A giant stainless steel whale on wheels is perched on the hill. Unexpectedly, it starts to move, picking up speed until it is careening down the hillside, rattling the whole way, squeals of joy coming from within. Riding the sculpture like a billy cart are around 30 children, all having the time of their lives!

For designer Ben Gilbert, this was a turning point. Seeing one of his sculptures being commandeered by excited young people, he decided to shift his focus from sculptures to something more interactive. Since then, he’s been challenging the mould for playgrounds, to create pieces which inspire and tell the story of the people who play on them.

The fun [the kids] had doing that made me realise this is what I am interested in creating.”

 –Ben Gilbert

Ben Gilbert, founder and director of Agency of Sculpture, studied fine art and sculpture all over the world before returning to his home town of Yackandandah in regional Victoria. He initially worked as a sculptor and designer, making commission pieces and entering competitions. However, Ben was seeking more than that. He was seeking a place and a purpose for the sculptures he created.

Ben was bored with how unimaginative and ‘cookie cutter’ most playgrounds are. He also found it frustrating to see sculptures which looked fun and exciting for young people to play on, being roped off with a big DO NOT TOUCH sign. In response to these problems, Ben started designing playgrounds that reflect their surroundings, and make powerful statements about our world.

The playground at Mount Beauty Foreshore, Eddy, is inspired by the story of the town. It was also informed by the local community, including the kids who would use it. When the local children were shown a range of plans, they voted for Ben’s design.

Another of Ben’s playgrounds, Poppies, in Fitzroy, Melbourne, has giant flower climbing frames made from reclaimed conveyor belts. Solar panel petals power the playground. The structure silently asks us questions about energy in Australia and encourages the young people who play on it to start conversations with each other about this important issue. With each playground he designs, Ben is breathing new life into communities and challenging young people to think about the world they live in.

What advice would Ben give those who might want to work in design and sculpture? Back your own horse, and be prepared to make a lot of mistakes. And if you’re learning from those mistakes, then you’re on the right track!

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