Folly Forest, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Trees, repurposed industrial tanks and paint were among the modest resources used in the Folly Forest project. Photo: Courtesy Dietmar Straub & Anna Thurmayr
Trees, repurposed industrial tanks and paint were among the modest resources used in the Folly Forest project. Photo: Courtesy Dietmar Straub & Anna Thurmayr

Ever have the urge to take a sledgehammer to a nasty patch of asphalt? Students, parents and teachers at Winnipeg’s Strathcona School, together with landscape architects Dietmar Straub and Anna Thurmayr, turned that urge into restorative action. With modest resources ($20 per square metre), but great resourcefulness, the team transformed a playground of hard tar into a terrain of soft spots for serious play. This schoolyard is no longer a paved lot to park children during recess.
It has become an enchanting outdoor classroom and community park.

The design includes a scattering of follies and dozens of trees sprouting from a constellation of skewed stars sliced into the ground. This primary design move subdued the asphalt while reinterpreting its chaotic geometry of grass-filled cracks as cues to renewal. Surface failures were seen as enabling a resilient return of natural growth.

Straub and Thurmayr pitched their strategy as a quintet of interventions: breaking open the asphalt; planting trees in newly exposed earth; filling gaps with soil and a permeable bricolage of salvaged bricks, cobblestones, logs and asphalt chunks; sowing prairie grasses; then finally, welcoming urban wildlife. This wildlife includes not just pretty birds and butterflies, but also bugs and earthworms.

As every kid should know, earthworms play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems by aerating the soil and ferrying nutrients from the surface to roots below. As much as Straub and Thurmayr designed for frolicking children (kindergarten to grade six), they also designed for burrowing invertebrates, providing thresholds—like trap doors in a stage floor—where lower and upper worlds meet. For these underground soil engineers, the pavement’s colourful array of fissures frame gateways up to daylit dirt, enabling them to do their work.

Together with the perforated dance floor for students, trees and worms, Straub and Thurmayr choreographed other socially constructive diversions. These include a dense archipelago of rocks (known as Rocky Island); a grassed-over mound formed by broken clumps of paving; a weathered array of tree trunk-like benches, made from beams recovered from a demolished stadium; and a surreal trio of upturned industrial tanks—rusty curiosities from Winnipeg’s Salvage Supermarket.

Each folly supports topographical play: hopping, climbing, balancing and running around in circles. The rich materiality and allusiveness of these rocks, mounds, beams and cauldrons also provoke peripatetic wondering and storytelling. Their strange presence recollects tales of origins and spurs imagination. Are they lookout towers for earthworms and nests for dinosaur eggs, as Straub purports? Or are they heads of magic mushrooms, emerging humps of an autochthonous monster, archaic bells, petrified beehives, or primitive huts for a genius loci?

Straub and Thurmayr, Associate Professors of Landscape Architecture at the University of Manitoba, call their design Folly Forest. This coupling of terms is telling. Whereas “forest” flags the primary design intention to conjure a host of trees, “folly” nods to the aesthetic delights of 18th-century pleasure gardens. In this forest, folly also leaps past foolery to recover its original Latin meaning of a shady retreat (think foliage) and the ephemeral play of leaves.

Since 2012, when the project was first planted, some saplings have succumbed and bright graphics have faded. Yet, as a catalyst for rethinking urban playgrounds and community design collaborations, Folly Forest is taking root, cultivating a collective ecological imagination.

Lisa Landrum is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.