Polar bears, cats, elephants, horses, and owls in the form of animal sculptures and recreational equipment began to populate Vienna’s public playgrounds and outdoor areas of the city’s municipal buildings just a few years after the Second World War.
The Austrian capital was in step with the postwar reconstruction trend in Europe of commissioning artists to design playgrounds for the younger generation. Symbolically speaking, it was hoped that the animal figures would carry children on their backs into a brighter future. At the same time, building new spaces for play and interaction was seen as an opportunity for promoting children’s creative development while contributing to the general aesthetic education of society. (1)
At these blithely optimistic European play areas, architecture, art, social utopias, and urban space were closely intertwined. Prime examples are the 734 playgrounds Aldo von Eyck designed in Amsterdam between 1946 and 1978. In formal terms, his modular geometric objects exhibited a functional modernist infrastructure, but they also embraced the notion of social inclusion. During the same period in Sweden, Egon Møller-Nielsen was pursuing the goal of creatively educating children through interaction with his abstract-organic or animal-shaped play objects. Moreover, he understood playgrounds as places where utopian visions of the future could be negotiated and the foundation stones laid for a better community.
The Danish “junk playgrounds” or “adventure playgrounds,” as they were called in England, were arguably among the most controversial projects of this kind. In playgrounds set up in bombed-out neighborhoods, children were encouraged to use their creativity to playfully imagine a new future built out of material such as rubble and war debris. In sixties Brazil, architect Lino Bo Bardi in turn hoped to create a safe place for the young generation, which she feared was in danger of being lost during the military dictatorship, by planning a playground for the grounds of her Museu de Arte in São Paulo. Her project was never realized, but it shows that the phenomenon of “art-play-place” continued worldwide in the second half of the twentieth century, accompanying ongoing political crises and social upheavals. (2)
The city government of Vienna began in the mid-fifties to deliberately set up play and animal sculptures around the city. Children were invited to integrate these interactive figures into their creative worlds of experience, because their fecund imaginations could transform even ugly suburban streets into a fantastic and mysterious realm. (3) Josef Seebacher-Konzut and Josef Schagerl are considered the Viennese pioneers of this design trend. (4)
The project continued to be actively pursued until the seventies. Even today, Viennese still encounter some 125 original sculptures as they go about their daily lives. The city’s collection includes, among others, significant works by important Austrian women artists: Ilse Pompe-Niederführ, for example, designed life-size game boards with animal motifs (Gaberlspiel, 1959 and Vater, Vater, leih mir d’Scher [Father, Father, Give Me the Scissors], 1959), and Gertrude Fronius made animal play sculptures from natural or artificial stone and bronze (Sitzender Eisbär [Sitting Polar Bear], 1961 and Elch [Elk], 1966). Whether Susanne Peschke-Schmutzer’s Trojanisches Pferd [Trojan Horse] (1970) was meant to encourage children to make the city their own is not documented. After the end of the Nazi regime, the artist and resistance fighter Maria Biljan-Bilger was a leading member of the Art Club and one of the few women to exhibit in the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1950 and 1954). Only a few of her animal sculptures for the City of Vienna are still preserved (Katzenfamilie [Cat Family], 1969, Drei Eulen [Three Owls], 1961 and 4 Kinderspielhäuser [4 Childrens Playhouses], 1965/67).
(1) See for example: lrene Nierhaus, KUNST – AM – BAU im Wiener kommunalen Wohnbau der fünfziger Jahre, in Hubert Ch. Ehalt / Helmut Konrad (eds.), Kulturstudienbibliothek der Kulturgeschichte, (Special Volume 10) (Vienna/ Cologne/ Weimar: Böhlau, 1993); and Elina Druker, Play Sculptures and Picturebooks: Utopian Visions of Modern Existence, Barnboken (vol. 42), 2019, n. p.
(2) Cf. Gabriela Burkhalter (ed.), The Playground Project, exh. cat. (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2018).
(3) Cf. Johannes Niermann, Der Kinderspielplatz (DuMont Aktuell, 1976), p. 145.
(4) Cf. Matthias Winterer, Der Herr der Rutschen, Die Wiener Zeitung, January 1, 2020.
Art historian Stefanie Reisinger recently curated the exhibition Gego. The Architecture of an Artist at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart and is currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Gego’s works in public space in Caracas, Venezuela, among other projects.