefining what it means to play. The Five Fields Play Structure was designed by Brandon Clifford of Matter Design and Michael Schanbacher of FR|SCH Projects for a Lexington, Mass. neighborhood built in the 1950s by the Architects Collaborative (TAC). The design constructs a structure on a sloping topography that focuses on imagination and ambiguity.

To establish more connection to the overall midcentury community, TAC had experimented with a piece of common land that all the homes in the neighborhood could access. Both the existing families and the incoming younger families maintain this piece of land that TAC set aside more than 60 years ago.

Courtesy Matter Design

In January 2016, Schanbacher, who is also a resident in the community, suggested building a new play structure in the space. He then brought Clifford onto the project shortly after the community agreed with his proposal. Considering the history of the space and the presence of an original swing set and slide, the two decided to experiment with different “conditions”—like over, under, inside, and outside—as their design inspiration. They had the opportunity to build on other flat areas, but they chose the sloping area to inhibit viewpoints and encourage playful imagination.

“We were drawn to the slope because it gives the kids the ability to go under or to look down at the structure,” Clifford said. “The design and location allows them to view it in many perspectives.”

Courtesy Matter Design

The team chose to use timber as the playground’s main material so the kids could get the tactile experience of the wood. Graphic designer Johanna Lobdell added some colorful, yet subtle, graphics to suggest the different entry points into the structure. Some original playground qualities exist, like ladders and poles, but the emphasis of the project was to create a space where children of all ages could play how they choose and that would also not be an eyesore to the older members of the community.

Although the playground wasn’t completed until fall 2016, kids were allowed to play on the piece while it was being constructed. This helped the principals decide which aspects of the structure were the most intriguing and aided in the design process to develop a structure that encourages exploration.

Courtesy Matter Design