Monday, April 25, 2011


Photo from: together structure/slideshow.asp 

‘Who would think to build something like that?’ That’s what Eric Lennartson thought when he saw a photograph of a sculpture in a weekly e-mail from an architecture magazine.  Eric is an architect in Mankato (MN) and on the board of the emerging Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (CMSM). Fascinated by this art installation and excited to see evidence of children using it, Eric thought it would fit in with the kind of experiences the emerging museum was interested in for its Play Lab. CMSM’s temporary base of operation, Play Lab is introducing the children's museum to the community while it is focusing on how exhibits play with children and families and how children and families play with exhibits. 

Plastic wrap stretched across the steel frame
CMSM’s TapeScape is exactly that–a landscape made of packaging tape. Plastic shrink-wrap has been stretched back-and-forth from end-to-end of an L-shaped steel pipe structure about 32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H. More shrink-wrap was wrapped and woven cross-wise around the first strips to strengthen the structure, shape the tubes, and thicken the surfaces. Long tubular shapes narrow in the middle and flare at the ends. About 15 miles of tape was used to cover the surfaces of the arms and legs of the TapeScape creating smooth, continuous surfaces with almost gyroidal form. Upper surfaces covered in clear tape give a pleasant light-filled quality to the space; lower surfaces covered with colored tape add a landscape quality.

Twisting and Somewhat Tubular
Tubular forms take shape
The unusual construction offers equally unusual possibilities for exploration. No surfaces are horizontal, none are vertical, and they are all difficult to name and describe. Surfaces curve, slope, and twist. The “floor” eases into the side of the structure which gradually becomes the ceiling. Plastic wrap and tape stretched tautly around the metal frame produce springy surfaces. Negotiating the springy, curving surface is challenging, unpredictable, and the source of laughter and humility. Even with practice, walking or crawling on the undulating surface changes immediately when someone else approaches; the impact of their weight sends waves of motion across the surface. And there are always others in TapeScape because it is an attractive, engaging, and social space.

Unexpected ripples in the responsive surface challenge and inspire children’s and adults’ movements. Stand where the floor slopes up as someone passes by and suddenly you will be sliding down on your backside; the soft and easy landing is simply too inviting not to do it again very much on purpose. Crawl up the side and let yourself slide back; do it with a friend or two or three in shared delight. Take a running start, drop to your knees and you can feel like you are making a sensational slide into home base.

The challenges of slopes, rises and ripples
Some of these examples may seem to peg TapeScape as a funhouse feature. It does invite big movements like the bouncy inflatables common at fairs and festivals. TapeScape surfaces, however, are not as responsive. Big, bouncy, repetitive movements don’t yield satisfying effects. But sliding, spilling, falling, crawling, rolling, twisting; on your front, back, or side; head or feet first is extremely satisfying.

These physical challenges have significant value for younger children. If you have just learned to crawl or walk on an even and stable surface, adjusting your balance to navigate an undulating surface is quite an accomplishment. You may be able to walk up a small firm slope in the front yard, but what will happen when the floor becomes the wall? Opportunities for developing and practicing spatial awareness and skills in TapeScape are plentiful and varied. For children as well as for adults, practice in negotiating an ambiguous space with people moving in unpredictable ways is highly valuable. 

TapeScape is a good example of the More Varied Environments for children I wrote about here recently. It’s a sculptural somewhat ambiguous environment. It’s immersive, but not thematic. It affords full-body movement and sensory exploration that is not readily available in homes, neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds, nature centers, or museums. With its novel use of familiar materials it is fresh and innovative and sustains interest. The experience, or play, value TapeScape offers is high, in fact, very high.

A Changing Landscape
Building TapeScape took place right there on the Play Lab floor over several weeks. Children and adults saw the pipes go up and the structure take shape. They watched as the layering, wrapping, and scaping came into view. Because Eric and his fellow tapescapers were also visiting Play Lab and watching as children and adults used it, TapeScape has continued to evolve. Modifications have been added, and repairs have been made.

Adding a horizontal (red) tube slowed down the running.
Since the very beginning, running through the giant tubes has had great appeal for not only children but adults as well.  To manage the running, both to reduce collisions and extend the life of the structure, new tubes have been grown selectively. A red horizontal tube lowered the overhead clearance and slowed traffic. (See photo at right.) More recently a vertical tube was added to create two chambers out of one larger one. The materials allow these relatively simple changes; cut a hole, add plastic wrap, and surface with tape. This same approach has been used to repair a rupture and to add a porthole. (Notice the yellow sun in the photo above.) The technique will be used to add a spiral in one area and add peepholes in others for viewing children’s art work.

TapeScape is in a permanent state of prototyping. The ability to slice-and-tape to repair and shape means the structure can evolve based on use. Play Lab staff and volunteers have brought an experimental mindset to TapeScape. They are using weekly observations, discussion, an interest in extending play and understanding how children explore and use space to rethink and change TapeScape.

TapeScape straddles an interesting and unusual position for a museum exhibit. It is unashamedly plastic and, in fact, fascinating because of the responsiveness and light qualities of the plastic. On the one hand it has an elegant gyroidal shape and, on the other, it is relatively unfinished with low production values compared to most exhibits.

Requiring about 200 volunteer hours to build, another 100 hours to make changes and repairs, and about $5,000 in materials, TapeScape has been a nimble response by a resourceful young museum to finding experiences that support its mission and goals, engage its audience, and offer insights into play and exploration.

A Sticky Idea
TapeScape seems to have immediate appeal. Eric first saw the image of the structure in October 2010. Construction began in January 2011 and TapeScape was open and fully owned by Play Lab visitors in February. I have been fortunate and fascinated to see it grow so quickly on my monthly visits to Play Lab. In just a few months, it’s also drawn interest from several museums and museum planners.

This marvelous structure won’t last forever. It probably isn’t able to stand up to tens-of-thousands of museum visitors. And in May when Play Lab closes its doors, TapeScape will become a huge tape ball. TapeScape, no doubt, has a promising and interesting future. Maybe you’ll find it at a museum near you.

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