Like many children growing up in a city, my first experience of public space was the playground. Fortunately, I grew up near a playground that was home to a beautiful suite of concrete horses designed by Constantino Nivola. Even as children, we appreciated that these were horses were different, and more than simple playground furniture.
“Tino” Nivola (1911 — 1988), born in Sardinia, was a brilliant artist and designer who imbued the subtle design of these horses and all his work with an Etruscan aesthetic that exuded mythology and heroic endeavor. The horses were not simply a call to play, but a call to our imaginations as well. The enduring success of this playground was not solely in the design of the horses, but in their placement as well. Through the arrangement of the horses in a circle, Nivola created a place for narrative and adventure. Simple playground furniture — designed thoughtfully and placed purposefully — was my introduction to the power of design to create engaging public environments.
In the early 1990s the horses were defaced, quite literally, in a manner similar to that of Visigoths breaking the noses and penises off of Roman statues to denude them of power or majesty. In this case the horses were the victims of a local crack addict whose life had fallen to ruin. Fortunately, the City had the horses repaired, and several generations more children were able to experience them.
In 2019 my alma mater, the Cooper Union, held a retrospective exhibit of Nivola’s work. It was one of the best exhibits Cooper has ever held. The exhibit displayed Nivola’s work in an thoughtful, almost archeological manner, and highlighted the universal and heroic qualities in the work. It was celebration not only of Nivola, but of the role and importance of art in the urban environment.
Last month, workmen repairing a water line at the Wise Tower destroyed the horses, quite literally, cutting them off at the knees. NYCHA stated that they will repair and restore the horses, but one wonders how this kind of — as it’s been called — “institutional vandalism” can occur. Is it a lack of art or urban design education on the part of city government bureaucrats? While Kevin Lynch highlighted the importance of monuments in his seminal, “The Image of the City,” it’s not like the role of public art in making cities more livable is a hot topic.
Hopefully much like the demolition of Penn Station in 1963, this unfortunate event will be a wake-up call to remind city officials and urban planners of the importance of art in the public realm. Quickly, before a work of greater renown is similarly destroyed.