Each summer, Sasaki kicks off its internship program with a three-week long design charrette. This summer's diverse cohort of interns brought their training and expertise to consider play in all its forms. Interns were tasked with designing a versatile playscape to reactivate Charles River Park in Watertown, which could also be replicated at other sites. To exhibit their concepts and designs, interns also built an installation of the playscape at Sasaki's office.
"The charrette program serves as a great introduction to the interns as to what it means to work at Sasaki," says architect Jeanette Pastrana. "Right away they must come together and work in a collaborative, interdisciplinary fashion in order for the project to succeed, which is much like our project teams. It was very rewarding to watch them go through this process and end up with a result in which each individual played a part."
Before interns jumped into designing and building, they learned more about play through lectures, research, site visits, and a little bit of play. On a field trip out of the office, interns and charrette leaders visited the Design Museum Foundation: Boston's exhibition, "Extraordinary Playscapes," an exhibition that explores the history and science of play and playscapes. Later that day, the group embarked upon rigorous field research, playing at stand-out parks and playscapes in Boston.
The sixteen interns were broken up into three groups, with each serving a different role during the charrette. The groups were: The Researchers, The Builders, and The Storytellers. These interdisciplinary working groups collaborated to tackle site issues, design a prototype, and craft a narrative of the charrette's ideas, development, and final design.
The Researchers analyzed existing site conditions at the Charles River Park in Watertown, conducted a survey of parkgoers, and researched the demography and geography of Watertown. Armed with this information, they then made recommendations for a site vision that reintegrated the park with the river and reactivated its central space, creating a lively and active public gathering space for Watertown.
The Builders generated several iterations of a prototype for a flexible playscape that encourages adventurous, energetic, and unscripted play for all ages. Working directly with the Researchers, they designed a playscape for the Watertown park site, which would also be adaptable to other locations. In the final week of the charrette, the builders, with help from other interns, constructed a scaled-down version of the playscape for the deck at the Sasaki office.
The Storytellers documented the charrette and the progression of thinking and designs throughout the three weeks, telling the story of the project through an Instagram account and other media. They also collaborated with the Researchers and Builders to produce exhibition components for their final presentation.
A rendering of the interns' playscape design, Groundswell
The interns' final task—to present and exhibit their designs and story—required extensive collaboration and input from all interns. Of the collaborative nature of charrette project, architecture intern, Alex Donovan, noted that, "being split into three groups was helpful for structure at the beginning, but as the project began to develop the boundaries between the groups faded. By the end, we had shifted from three distinct groups, to people lending their unique expertise and skills to different goals."
Interns present their final design to the invited jurors
After two and a half weeks of work, the interns presented their playscape design, site vision, and story for a juried design critique. The jury was composed of local design leaders including Polly Carpenter, FAIA, of the BSA Foundation, Mitch Ryerson of Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Christina Lanzl of the Urban Culture Institute. Many Sasaki designers also joined in to watch the interns' final presentation.
Comments from the jurors were positive and constructive, and generally centered on the possibilities to be gleaned from Groundswell's modular construction and its successful, yet flexible, relationship with its context—especially along the Charles River site in Watertown. Ms. Carpenter pointed out that, "the park is the playground," suggesting that the playscape is not the ultimate destination in the park, but part of a sequence of experiences along the river.
Some feedback praised the variability of the playscape, but expressed concern over its accessibility and wondered how users might actually interact with the structure. Ms. Carpenter suggested a layer of programming, perhaps by artists, might be necessary to encourage parkgoers to interact with such a novel structure.
The critics were excited about Groundswell's modular construction and the potential for its assembly to become part of play itself. Calling the design "open-source," critics wondered what kind of system of construction, such as some pre-installed elements, might allow parkgoers to take part in the actual construction of the playscape.
Mitch Ryerson noted that he was happy to hear that the interns felt their experience designing Groundswell was a form of play, commenting that "a sense of play is necessary for all designers, no matter the project."
Sasaki designers and interns test out Groundswell
The jurors sparked a healthy dialogue about the play structure, but the harshest critics were undoubtedly the kids in the room. Sophie, Leah, and Cristina, ages 7, 9, and 10 respectively, probed the designers with questions regarding the feasibility of wood construction near or in the water, the effects of seasonal variation, the feasibility of regular maintenance, and stressed questions about the safety of the play structure.
Tough questions aside, it seemed these critics were pleased with the play structure installed on the deck, and the prospect of more exciting play. One critic, who was in the midst of a tic-tac-toe game on the chalkboard section of Groundswell said, "I've never been a critic before, but I would play in here every day."
After the critique, the interns celebrated the conclusion of the charrette and their coming project work this summer with fellow Sasakians. After three weeks of designing for play, the interns were very happy to finally get a chance to relax a little bit and play, too.