Playgrounds are society’s declaration of bankruptcy

May 2019

Bernhard Hanel is a former pupil of the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart. He comes from a Waldorf family, his father was involved in founding the Michael Bauer School and taught the first remedial class. Together with Robin Wagner he set up the company “KuKuk – Spiel- und Sinnesräume” which develops, plans and constructs experience-, play- and outdoor-scapes for people of all ages and which is meanwhile turning over six million euros per year with projects in all parts of the world. But that is not all.

Erziehungskunst: How did Kukuk come about? 

Bernhard Hanel: I met my business partner Robin at college, the Freie Hochschule in Metzingen. We had this idea of setting of an office for art and cultural conception. This was about art for us. We published books, organised conferences and exhibitions in the field of contemporary art. 

EK: So when did the playgrounds arrive? 

BH: The municipality of Metzingen asked whether we could design the playground for the Sieben Keltern school. The town councillor for building and construction wanted something a bit different. That was exciting. We made a start – very amateurish to begin with, and yet the newspapers couldn’t get enough of us. Word about the project got around to neighbouring municipalities. At the same time we were teaching: Robin in Schwäbisch Hall at the art college and myself art history at the Gutenhalde Waldorf school and dance at various Waldorf schools. Then came a major project in Ravensburg, two school playgrounds. It was a school in a disadvantaged area and the aim was to find out what effect it has if the school playground is completely transformed. The results were very positive. The behaviour of the children in breaks and during lessons changed completely. The project was even academically monitored and evaluated by the university in Weihenstephan. It can all be read up. But we were simply artists. As non-architects we could no longer take responsibility for such a large project on our own. We had no idea about statics and what fees to charge under the regulations for architects and engineers. We decided: we’ll continue and employed our first architect. 

EK: And so the projects kept coming? 

BH: Yes, for local and public authorities. We were five or six people. Bernwart Engelen joined us, and we turned the partnership into a limited company. Today Bernwart lives in Canada and is responsible for KuKuk Box, that is mobile playgrounds which can be used in various locations. We were then fortunate to have Susanne Auwärter-Brodbeck, the former Neoplan boss, join us. She sent her children to the Waldorf kindergarten in Stuttgart-Sonnenberg. She became our commercial director. Robin and I are both artists, we only have a limited understanding of money. 

EK: So a small group of eight people who undertook projects, each one bigger than the last. When did you take the big leap? 

BH: Up to that point we had only done the planning. We were often there when the projects were built, but the big bits were done by other companies. But we were never satisfied – artists never are. So we said: if they can’t manage to do what we want, we’ll just have to do it ourselves. 

EK| On other words, you turn up at the site with an installation crew, equipment, machinery, lorries? 

BH: Meanwhile we provide a living for about 60 people and turn over about six million euros per year. Waldorf clients now only make up about ten percent. Many clients come from local authorities and tourism. We work for the federal and regional horticultural shows and leisure parks. We are currently working on six building sites simultaneously in Germany and Switzerland, but also Sweden, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. 

EK: It started with colourful tree trunks. Then squirrel nests, huts with offset boards and wonky roofs ... a bit like with the Hobbits. What was your artistic approach? 

BH: We don’t have a catalogue and try as much as possible to avoid repeating ourselves. Each location and also the people at that location are very, very different. We want to respond and react to that. Since we build almost everything on site, we can still react during the process. That is then the artistic process from our art studies which we have been able to keep alive in our present work. 

EK: How has Kukuk continued to develop? 

BH: We started to design outside spaces for hospitals, kindergartens, therapeutic facilities. This was followed by outdoor experiential spaces, nature trails in the woods, these sustainable tourism things, nature trails for the senses and so one, such as in Welzheim Forest. Or we create mountain trails in Switzerland. That is actually somewhat paradoxical: it is no longer enough just to go out into nature but there has to be some incentive to engage with it. We even build playgrounds on mountain stations. That often makes me think: but you’ve already got the most beautiful playground there is. It’s absurd. The projects keep growing bigger and more comprehensive. No longer just the play equipment, the pieces of wood that are stuck in the ground, but whole complete designs. For the paediatric clinic in Maulbronn, for example, we designed the whole outside area from a therapeutic perspective. 

EK: How do you keep an overview? 

BH: I don’t! Robin und I gave up the business management because we realised that we cannot manage a business in the real sense. What we can do is the artistic part, the ideas, and the work with clients above all is also fun. The best guinea pigs for new ideas are my children. 

EK: So things surged ahead … 

BH: Yes, in a steep upward curve. Two years ago we reached an important point. We divided the KuKuk family into four areas: design and construction had to be separated for legal reasons. As a designer, you are not allowed to build anything in Germany, or only in specific cases. The other reason was that we wanted to be seen as designers to a still much greater extent. Our Swiss clients wanted a Swiss company, so we set one up. “Freiflug” is the heart of the business, because that’s where all the planning takes place. KuKuk-GmbH only implements it with power saws, paint brushes and wood. 

EK: Then there is still the “KuKuk Box”. 

BH: Yes, this was developed for the aid organisation Caritas Switzerland.

They wanted a playground for crisis areas which could be quickly and easily transported – take it out, open it up and it’s ready. But most are used by schools and municipalities which need an interim solution, but also as classic “play points”. 

Such a fully equipped container costs between 20,000 and 30,000 euros. We’ve even registered the design. 

EK: Then there are the social playground projects for children and young people in crisis areas ... 

BH: Yes, they in a certain way are my favourite KuKuk, all of them projects financed by third parties in Nepal, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Lebanon, Brazil, Nigeria, Hanoi. We also organise school trips with this association. It started on a very small scale but meanwhile we have ten to fourteen projects per year, school trips and youth trips with all types of school. We take young people, mostly class 12 pupils, on these trips which they really enjoy because they have a feeling that what they are doing means something. Anyone interested in such a social trip should feel free to contact us. 

EK: What spurs you on in your work and what topics are occupying you? 

BH: My favourite subject is: play. That is something dear to my heart. After all, we build play spaces with the association in all parts of the world, in the favelas of Sao Paulo as well as in Nepal, Iraq and Nigeria – in all the places where children need them a lot more than we do here in central Europe. Unfortunately I have not been able to go to all these places for a long time, but occasionally I do visit them. 

The really interesting thing is, no matter where you are – be it Macedonia, Moldova, Brazil, Nepal or India: children always play in the same way. Playing is a worldwide phenomenon. They may have different things, sometimes just a few plastic bottles, sometimes fantastic toys, but the impulse to get to know the world comes to expression through play. It is an archetypal human impulse. 

A child in the Syrian war zone, for example, has completely shut down. They are traumatised, so disturbed in their archetypal trust that no human encounter is possible. You have to try to give them space, a protected space. There they can feel safe and open up again … Or another example: we just received an enquiry from the Goethe Institute in Hanoi. It is a desperate situation: the children have stopped playing and it is impossible to teach some of them. 

This is what motivates me so much in this work. Creating spaces in which children can feel at ease and start their biography in as healthy a way as possible. 

EK: Do you also collaborate with schools in this field? 

BH: We regularly had and have projects with schools, for example with the well-known Helene Lange school in Wiesbaden. One time, when I asked teachers in a workshop, “On the basis of the existing layout, what would you like your school to look like?”, the transient nature of lessons turned out to be a huge problem. A French teacher said: “I would love to have a pavilion which I would turn into a French cafe, which would be my space. It is so difficult when I come into a room in which there was an unsuccessful maths lesson beforehand. By the time I have changed the atmosphere in the room the lesson is half over.” So, this question of rhythm! Schools have to become places of learning and life which are organised in a completely different way. 

EK: In other words, school is still much too traditional? 

BH: Yes. And this system cannot be reformed. After all, reform means building on what was there before. But the change has to be fundamental. 

EK: What might that look like? Does it relate to new spatial concepts, a new architecture? 

BH: Not only, but rather to the whole way of teaching. Martin Kramer from the Mathematical Institute in Freiburg teaches mathematics in the woods for example. There arithmetic can be understood a lot better because everything exists in nature. He says: I don’t need a classroom to do mathematics. In the woods the pupils engage to a much greater extent with the content because they experience something and know why. 

EK: What perspectives could the schools and kindergartens be presented with from your artistic viewpoint? 

BH: There are two stories which are of central importance at pre-school and kindergarten age. That I create elemental spaces – that is also why we were involved in founding Living Circle (www.livingcircle.de). We want to show: what are the elemental cycles of life? Where for example does water come from? Or heat? All the circular systems that are normally hidden in buildings. There should be a much greater openness for these things in kindergartens and schools. Put crudely: keeping children cooped up like hens, as still happens in some schools, makes learning a lot more difficult. There have to be a variety of islands of learning and experience. Some schools are increasingly waking up to the fact that living spaces should be created into which the children and young people can enter and which communicate a concretely vivid and directly accessible perspective. Knowledge, learning is a side product, it is not at the centre. 

EK: In what direction will the development of Kukuk continue? 

BH: The area of natural spaces is going to continue to be developed. One guiding question is: how can a meaningful encounter with nature take place? Second guiding question: under what conditions can children grow up healthily? It will become increasingly important in future that we enable the generation that is growing up a healthy start into their biography. I cannot think of a more important task right now because we will not leave a simple field for this start. 

EK| How can this be implemented in the urban space? 

BH: I gave a lecture to town planners on the subject of “The playable town”. In front of such an audience it of course sounded paradoxical when I claimed that playgrounds are a declaration of bankruptcy of society. They are children’s play ghettos. The whole environment is hostile to children. Playgrounds show: there has been neglect in allowing children to expand their circles gradually for themselves from the centre of their lives, that is through play, wherever they are. An urban space should actually be such that a child can always and everywhere play. That is also the fundamental problem of schools: they should never be separate from but must be embedded in the natural environment of the child. Instead we build fences around schools and security personnel guard the entrances. We segregate all spheres of life and playgrounds are a particular ghetto. 

EK: Are there already concrete plans in this direction? 

BH: I just went to see Herbert Dreiseitl again, an architect from Überlingen. We want to organise a symposium on the question: how can I create an urban environment in which it is worth living? All the major city planners are also certain that the mega cities will collapse with climate change in fifteen to twenty years. They are climatically unsustainable. Playgrounds, even if they provide “authentic” experiences, are no more than a fig leaf with regard to the really big questions that hides the really big problems. 

The interview was conducted by Mathias Maurer

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