Three years ago, the director of my daughter’s preschool proposed a radical idea: rip out the aging metal and plastic play structure and replace it with a hill.
“A hill?” asked one parent after a prolonged moment of silence. “Like, a mound of dirt?”
“Yes. We will plant grass on it. If you want, we can save the old slide and embed it in the hill. We will also have a small climber and a sandbox elsewhere, but the main thing the children need on a playground is a nice hill.” Three weeks and three back-breaking volunteer work parties later, the director had her hill. And within five minutes of unleashing the children onto the hill, we parents finally understood what she meant.
All it takes is a quick glance around your local park to understand the allure of a hill. Now layer on a child’s creativity and boundless energy and the possibilities for how to engage topography explode. Perching atop. Reclining amidships. Bear crawling up. Log rolling down.
A convex amphitheater for outdoor demonstrations. A theater in the round for impromptu performances. No kid has to wait in single-file line to traverse. No teacher has to enforce taking turns. Sightlines are clear to/from teacher to/from students. Lateral and vertical boundaries vanish in the absence of steps and guardrails. Play can flow.
Given the success of our simple little hill, imagine how excited children in the town of Horbach, Germany were when their flat community playground was transformed into a “House on a Hill.” Designer Stefan Laport shows us how constructing a large hill on a small site creates significantly more usable topography; it is a space multiplier rather than occupier. Here, the concave hill cradles the outer edge of the playground. The inner bowl of the hill is supported by a timber forum that gives way to steep steps that give way to climbing holds to the summit. Alternatively, kids can run up the backside via a winding path to reach to the playhouse on top. A magnificent twisty slide delivers them down again into a large sand pit. Pulled apart and laid flat, these elements would require significantly more space.
At the same time, a hill can also enhance a formal, academic setting. A slope that is equally cherished by its users can be found at the Library of Delft University. Located in the heart of the campus, Mecanoo designed the entrance to appear literally carved out of a hillside. Peek around the edge and you will discover the hill is actually the roof plane, elongated and tilted to seamlessly engage with the sidewalk (like a “real” hill.) A pointed cone pierces the crown and intimates the hi-tech library beneath, perhaps also reminding lounging students to keep cracking the books. I was fortunate enough to visit this library and despite the award-winning interior design, I spent most of my time (along with my fellow students of architecture) outside in repose on the hill. Sunbathing aside, the hill effectively serves as a massive outdoor reading room with no additional interior or campus square footage required.
Taken on its own or as an organizing element for other play or academic features, a hill may be the most important piece of outdoor infrastructure school districts and designers continue to omit. Seattle is a city of hills, so before we flatten them out and infill with woodchips, let’s consider ways to creatively engage more hills in our academic landscapes.
Update: See the response we received in “Follow up: The Hills are Alive!”