David Hotson is a serious architect. He studied at the University of Waterloo before doing his masters at Yale. In his early career, in the late 1980s, he worked with fellow Yale alumni Maya Lin – famous for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial – on important projects such as the Museum for African Art in New York. After he started his own practice in the early 1990s, he helped with the redesign of Kofi Annan’s offices at the United Nations.
But Hotson, who was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Southern Ontario, also has an intensely playful side – as in, on the Willy Wonka magnitude of playful.
His Skyhouse Penthouse, completed in 2013, occupies the 21st through the 24th floors of a century-old skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. The overall aesthetic is entirely tasteful: spare rooms with iceberg white walls appointed with fine decor (lamps by the Netherlands’ Marcel Wanders, a Jean Paul Gautier sofa).
But it’s all a backdrop for an adult, indoor playground. There’s a swing, a four-storey rock-climbing pillar that towers up from the living room, and a reflective stainless-steel slide that worms through the entire apartment like a creature from a sci-fi movie. Justifiably, Fast Company magazine named it one of the year’s “coolest” houses. It exemplifies the kind of zaniness and whimsy that some homeowners are embracing to shake the doldrums of same-old modern design – even same-old everyday life. Hotson describes the space as an “immediate, present-tense experience,” where “the playful elements – the slide, the swing, the climbing column – provide a counterpoint, at once familiar and surreal, to the austere, dramatic, vertiginous, slightly disorienting spaces of the interior.”
“Children are a little delirious when they encounter the slide,” he says, “but adults also respond in a charmingly excited fashion.” And the effects can be felt just by standing in the space. “These elements provide a sharpened sense of the verticality of the penthouse, which suspends the attention of the visitor whether or not they decide to strap on a climbing harness and try to ascend the 50-foot tall main column or to plunge into the dark void of the slide and see where is leads.”
If Hotson’s apartment were an office space for a tech or advertising company, it would almost be normal. Starting in the late nineties, creative concerns started investing heavily in work-as-play environments. Foosball and pool tables became as regular as coffee makers and photocopiers. The idea being that unstructured activities would foster collaboration, ingenuity and innovation.
The trend was interrupted during the dot-com bust of the early aughts, and again by the last recession, but has picked up since. Google’s recently opened Toronto offices have meeting rooms shaped like camping tents and a roof-top putting green.
Corus Entertainment has a massive, three-storey slide corkscrewing through the atrium of its head offices on Toronto’s waterfront (the building was finished in 2011, with interiors by Quadrangle Architects).
Now it seems the trend is crossing over into residential spaces. Houses with indoor slides, skateboarding ramps and swings keep cropping up on international design blogs such as Dezeen, Design Boom and Architizer.
Among the most recent is Jerry House by a Thai architecture firm called Onion. A vacation property for a wealthy Chinese family, it has an atrium filled with circus nets where kids (and adults who wish they were still kids) can flip-flop around as though they were living in their own private amusement park.
Other notable projects include Panorama House by Korea’s Moon Hoon studio – with a sleek wooden slide that glides through a bookcase – and a Skate House developed by 29-year-old Austrian skateboarder Philipp Schuster, for which he retrofitted a Viennese villa with indoor skateboard ramps. The contrast of the concrete embankments and the traditional hunting lodge is actually startlingly effective. (Unfortunately, the project was just an exploration of what could be done to give new life to out-of-use dwellings, and the structure was later demolished).
This kind of house-as-amusement park, at least for the extremely wealthy, is not entirely new. Michael Jackson’s former estate, Neverland, was famous (then, darkly, infamous) for its childlike follies (including roller coasters and a zoo). In 2012, Jay-Z and Beyonce rented a Hampton’s mega-mansion for upward of $400,000 a month that came with an indoor half-pipe and bowling alley.
What’s different, though, is that this new crop of full-sized playhouses actually looks good, with architects paying as much attention to the aesthetics of the amusements, as to the amusements themselves. Whereas Jackson and Jay-Z’s places had a distinctly nauseating, too-grand pastiche quality, these newer projects are both elegant and absurdly fun.
Hotson, for example, was not influenced by Jay-Z. He looked to legendary, neoclassical architect Sir John Soane as an inspiration for layered, complex spaces; and contemporary Belgian-born artist Carsten Holler (who famously installed sleek, silver slides at London’s Tate Modern) for a way to make giddiness look gorgeous.
It might all seem highly indulgent, and, to be sure, it is. But play does have a purpose.
Researchers believe that play is essential for childhood development. In one often cited, 1960s study by psychiatrist Stuart Brown (founder of America’s National Institute for Play), a group of imprisoned Texas murders were found to have a striking similarity – all rarely had the opportunity to play as kids (due to social isolation, abuse or other reasons). Brown now advocates for the necessity of play as a tool for young people to develop key skills, including imagination, co-operation, empathy and self-control.
It’s no less crucial in adults. Simple, unstructured diversions are believed to decrease stress, improve emotional well-being and boost productivity. (The Googles of this world aren’t just doing it to be altruistic; they believe it helps with profitability).
Also, these play houses are not always as extravagant as villas or penthouses. Vladimir Zotov is a research scientist with the Canadian government. In 2011, he and his wife custom-built a four-bedroom home in Toronto’s north end around the idea of play. Hidden passageways connected the bedrooms of the two kids (ages three and eight at the time). A bright blue slide ribboned from the upper level into the family room.
In some ways, the house is modest – it’s not enormous, or particularly grand – but the fun elements were essential. Zotov’s wife was raised in poverty in Siberia, and, after coming to Canada in 1992, she was determined to, one day, give her kids the kind of lighthearted life she simply couldn’t have.
“The three-year-old was a bit scared of the slide at first, so I would slide with him,” Zotov says. “It took him a year to get used to. The eight-year-old loved it though. He used it every morning.”
Unfortunately, to get into a better school district, the Zotovs sold their house and moved last month. The slide was not an issue in the resale. “Some buyers asked how easy it would be to remove,” Zotov says. “But it’s like the beer commercial [for Alexander Keith’s]: Those who like it, like it a lot. And the new home owners, they like it a lot.”