Friday, April 16, 2010

Designer of the Month: Isamu Noguchi

Week 3: playgrounds and gardens

Isamu Noguchi is best known for his sculpture, but he also spent much of his life trying to find different ways in which to make sculpture useful in everyday life. Last week, we looked at two of these methods, his commercially produced designs for furniture and interiors. This week's focus is going to take us mainly outdoors, to Noguchi's designs for playgrounds and gardens.

Isamu Noguchi, Model of Play Mountain, 1933. Plaster. Unrealized. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Unfortunately, the above model is all we have of Noguchi's first playground design, Play Mountain, from 1933.[1] It was the beginning of an ongoing exploration for Noguchi of playgrounds as sculptural landscapes, and was certainly ahead of its time. Here's how he describes this project:

This was an original concept to expand playable space in a given city lot by tilting the surface into vari-dimensional steps of a pyramid, or of a roof, whose interior could also be used. In the shape of a spiral; the ridge is a slide for sleds in winter. There is another steeper slide with water flowing into a shallow pool. Along one side of Play Mountain is a swimming pool and one the other side a bandstand. The music would be heard by people sitting on the steps from across the water. This was presented to the New York Park Commissioner, Robert Moses, in 1934, to be met with something less than enthusiasm.[2]

Isamu Noguchi with models of playground equipment and Contoured Playground, c.1941. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

That the proposal was met with less than an enthusiastic response is certainly putting it nicely. None of Noguchi's plans for playgrounds in New York City ended up being built. After this first attempt, Robert Moses also foiled Noguchi's second plans for a playground at United Nations, in 1952, and his playground for Riverside Drive Park (1961-66) was rejected by the city government after five redesigns.[3]

Isamu Noguchi, Playscapes, Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia, 1975-76. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

So why were playgrounds so important to Noguchi?

Brancusi said that when an artist stopped being a child, he would stop being an artist. Children, I think, must view the world differently from adults, their awareness of its possibilities are more primary and attuned to their capacities. When the adult would imagine like a child he must project himself into seeing the world as a totally new experience. I like to think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative: thus educational. The child's world would be a beginning world, fresh and clear. The sculptural elements here have the added significance of usage - in actual physical contact - much as is the experience of the sculptor in the making.[4]
Sadly, Noguchi would only live to see one of his playgrounds, Playscapes, in Atlanta, Georgia (1975-76), realized in his lifetime[5] He did, however, complete the master plan for the 400-acre Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan before his death in 1988.[6] While this was a park and not specifically a playground, Noguchi did design play equipment for Moerenuma. Finally, Noguchi had both a park and a playground that was enthusiastically supported by all involved in the project, with Noguchi calling the design a "park that is considered to be one complete sculpture."[7]

Isamu Noguchi, Gardens for UNESCO, UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1956-58. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

And of course, all of this leads us very nicely into Noguchi's designs for gardens:
I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space: a beginning, and a groping to another level of sculptural experience and use: a total sculpture space experience beyond individual sculptures. An empty space has no visual dimension or significance. Scale and meaning enter when some thoughtful object or line is introduced. This is why sculptures, or rather sculptural objects, create space. Their function is illusionist. The size and shape of each element is entirely relative to all the others and the given space. What may be incomplete as sculptural entities are of significance to the whole...These sculptures form what I call a garden, for want of a better name.[8]

Noguchi began designing gardens during a 1951 visit to Japan, where he saw evidence of the correlation between sculptures and gardens all around him.[9] He explains that "in Japan the rock in a garden are so planted as to suggest a protuberance from the primordial mass below. Every rock gains enormous weight, and that is why the whole garden may be said to be a sculpture, whose roots are joined way below."[10] His first major commission for a garden was for the new UNESCO Headquarters in Paris (1956-58).[11]

Isamu Noguchi, Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, New York City. 1961-64. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Noguchi's gardens would prove to be much more popular than his playgrounds, continuing to receive commissions for gardens throughout the 1960s, including ones for large institutions and corporations.[12] Some of his pioneering techniques during this time were for the sunken garden, such as in the image above, for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, and for the interior stone landscape, such as can be seen in the image below.[13] As Noguchi explained about the Chase Plaza's Sunken Garden:

As it worked out, the Chase Garden floods in the summer with water cascading over its rim. In the winter it is dry...I have used rocks as an element of sculptural composition. Otherwise it is an utterly modern garden, with the rocks used in a vertical as well as horizontal plan. The chief interest here is the use of rocks in a nontraditional way. Instead of being part of the earth they burst forth seeming to levitate out of the ground. At least that is the intention...I have noticed that when one visits the plaza on a quiet but somewhat windy Sunday, the great building emits an eerie music, and looking down into the garden with its water flowing is like looking into a turbulent seascape from which the immobile rocks take off for outer space.[14]
Isamu Noguchi, Tengoku, 1977-78. Interior garden for Sogetsu Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Michio Noguchi. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

[1] The Noguchi Museum online, "Playgrounds,", (accessed April 13, 2010).

[2] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 176.

[3] The Noguchi Museum online, "Playgrounds,", (accessed April 13, 2010).

[4] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Into Living: Playgrounds," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 161.

[5] The Noguchi Museum online, "Playgrounds,", (accessed April 13, 2010).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Moerenuma Park online,, (accessed April 13, 2010).

[8] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Into Living: Gardens," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 161.

[9] The Noguchi Museum online, "Gardens,", (accessed April 14, 2010).

[10] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 40.

[11] The Noguchi Museum online, "Gardens,", (accessed April 14, 2010).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 171.

1 comment:

  1. I love the image of the UNESCO Japanese Garden, taken shortly after it opened. It has matured and is more and more beautiful. As hard to imagine as it may be, there is influence in this Parisian respite from the Arizona desert of 1942.


Thanks for your comments - they mean the world to me!