‘You can’t escape danger’: the artist making ‘risky’ playgrounds – and splitting opinions

New Zealand engineer Mike Hewson has raised eyebrows with his ‘risky play park’ in Melbourne. But the kids are voting with their feet

On Monday, an inner-city playground opened as part of a $44m council upgrade to create open space in Melbourne’s most densely populated suburb, Southbank. The monkey bars, slides, swings and ropes signalled fun; children swarmed.

But this playground was not like others. The climbing equipment was draped on or between tall, rough boulders and heavy-duty truck strap was everywhere. The bubbler protruded from a haphazard stack of stone blocks. The palm tree was still in its hi-vis sack. Most perplexing of all, to some parents, was that the mighty boulders were resting on dolleys. Rocks on wheels? Was it safe?

By 8am, Virginia Trioli, an ABC Radio Melbourne host, had tweeted: “This @cityofmelbourne playground opens today – with boulders on skateboards and slides propped up by rocks. Ummmm – are you sure @LordMayorMelb?”

This @cityofmelbourne playground opens today - with boulders on skateboards and slides propped up by rocks. Ummmm - are you sure, @LordMayorMelb ? Sally Capp joins me this morning. And no way I’m going down that slide. @abcmelbourne pic.twitter.com/WJp6LSd6Ka

— Virginia Trioli (@LaTrioli) November 6, 2022

Lord Mayor Sally Capp was sure. The ground looked like the bluestone that paves most of Melbourne, she told Trioli, but it was soft-fall rubber. Hidden steel rods kept the boulders secured and, as for any remaining risk, Capp said: “Risk play parks are proven by the experts to really enhance children’s development.”

A young girl perched on a rock
Four-year-old Alba plays on Rocks on Wheels; her mum, Laura Woodward, follows Hewson’s work and was keen to check it out. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

As the week rolled on, her safety assurances were repeated by the playground’s designer, New Zealand artist and engineer Mike Hewson. The kids kept voting with their feet. On Thursday, so many students from Great Ryrie primary school were clambering on the play structures they looked like a colony of bumblebees that couldn’t find its queen.

Rocks on Wheels on Southbank Boulevard, Melbourne.
Rocks on Wheels on Southbank Boulevard in Melbourne. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Rocks On Wheels is Hewson’s fourth playground-slash-public artwork. His perspective on risk – “you can’t escape danger”, he said in an TEDx talk in August – as well as the playground’s irreverent aesthetic of impermanence has been informed by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, his home town.

“I saw the cathedral come down,” he says. “For about nine seconds it felt like the end of the world. The road was weaving like the ocean, like waves.”

About 80% of Christchurch’s city centre was eventually demolished, including Hewson’s art studio and home. He began a series of public artworks in homage to heritage buildings with limited lifespans, “to put some humanity back into a very twisted and inaccessible inner city,” he says.

“The sense that everything was temporary never really left me,” he said in his TEDx talk.

Four years ago, his artwork in Wollongong’s Crown Street mall, Illawarra Placed Landscape, had a similarly rocky start to Southbank’s. Four cabbage palm trees and lots of boulders s-bend down the mall’s retail strip. One palm is partly encased in sandstone; another is disconcertingly horizontal.

The coup is a 100-year-old tree strapped vertically to a light pole. The overall effect is like seeing the uninspiring mall in the upside down dimension from Stranger Things: same, but also exhilaratingly different. But the playground aspect was simple – rubber matting, a swing and boulders to play on.

A tall palm tree tied to a lamp-post
Hewson’s work Illawarra Placed Landscape in Wollongong. Photograph: Mike Hewson

“The kids instantly understood and … helped to translate to the adults what the thing was,” Hewson says. It was his introduction to playgrounds, which are “incredibly sculptural and something artists should be involved with more”.

It’s unclear if Wollongong city council knew exactly what it was getting into, but it sure knows now. “Some like it and some don’t, but it’s a real point of interest that attracts people to the region,” says Sofia Gibson, the council’s culture and activation manager. “Mike’s pieces create discussions.”

Those discussions got quite shrill when Hewson’s third playground opened in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt in February. The stacked buckets, ropes, a sideways sawn tree and sandstone blocks “seemed like a fairly benign proposition”, says Hewson. Yet a fortnight of backlash, including talkback radio calls, ensued.

Hewson stressed his compliance with the playground code and maintained the Leichhardt community loved it. “It was absolutely rammed on the weekend,” he told Guardian Australia in February. “The proof is in the people who are there.”

While Hewson says that all of his playgrounds are public art “outcomes”, announcing them as such may stir up an even bigger stink. “The community hugely scrutinises public art spending,” says Hewson. “But they come around when something has a function. No one’s going to go to a sculpture every day, but they’ll go to a playground all year.”

Perhaps because of this, a City of Melbourne spokesperson told Guardian Australia that: “Mike Hewson’s playground isn’t technically a public art piece from our perspective.” The council’s press release was doggedly free of art guff: the “play space” consists of “45 new trees, climbable boulders, slides, swings and ladders”.

Hewson sitting cross-legged on a boulder
‘I really put my argument out there and I want to know what people think’ … Hewson. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

While Hewson is considering a plaque that attributes him as the artist behind the Southbank playground, there’s no ego involved: “It may be helpful to give people a clue to understand it.” For now though, it’s just “people trying to figure it out”, he says.

So why the rocks on dolleys? The parents of Melbourne must know. “The starting point was the bluestone,” he says. “I wanted to put it on a pedestal, to lift the rock off the ground and exhibit it, like a silly plinth. I wanted the rocks to kind of tiptoe, you know, floating through the space.”

He pauses. The engineer in him re-asserts. “I mean, heavy boulders are not something that would ever float,” he says. “It almost makes them seem fake because there’s no way they could sit on these little trolleys. I’m guess I’m trying to create a sense of freedom and impossibility in the public realm.

A slide, propped up on bricks and wheels.
A slide, propped up on bricks and wheels. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

“I’m limited by design standards but … you can still create a sense of movement and vulnerability, of precarity, whilst sitting in the framework of a well-designed and durable public asset.”

Back in Wollongong, where it all began, the council’s cultural development coordinator, Sam Crosby, says that withstanding initial negativity is often how you get something very good.

“That ‘what a waste of money’ attitude, you know?” she says. “You rarely see stuff like [Hewson’s work] in a small town and it may’ve really pushed the boat out on what we can do here.”

For now, Hewson is hitting pause on the playgrounds. “I really put my argument out there and I want to know what people think,” he says. “I want to know what the public thinks, what designers think and what cities think. Pulling off projects like this creates more space for others to innovate too, to not just regurgitate global design trends. We don’t have to do that.”


Kate Hennessy

The GuardianTramp

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