Earlier posts exploring Beverly Willis’s work can be found here and here. As those posts dealt with a residential renovation and the adaptation of technology to large-scale housing developments, this post is concerned with urban design of public spaces.
In 1978 Beverly Willis, noted architect, artist, and photographer, was commissioned to rehabilitate a public space and pre-existing playground that serves the Laguna and Golden Gate neighborhoods of San Francisco. Her charge was to design and construct a small recreation building on this site, a two-block plot that already housed tennis courts, play structures, and a small storehouse. As discussed in the posts mentioned above, Willis’s design philosophy is heavily influenced by symbolic imagery. Indeed, in her book Invisible Images, she discusses her fascination with the power of images at length: their capacity to generate ideas, to captivate us, to contextualize architecture and ultimately to connect humans to nature. But here she also took her primary audience into account, namely children, and thus considered how young people on the threshold of young adulthood might interpret spaces and images differently than their grown-up counterparts.
When conceptualizing a small building for the park, she wanted to evoke and foster the idea of play, and to frame the building as an invitation to play. She designed what she characterized as a “toy” building, which served the dual purpose of sparking children’s imaginations and enabling other functions, i.e., serving as an administrator office, restroom, and a service kitchen for park events. It serves a host of functional needs while it also works with the idiosyncrasies of the site.
As Willis wanted the building to feel fully integrated with the rest of the block, the building’s segmented design allowed the small structure to sprawl and fan out, creating a pavilion that descended via concrete steps to the play pit. The way it’s structured gives it the slight feeling of a dais. She designed an asymmetrical wall at an angle from the building with a child-sized arch such that there would be some fluidity between the practical and playful elements of the park. No doubt, the building exploits an unusual, exploded structure (akin to something you’d see in an axonometric drawing) to maximize its magical, whimsical appeal.
I’ll leave you with Bev’s own words:
“I designed the building to be lower in height than the tallest play equipment—like a toy building. The structure fans out of its tight corner site, and diagonal walls shift through the structure, like the joints of the armadillo shell. The façade stops at a wide walkway, bordered by three tiered steps. Together, these elements create an illusion of a stage platform. On the right wing ‘stage’ wall, which extends past the building, I placed an arched opening that leads nowhere but beckons the young to pass through and explore. The painted arch opening and circular moon above are as magical as Alice’s looking glass, leading from everywhere to everywhere” (Willis 87).
- Willis, Beverly. Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture. National Building Museum, 1997.
- “Margaret Hayward Park Playground Building.” Beverly Willis Archive, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, https://beverlywillis.com/architecture-project/0716/.