1997-2000 Lost Kingdoms

Missoula, Montana Playground Design

LOST KINGDOMS was a commissioned design research study in architectural narrative for a children’s playground in Missoula, Montana.  The concept involved a place where children could create their own imaginary adventures, while the design also symbolized the rites of passage from childhood into adult. The southern end of the playground is adjacent to the Missoula Carousel, a symbol of youth and wonder.  The northern end of the site is edged by a Retirement Home, a symbol of the acquisition of wisdom. The playground itself, a metaphor for growth and learning, is designed as a series of “pathways of discovery” linking these two endpoints in the form of Lost Kingdoms waiting to be re-discovered.

The entry to the playground is in the form of a small amphitheatre, appearing like the South Pole on a torn, ancient map. The irregular steps of the amphitheatre appear like a rocky shore upon which children ascend to discover the entry to a mythological land. Standing beyond the shore is the Wall of the Unknown, an ancient stone wall partially buried in the earth like the remnant of a Kingdom lost long ago. The Wall of the Unknown is punctuated by five portals, each leading to a different pathway. Each child must select the individual path they are to follow. The portals are only child-size, not meant for adults.

Upon the central plateau beyond the wall lies the Rift in Time. The Rift in Time is formed by seven terraces, stepping gradually downward from the Wall of the Unknown. Appearing like a wide fissure in the mythological landscape, the Rift acts as a giant calendar dial, ending in a sundial at the bottom. The Sundial tells the hour of the day, while the Calendar Dial uses sunlight to tell the day of the year. Beyond the Sundial looms the next Lost Kingdom, the Mountain of the Timekeeper. The Mountain of the Timekeeper contains a chamber, and when a child enters, a wondrous discovery occurs.  The bronze disc set within the front face of the Mountain is now surrounded by an edge of brilliant sunlight, creating the glowing image of a solar eclipse suspended within the wall. When a child turns around to leave, the semi-circular portal on the opposite wall is edged by radiating cracks reflecting indirect sunlight, making the illuminated edges of the portal appear like the glow of the setting sun.

Crossing the centre of the Rift in Time is a gilded meridian, appearing like an Equator dividing the mythological landscape. Upon crossing the five pathways, the meridian changes form, becoming yet another set of Lost Kingdoms, the Portals of Decision. The Western Portal of Decision appears as five parallel walls, eroded and overlapping like a mythical range of mountains.  Open portals below invite children to pass through, but immediately upon entering a portal, children discover that their path no longer must lead straight ahead. Each wall passed presents an opportunity for a new path chosen. The child now may decide with each new step where their path shall lead – straight ahead, or onto a new path, or even across the Rift in Time. The Eastern Portal of Decision appears like a cylindrical stone wall, penetrated by an open portal. This portal frames the trunk of a single tree, whose leafy boughs form a domed canopy over the cylinder. Architecture and nature are intimately united to create a shelter, and once under the shelter, a child is again presented with the opportunity to choose a new direction – the path ahead, a different adjacent path, or across the Rift in Time to Lost Kingdoms yet undiscovered.

The five Pathways of Discovery all lead ultimately to another of the Lost Kingdoms – the Council of the Wise, which appears as a great circle like the North Pole at the far end of the ancient treasure map. Located closest to the retirement home, this is where the eldest and the youngest come together, the sharing of wisdom and innocence. The Council of the Wise is a unique playground within a playground, a contained, enclosed circle specifically designed for the tiniest preschoolers, where they may safely play with children their own age, while senior citizens relax upon the circle of benches and watch the youngsters.

There exists, in fact, yet one more kingdom – the Lost Kingdom. It lies below the Rift in Time. Portals open into a hidden space beneath the upper terrace of the Rift in Time.  This small space is the Council Chamber, and the only room of this Lost Kingdom which may actually be entered.  A circular viewing portal at the height of a child’s eyes allows a child to look into the Lost Kingdom beyond and discover the mysteries of Time itself. Peering through the viewing portal, a child sees the space lying beneath the terraces of the Rift in Time. The floor below is covered by a shallow reflecting pool and the arches supporting the terraces above are in the form of 45-degree ellipses, making them appear in perspective as perfect circles when reflected in the pool. In this way, the arches seem almost like concentric ripples of Time, moving outward toward Eternity. At the furthest end of the reflecting pool is a gilded dish. Rainwater drips slowly into the pool, causing concentric ripples of water to move slowly toward the golden dish, flowing over its sides like a giant whirlpool at the Edge of Time.  Meanwhile, the cooler air within the Lost Kingdom causes a soft breeze to blow outward through the viewing portal, touching the face of the peering child. Children thus discover that here in the Lost Kingdom, the forces of four elements of Nature (Wind, Water, Earth, Light) are united with the fifth element, the Spirit, which is in fact within the children themselves.

“The land you are about to discover is a playground for children, but it is not about traditional swings or teeter-totters.  It is about the Imagination. It is about Lost Kingdoms we all once knew, and it is about a map to help us find them once again. This playground for Missoula, Montana is a mythological land which can in fact become many different lands, transforming itself within the minds of many different children. In plan, the playground appears as a torn shard of an ancient Treasure Map, while simultaneously the playground acts as a mysterious machine, an enormous instrument which unites the elements of nature for the telling of time.  As well, each of the pathways of the playground are used to re-present nature in unexpected ways that allow a child to re-discover the wonder, the truth, and the magic that nature contains.”

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