There aren’t many things that feel as joyful as a playground. These public spaces are built purely to facilitate delight for children, and represent community, activity, and imagination. Some of my own very first memories originated on the playgrounds in my neighborhood, like the satisfying arm ache of swinging on monkey bars, or the lilt of warmth I’d feel in my belly while going down a slide. These formative sensations are emblematic of the critical role playgrounds have in childhood development.
Multi-disciplinary artist and designer Yinka Ilori is right there with me in my romantic regard for playgrounds, and recently took his bold, colorful visual style to the wonderful world of playground design. Ilori bestowed the UK’s Parsloes Park with a vibrant play paradise called The Flamboyance of Flamingos, co-commissioned by public art project Create London and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
Ilori also collaborated with Becontree Forever, the painters over at The London Mural Company, and fabrication specialists at setWorks to create his designs. The result is an imaginative wonderland that pays homage to the history and wildlife of Parsloes Park, most notably nodding to the flamingos that previously inhabited the area. Some of the playground’s many scintillating features include a refurbished basketball court, a cocoon hillside slide, a seesaw, monkey bars, balancing blocks, an accessible merry-go-round, a joint swing, and a flamingo seating circle, of course!
I was completely captivated by Ilori’s stunning design (and woefully jealous of the children who get to play on it), so I needed to learn more about The Flamboyance of Flamingos from Ilori directly. His reflections are below.
Where does your love of color and pattern come from?
I was introduced to color at a young age, seeing my parents and their friends dressed in bright colors and rich textiles. This left a really strong impression on me, and has since become an important part of my work. I think color can be an incredibly powerful tool. Throughout my projects, I have explored how it can be used to tell stories, transport ourselves somewhere else, and influence our mood.
Did you enjoy playing on playgrounds yourself growing up?
Growing up on a council estate in Islington, my friends and I would use any available space to play together. This included our balconies, where we would race around and come up with our own ideas of how to play together. The communal estate playground provided a more purpose-built space for us to be together, and begin to learn, to dream, and imagine. It had swings, tires, and motorbike spring rockers, and was a space where we could all come together and exchange ideas on how to play.
I come from a large family and neighborhood where sharing was a very big part of my upbringing, so I have a deep understanding of the value that community play spaces bring to children. They are incredibly important in providing the freedom to be together, learn from each other, and build relationships and memories. The playground from my childhood encouraged me and my friends to be ourselves and have some fun. These are some of the best, most positive memories I have.
The general aesthetic of your design work is so colorful, bold, and graphic, which really lends itself to a playground design. But in what ways was designing a playground different from your other design work? Do you see yourself designing more playgrounds or other types of play areas for kids in the future?
My work is inherently playful and engaging. I try to create installations, graphics, and architectural elements that can become a unique part of a local community and bring people together on the streets to experience their neighborhood in a new way. So in that respect, you’re correct: my work does lend itself well to the design of a playground.
I’ve worked on a number of projects that incorporate elements of design that encourage people to use the structures in exciting new ways to work collaboratively, and the design for Flamboyance of Flamingos is similar in that way. Rather than using the standard play structures you see in every park, I’ve created some slightly more unusual design elements that encourage kids to be creative in how they play together.
The main difference would be that we had to really think about the way the space was going to be used by a large number of kids over a very long period of time. When children play, they do so very enthusiastically, climbing over things and running around, so we needed to make sure every element could stand up to this, and that the materials were hard-wearing and long-lasting.
What was the ideation process like for designing the playground? I know that you conducted creative workshops with residents and children as part of this discovery phase. What was that experience like?
We wanted the park to be reflective of the local community, and accessible and appealing to children of all ages. Working with local residents on creative workshops to hear their stories was a really important part of the design process. We wanted to make their stories heard and base the design on what they wanted to see in the space.
It’s always an incredibly rewarding process being able to go into a community to hear what they think about their local area, their lived experiences of spaces, and what they want from the facilities around them. So this was an incredible journey, and I’m so thankful to have had the time to work with the families around Becontree Estate.
In addition to the workshops, I also researched the history of Parsloes Park. I wanted to explore memories of the park, and took inspiration from the wildlife that once inhabited the space. The flamingos that were once seen here have inspired the spring rockers and also the title of the project.
How does it feel watching real kids enjoying the fruits of your labor as they play on a playground that you designed yourself?
I am constantly amazed and inspired by kids. They have this incredible capacity to dream, and imagine, and turn the things around them into a fun game, and they are generally open and collaborative with each other. Sadly, as we grow up, we lose this ability. It’s an absolutely incredible feeling being able to watch how the kids decide to use the play space. How kids think, work together, and come up with new ideas is a great reminder that we all need to make more time to be playful. Being able to provide them with an engaging space to be themselves and see that spark in them is so rewarding.