Meet the Artist Behind Those Amazing, Hand-Knitted Playgrounds

Wonder Space II, by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Interplay, at Hakone Open Air Museum. Photo © Masaki Koizumi.

In a world of “dumbed-down,” down-right boring playgrounds, the colorful, architectural masterpieces of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam stand apart. The Japanese artist knits her amazing projects by hand – her most famous project, for example, inside the “Woods of Net” Pavilion at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan, took her about a year to complete

We took a moment to speak with Ms. Horiuchi MacAdam about the Pavilion and her other works, how they bridge the worlds of art and architecture, and how they irresistibly invite the world to . You can read our interview, and see more images of her fascinating work, after the break…

AD: Some of your earlier works, such as “Fibre Columns / Romanesque Church,” are very architectural in nature – were you inspired early on by architecture? How so?

When I was a student at Tama Fine Art University in Tokyo, we were introduced to the work of Antonio Gaudi by a professor of architecture. Eventually, in my late 20′s, I traveled to Europe and the Middle East. Of course, I went to Spain to see Gaudi’s work. I also traveled to Isfahan in Iran in particular to look at mosques. Both impressed me a great deal. Antonio Gaudi’s work, as you know, is based on studies of ‘naturally’ curved forms (catenaries) as determined by gravity, turned upside down.

When I was working as a textile designer in NYC, I began to question:

  • What does it mean to apply ‘surface’ design to textiles?
  • At its most basic, What is a ‘textile’?

These 2 questions grew in scope and importance for me and after 2 years I decided to leave the company I was working for (where they treated me very well), and begin searching for answers.

When I saw Antonio Gaudi’s work, I realized immediately his forms are naturally connected to textiles. And then when I saw the mosque at Isfahan, I realized the shape of the mosque and the inlaid tile-work covering its interior and exterior surfaces are not separate – one applied on top of the other -  but form part of the building’s fabric and geometry. The form of the building and the tile design work together to create a space of fantastic beauty and spirituality. I felt I found one of the answers I was looking for.

It took me fifteen years to find the answer to the other question; my thoughts on textile structures took shape as a book, From a Line. It explores the transformation of a linear element, thread, into 3-dimensional form.

“Fiber Columns/Romanesque Church” was created during this period of my life when I was deeply involved in researching  textile structures. I created this piece while participating in a tapestry symposium in Angers, France, whose venue was a Romanesque church. The first week was given over to discussions among the international participants.  The second week I settled on this space  – a vaulted arcade of semi-circular arches. I spent a full day sitting and absorbing the space, the light as well as the shadows cast by the columns, the sound of the bell.  An image came to mind.  I then took 2 and a half days for calculations:  the area, the amount of material available, the rate at which I could work, the technique. I set a plan and stuck to it diligently.  For two and a half weeks I worked and on the final day was able to install the piece (with some help).  I was quite satisfied with what I had accomplished in 3 weeks.

AD: To what extent do you consider yourself an architect?

THM: Most of my artwork involves architectural ideas or references. I am interested in how form is created through tension and the force of gravity including the weight of the material itself and textile structures. It is the intersection of art and science – like geometry – which we observe in nature.  But I don’t think of myself as an architect.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, knitting one of her sculptures. Photo © Charles MacAdam.

AD: All of your work is hand-made: how does that fact change your relationship to the structures you create? 

THM: My works are mostly made by hand, but in certain pieces (our ‘SpaceNet’ play environments, for example,  as well as ‘Luminous’ a theatrical stage curtain – I have incorporated a mechanically knotted net).  However, it begins from my hands.

Each work is one-of-a-kind.  As I work the image takes shape in my mind’s eye. It is as if the image is telling my hands what to do – which is why it is difficult to use other people’s hands. When I am using my hands, my brain focuses, the image becomes clearer, technical solutions come to mind.

I create a space using fiber and textile structure. It is fascinating how textile structures yield very different forms from different types of material. The construction technique, the weight of the yarn and gravity work together to create natural  forms.

AD: Your structures are intriguing to adults and children because they are so interactive. What motivated the decision to get your structures out of the gallery and into the real world? 

As an artist I had been exhibiting my work in museums and galleries.  At the same time, I was searching: what do I value in life? Who am I? Why do I create these works? Why do I pour so much energy into my work? Throughout this time I created a few works of importance, but at heart I was not fully satisfied.

One day I was exhibiting a 3-dimensional open-work textile sculpture I had created in collaboration with a friend.  Some children came to the gallery and climbed into it. Suddenly the piece came to life.  My eyes were opened. I realized I wanted just such a connection between my work and people alive at this moment in time (not a hundred years from now). I realized I was in fact making works for children.  It was an exciting moment for me.

I was teaching at the Bunka Institute in Tokyo at the time and with 2 of my students I began to look carefully at the situation for children, in particular regard to play.  We spent the next three years, mostly weekends, visiting all the parks and playgrounds in central Tokyo.

The result of our research was depressing. At the time the country was narrowly focused on economic development; few were considering the effects on children of growing up in cramped, high-rise apartments, watching television, often an only child without brothers or sisters to interact with.  I was very worried about this.  After all children have no choice in the matter. We wrote an article for a national newspaper expressing our concerns.

We need to create spaces for children to play with each other. Children learn through play, grow emotionally and imaginatively; they develop social skills, learn to cooperate, and gain wisdom about life. It is essential they use their bodies, challenge themselves, have fun, sweat and laugh with others.  Organized, competitive sports alone will not fill this need.

As a woman I hoped to have children one day.  I felt I needed to do something to bring even a little change. I saved pennies from my free-lance design work, by which I supported myself, and bought material.  I made the first piece specifically for children in 1971. I donated it to a kindergarden designed by Hatsue Yamada, a well-known Japanese female architect.  The result was promising.  I made a second piece for an exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto.  Both these pieces were made with a twisted rope made of vinylon (PVA fiber) which was developed in Japan.  It is more durable than natural fibers and does not rot, but its usefulness was limited.  I knew nylon to be superior but could not afford to work with it at that time.

Wonder Space II, by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Interplay, at Hakone Open Air Museum. Photo © Masaki Koizumi

Finally in 1979 a chance arose to work with landscape architect Fumiaki Takano for a new national park under construction in Okinawa. I created 2 crochet nets as well as a large machine-knotted playspace using nylon 6.  They were a great success.  Not long after this, I visited Hakone Open Air Museum where I had exhibited “Atmosphere of the Forest.” After explaining the project I had done in Okinawa, the curator explained that the Museum’s founder was keen to have a sculptural work for children – but one which they could touch and experience with all their senses.

It was an exciting idea and I made a proposal which was accepted.  I ordered 650kg of braided nylon which I dyed in 1 kg lots.  It took 3 months just to dye the material.  I then spent a year crocheting and assembling the piece, “Unknown Pockets: A Gift.” Its English title is “Knitted Wonder Space.” The piece drew many visitors including families and schoolchildren, as many as 6000 in a single day. It was deeply satisfying to have made a connection with people at this moment in time.

Most infants are cradled in the womb for 9 months. After birth, many cultures place the newborn in a kind of cradle when it is not in its mother’s arms.  The cradle mimics the rocking, floating motion inside the womb. Babies are soothed and sleep peacefully. The crochet forms I make resemble the mother’s womb.  The soft, elastic surface is familiar to the child. The net membrane is sensitive to the child’s slightest movement capturing his energy and transmitting it back to him. The wave-like motion of the net connects him with other children and they start playing together. Their creative minds start to move and they find new ways of playing. They respond to each other. It is sometimes hard to entice children out of the net; they can sometimes be lost in it for 3-4 hours.

All children can play together. They do not have to be athletic, but can still use their whole bodies for fun – laughing, giggling and screaming.  They have a great time together.  Often older children help smaller children.  They try to dazzle each other with their ingenious and acrobatic feats.

Wonder Space II, by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Interplay, at Hakone Open Air Museum. Photo © Masaki Koizumi

AD: Would you agree that a great playscape is one that allows children to take risks? Would you consider your structures risk-encouraging environments?

I agree. Children need to cope with risk.  They enjoy a challenge but by nature are very careful.  Presented with a play structure which does not challenge them, they quickly grow bored… and then break them.

If you give them a challenging play environment, well designed so children can assess risk, they will not get hurt. Our structures encourage children to challenge themselves but with many routes and options.  There is no program of play.  There are always alternatives. Each child plays at the level he or she is comfortable with.  From forty years’ experience I have learned a little about children’s psychology.

Some groups of children come regularly to play on their own; their play is fantastic.  They know what they are capable of and then stretch just a little further, becoming more and more adept. Some of their maneuvers are heart-stopping to a bystander – but they know what they are doing.

Often it is parents who are the problem. They seem to have forgotten what it was like to be a child.

Wonder Space II, by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Interplay, at Hakone Open Air Museum. Photo © Masaki Koizumi

AD: Regarding the Woods of Net pavilion in Hakone, arguably your most famous work… Were you in conversation with the architects who constructed the pavilion which housed the nets? What did you want the relationship to be between interior and exterior? 

For this project, the architects Yuhi and Takaharu Tezuka offered to make a ‘frame’ for my work. They knew the earlier ‘Knitted Wonder Space’ which I created in 1981. It lasted 28 years under the Museum staff’s very good care. However, it had been installed in a rather conventional modern building. 2009 was the Museum’s 40th Anniversary, and they asked me to create a new piece for the occasion.

The Tezukas had been working on a new master plan for the Museum’s future direction. They felt the old location did not do justice to my work and proposed the idea of collaborating together to create a new space. I read about their work, met them, and immediately liked their way of thinking and the creativity they showed in the images they presented. My one concern was who would be able to engineer this crazy fantastic building. I could think of only one person, Mr. Norihide Imagawa, who is one of the most innovative structural designers in Japan. Mr. Tezuka was taken aback when I mentioned his name and  said it would not be possible to bring someone of his stature into the project.  However, I met Mr. Imagawa and his staff that night and he agreed to do it.

For the purpose of brainstorming the many issues connected with the project, Mr.Imagawa proposed we take a 24-hour break from our daily routines (and phones) and retire to a teahouse in Kyoto. We spent the time discussing every aspect of the project without distractions. The broad outlines of the project solidified during this meeting. After I returned to Canada, we communicated by e-mail. I think this was a telling experience: three strong-willed people working together, working through every aspect of the project to find solutions.

AD: You were also in conversation with engineers throughout the construction of the installation – did that change the resultant form of the structure?

This was the largest wooden structure built in Japan in the last several hundred years.  There were many issues to address and the structure evolved as the work advanced.  It is remarkable in the type of joinery used – just wooden wedges and pegs – without mechanical fasteners of any kind.  Mr Imagawa is fascinated by traditional temple architecture, but this structure would not have been possible without modern CAD software and numerically controlled milling equipment.  It is a brilliant solution in how it transfers the loading from the net.

AD: Why is it important to you that your structures are inhabited by human life? 

I live in this world at this moment in time. We are all part of society.  It gives me joy to contribute my talent, my experience as an artist to those around me.  My works are much loved by children.  After many years, though, they will become worn out and disappear.  But these children will have had a great time and will remember these moments.  From this experience (and I have seen this already) some will grow up and make something new themselves.

I like textiles as a material – thin, flexible and strong.  After so many years’ use it becomes worn out and disappears, just as each human life does …

AD: To what extent do you feel that architecture has a responsibility to inspire human interaction? 

I believe architects work for people alive today and for the future. Where we live, work and find joy has a great influence on people’s lives. I think architects have a great responsibility. My suggestion is to try to work with people from other disciplines and in so doing try to transcend one’s own ego.

Wonder Space II, by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Interplay, at Hakone Open Air Museum. Photo © Masaki Koizumi

More About Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam  attended Cranbrook Academy of Art after completing undergraduate studies in fine art in her native Japan. Her first job after graduating was as a house designer at Boris Kroll Fabrics, one of the most prestigious interior textile firms in New York City. 

She has taught at Columbia University Teachers College, Haystack Mountain School, the University of Georgia, Bunka Institute (Tokyo) and the Kyoto Junior College of Art. She was asked to give a lecture tour of Australia by the Australian embassy in Tokyo, and was invited to the Hawaiian Craftsman 25th Anniversary as guest artist and workshop leader. She has juried international textile competitions. 

In 1985 she published a two-volume reference work on textile structures entitled from a line. She has also written a handbook on embroidery techniques as well as a series of 16 lengthy articles documenting traditional textiles and craftsmen for Senshoku no bi, a textile company. She is currently regular part-time faculty in textiles at NSCAD University in Canada.

During the past 40 years she has exhibited work in museums and galleries in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia. She has executed designs for the stage, and worked as consultant for public parks in Okinawa, central Japan, and Malaysia. Her “Atmosphere of the Floating Cube,” a knitted sculptural work, is in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. It was recently exhibited at the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art in a survey of major Japanese textile artists of the 20th century.  A large stage curtain entitled “Luminous”was commissioned for Nonoichi City Culture Center’s main hall.

Her first large playspace for children was at Okinawa Memorial National Park, followed by a commission for the Hakone Open Air Museum.

In 1990 she and her husband, Charles MacAdam established Interplay Design & Manufacturing, Inc, to develop and promote these textile play environments on a commercial footing.  They have created ‘public art for kids’ in national, prefectural and municipal parks in Japan as well as Singapore Zoological Gardens, Moon River Art Park (Shanghai) and Gana Art Gallery’s JangHeung Art Park near Seoul, Korea.

In 2009 they installed Knitted Wonder Space II at Hakone Open Air Museum. It was featured in an article in Public Art Review, a U.S. journal. Their works have also appeared in the New York Times as well as Design for Fun: Playgrounds and  Great Kids Spaces, both books on inventive children’s playspaces published in Europe, as well as numerous other books and periodicals in the U.S., Japan, Canada and elsewhere.  

They recently completed an outdoor piece for a ‘model’ elementary school in central Tokyo and a project for a municipal park in Zaragoza, Spain.  This piece, their first in Europe, was certified compliant with European safety standard for children’s play structures by an internationally recognized testing agency. They are currently developing projects in Canada and the U.S.  

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Meet the Artist Behind Those Amazing, Hand-Knitted Playgrounds" 28 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=297941>