The Story of a Monster

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Niki de Saint Phalle’s first architectural playground titled The Golem in Israel. It is located in the Kiryat Hayovel district of Jerusalem, in Rabinovich Park.

black and white cement sculpture of a monster with three red tongues
Photograph: Courtesy of Tesra Building Conservtion and Renovation Ltd., 2022

The Golem is a massive public outdoor sculpture – a black and white dragon with three red tongues for slides. The play structure, also called  “HaMifletzet” or “The Monster”, was constructed by the artist for the children of Jerusalem. 

The journey to the creation of this “Monster” began in 1969, with the Israel Museum. Martin Weyl was the sculpture curator of the museum at this time as well as the artistic advisor to Teddy Kollek, the popular and beloved mayor of Jerusalem (1965-1993). Weyl was in New York when he saw Le Paradis Fantastique in Central Park. This was a traveling exhibition consisting of 9 painted sculptures and 6 black kinetic machines; an artistic collaboration between Saint Phalle and her husband, Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely. 

Weyl considered the possibility of Saint Phalle creating a sculpture playground in Jerusalem, but had not yet met the artist. Weyl asked Willem Sandberg, the famous Dutch museum director who was a founding chairman and visiting director of the Israel Museum, to introduce him to Saint Phalle. Sandberg knew Saint Phalle from previous exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum where he was the director until 1963. 

black and white image of the construction site  and to the left a marker drawing of the sculpture project, a monster with three slides on a spiral notebook paper
Construction site and sketch drawing of Golem. Photo: NCAF Archives

At first, the museum wanted the artwork built on their property however it was important for Saint Phalle to build on a location that had a great open space and that was also in an underdeveloped, poor area of the city. When Weyl suggested creating a playground in the urban district of Kiryat Hayovel, she enthusiastically agreed.

The artist’s idea of creating a frightening, monumental monster that spits children out of its red mouth alarmed the community. Parents were so concerned this monster would scare their children that it was rejected immediately by the city council, specifically the Jerusalem Parks Commission. Mayor Teddy Kollek convinced the commission to vote once more on the project, and the second time it was approved.

At a 1996 lecture “Niki de Saint Phalle. Reflections on her Art” at the University of San Diego, Saint Phalle spoke about the significance of creating a monstrous creature for a playground. She explained that it was a way for children to conquer their fears, to turn something terrifying into something fun and playful.

the sculpture maquette
Maquette pour Le Golem, 1972. Painted plaster. 64 x 114 x 118 cm. Collection Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Saint Phalle’s construction team consisted of Jean TinguelyPaul Wiedmer, and Rico Weber. Tinguely was in charge of building the iron sculpture, with the help of Wiedmer and Weber. The trio welded many pieces of iron and worked long hours to complete The Golem. Saint Phalle remembered the commission asking why so much more scrap iron had been used than originally planned: 

Jean had got it into his head that if Jerusalem was one day destroyed by bombs, one single edifice would survive: The Golem. He had therefore asked Rico to make a chassis of scrap iron dense enough to resist anything. The Golem is a fully-fledged bunker.” 

Niki de Saint Phalle. La Fabrica/Guggenueim Bilbao, 2015

photos of the work crew and artists on the metal contract of the sculpture
From top: Paul Wiedmer, Rico Weber, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

Once the steel frame was in place, it was covered with cement by spraying concrete onto the frame. With the help of local workers in the community, The Golem was completed in 7 months. The structure measured 8 x 14 x 16 meters. The face of the dragon was painted black and white, with hollow eyes and a red open mouth that led to 3 tongues that children could slide down. There was a winding staircase up the back of the dragon and the hollow base served as a seating area.

color photo of the finished Golem sculpture with children on the slides
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

The inauguration, which took place on Nov 4th, 1972, was staged as a big party for children. There were balloons and flags and a huge crowd of kids. They were climbing up and down the slides, waiting in line to get to the mouth of the dragon.

children queue in line on the stairs of the Golem sculpture
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate
“I made a three-tongued monster which spits the kids out. I’m really proud of it. Nobody knew me in Jerusalem. I called it The Golem but they all call it The Monster. And it’s the work itself that’s known, not the artist. That was a triumph for me. I was really pleased." 

Faure, L. and Julien, A. An Architect’s Dream. DVD. France: Ideale Audience, 2014

Quickly, the insides of the Golem were covered in wall drawings and messages, which the artist took as a sign for Jerusalem having not only accepted but embraced the sculpture.

Inside of the Golem (in the Monster’s stomach) is a treasure. A place where children and adults can play and dream in. They have covered the walls with drawings and signs of their own.” 

Saint Phalle, Niki de. The birth of a Monster. Jerusalem: ASP, 1972

children playing on the inside of the Golem sculpture in the sand
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

In 2007, in honor of the 35th anniversary of The Golem, the massive sculpture was cleaned up and repainted by professionals as well as students from the neighborhood working side by side. 

In 2014, a proposed extension of the light rail system threatened the landscape and size of the surrounding area of The Golem. The expansion of this transit system would result in cutting down hundreds of trees that surround the sculpture, as well as decreasing the size of the land that The Golem sits on (which would result in an overall decrease in playground area).  An online petition to request an alternative plan that would not destroy the park was signed by over 3000 people and presented to the municipal commission. Sadly, this was not enough and the “Monster Park” was decreased in size, although the sculpture itself remained intact.

Then in 2016, the city built many high-rise apartments surrounding The Golem, overshadowing and crowding the artwork even more so. Instead of beautiful trees providing natural shade over the sculpture, tall buildings tower over it now.

Saint Phalle’s vision of a large open space surrounded by the luscious greenery of trees has been diminished over the years due to city expansion and real estate development.

In spite of these detrimental changes, positive developments have occurred as well. An extensive restoration project took place this past year which resulted in the park closing for a period of time. The entire sculpture was stripped of its existing paint, cracks were patched up and smoothed out, then fresh vibrant paint was applied once more.

a construction crew is restoring the Golem sculpture with a blue crane while the red slides are covered
Photograph: Courtesy of Tesra Building Conservation and Renovation Ltd., 2022

The decades-old railing was also replaced to ensure safety for the many children that would climb up the monster’s back and slide down one of its 3 radiant red tongues for many years to come.

The Golem, Niki de Saint Phalle’s first commissioned outdoor public sculpture is considered a landmark in Jerusalem. Children and adults have enjoyed this “monster park” for years; parents who climbed up the winding stairs to slide down gleefully on the red tongues now bring their own children to experience the joy of this seemingly frightening monster. This sculpture also serves as the first stepping stone to Saint Phalle’s dream of building a massive sculpture garden park which would later be realized in the creation of the Tarot Garden.

a view of the Golem playground with mother and child playing in 1992
Photo: Laurent Condominas, 1992

The popularity of the playground was expressed best by Mayor Teddy Kollek in a letter he wrote to Saint Phalle, stating that The Golem had more visitors than the sacred Western Wall. (Steinberg, Jessica. Jerusalemites fear for the Monster Slide Park. Times of Israel, 20 Feb. 2014 ).

The Golem in Jerusalem is the sculpture I’m most proud of… Day after day hundreds of children play on her and dream. They have conquered the Monster.." 

Saint Phalle, Niki de. The birth of a Monster. Jerusalem: ASP, 1972

Niki de Saint Phalle and children in a workshop create models of monsters in clay
Photo: Leonard Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank Dr. Martin Weyl for his insight and help with this blog.

the word golem spelled in the artist's stylized letters