The dangers of thinking safe by Mike Hewson
Embracing risk is really just part of embracing life.
That’s why it is important to encourage exploratory and risk-taking behavior in an everyday public setting. We can’t put handrails around everything and even if we could I don’t think it would really benefit us.
I came across these words belonging to Mike Hewson, which he has spoken during the TEDxSidney talk Playing with risk: The dangers of thinking safe, in August 2022.
My eyes watered during the speech, just when he explained the roots of his work and the vulnerability, impermanence, and volatility he uses as grounds for his concepts.
Mike Hewson is the New Zealand installation artist who has designed the public playground Rocks On Wheels in Southbank, Melbourne.
The sculpture park consists of 24 monolithic bluestone boulders placed on what appear to be furniture dollies, making the park a place for kids to experiment space.
“What are we losing if we potentially blindly focus on reducing risk?”
Mike Hewson, TEDxSydney, 2022
At a first glance, everyone might be stung by such a risky approach, especially when it comes to children. But that’s exactly the point.
In this regard, during the TEDx in Sydney, the artist retrace his career: he is a visual artist with a background in structural engineering and heavy civil construction.
The stage of his first work was the dangerous and unpredictable Ocean, which theoretically collided with risk reduction practice and permanent-oriented constructions he projected as a structural engineer, at that time. “You can escape risks but you can’t escape danger”, says Hewson remarking on the vulnerability of things during his journeys in the open seas.
Fixed points fell definitively apart when an earthquake stroke in Christchurch and the stable city he was living in suddenly became like the wild Ocean, dangerous and unpredictable, while everything become temporary and vulnerable.
The sensation of the possibility of things in rapid change took his inspiration to another level. “Now I make artworks, in public places. Large, permanent, usually climbable things in unsupervised places filled with children, parents, teenagers where everything could go wrong”, jokes Hewson talking about his works.
Nature is a pillar, such as the intersection of the final artifact with it. The “casual” order of things retraces the organic power of the spaces outside the city order.
“The assumption of the 21st century is that everything should be on one track, we should be safer, ordered, predictable and efficient”, says Hewson talking about people getting concerned or surprised by his works.
His playgrounds deliberately want to depict the most valuable experience for children, who discover limits in a little society, the one they build with their friends within a no-patterned environment.
“But that’s not the reality we live in! So why do we try and like live as if it’s always going to be good? How can we ensure the kids live adventures, or be prepared in life or ourselves when we get thrown up on the high seas?”
Mike Hewson, TEDxSydney, 2022
In his work with playgrounds, he is keenly interested in observing how kids want to interact with things, like climbing, understands dangers, explore real risks, and learn how to keep themselves safe.
For the children, everything is potentially a playground (Hewson often incorporates old trees and organic objects into the landscape) and the designer is called to mirror users’ needs and enhance human instincts as well as behaviors.
By eliminating risks, the cities eliminate the research and the self-awareness in favor of a standardized message. Reality becomes an artifact and people become weaker.
His award-winning projects lay a new foundation for merging conceptual art projects into the public realm by proving that things that are considered untenable in a public setting can be achieved.
With Hewson, the playground regains its architectural signification as well as an investigative function where it is placed.
As reported in the article I wrote for ADF Caring the city, caring the children: M. Paul Friedberg’s inspired handcraft playgrounds for a post-covid Kokomo No Kuni, until the 1980s, architects and designers focused on risky projects around city parks.
The playground represented a laboratory, a discovery center and a new focal point for the city, around which both designers and users could express themselves.
From the 1900s, with the emerging child psychology, the parks were transformed from mere functional places equipped with steel pipes and gymnastic equipment into creative design experiments: by modifying the concept linked to the fun of the child while transforming the playgrounds into a canvas for the architects, designers, urban planners for bringing out social experiments in the cities.
Van Eyck transformed the city of Amsterdam which was destroyed by the war into a dreamlike place, Mitsuru Senda exacerbated the tragedy of the bombing with colors, M. Paul Friedberg wrote and published Handcrafted Playgrounds - Design You Can Build Yourself to give the tools to the community for joining a joyful experience in building a different future and environments developed for children by the children.
Hewson returns to the argument in order to avoid standard environments and empower city management as the child’s role.
Each project aims to catalyze a fresh conversation about how the bureaucratic and managerial aspects of power are shaping our public lives, asking if we like that shape or if we’d like to consider other options.