March 23, 2018

Monstrous Fun In Concrete and Steel

Just a few miles east of Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley between the Puente Hills and the Montebello Hills, you'll find an area known as Whittier Narrows.

This former floodplain was urbanized and developed in the mid-20th century, its overflowing waters from the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo channelized into a reservoir by the Whittier Narrows Dam.

It's just another example of how communities tried to tame the wild nature of Southern California.

But some things cannot be contained or tamed.

This is true of monsters—whether of the land or sea—and of the monstrous children whom they fascinate.

Mexico City-born artist Benjamin Dominguez (1894-1974) seemed to understand this when he shifted his career focus away from zoo enclosures and concrete sculptures made to look like wood (faux bois a.k.a. trabajo rustico) and towards fantastical play areas in cities like El Paso and Las Vegas (whose "Fantasy Park" has been demolished).

His concrete beasts really captured the imaginations of the beastly tots who climbed them, despite their being unsafe for climbing.

And they still do.

The 1960s-era playground sculptures found in Whittier Narrows Recreation Area definitely put the “play” in “playground”...

...but they also maintain a certain amount of hazard that was once commonplace among children’s play areas.

The two-headed dragon (known decades ago as a "what's") and its neighbors are considered historic... they may not meet the modern-day codes of safety, though they certainly have beautified the "poetic landscape," as Dominguez originally intended.

So, while these sculptures are both decorative and functional, the park kind of has to advise you to exercise caution while playing.

But some of the most rewarding experiences in life are at least a little bit dangerous.

And while you may never find yourself face-to-face with an actual octopus, the monumental scale of the one created by Dominguez in concrete and steel is at least a thrilling approximation.

And where else but Legg Lake can you find a beached whale (referred to by Dominguez as just a "Fish")...

...its mouth gaping open, ready to be climbed into?

The only other place anywhere nearby is in San Gabriel at Vincent Lugo Park, whose monsters were also subsequently designed and built by Dominguez.

No dinosaur will eat you—not even as you sit on a mushroom-shaped stool and dare her to.

She'll just keep smiling as he waits for you to climb up on him and subsequently fall off... the Canadian geese and Brewer’s blackbirds start squawking like a Greek chorus narrating the tragedy that unfolds before them on the shores of these lakes in this 1492-acre recreation area.

But the "monsters" of Legg Lake actually have an incredible safety record. The only real damage that's been done is the displacement of the farms and residential communities that were here before the rivers were dammed and the park was created.

For historical photos, click here

Related Posts:
Vincent Lugo's Monster Park, and Its Forgotten Namesake
Photo Essay: The Extinction of Dinosaur Swampland

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