Isamu Noguchi’s Utopian Landscapes
University of Wisonsin-Stout
Journal of Student Research, Eleventh Edition, 2012
by Diana Witcher
It is weight that gives meaning to weightlessness. (In the Japanese tea ceremony, light things are handled as though heavy, and heavy things as though light.)
Artist and designer Isamu Noguchi was one of the best-known American sculptors during the 1960s and perhaps the first visual artist to sculpt public space. He had no training in landscape architecture, but used his intuitive and artistic understanding of space to create landscapes that he considered large sculptures. Interestingly, Noguchi called all his designs sculpture, creating significant works that encompassed academic and abstract sculpture, product design, set design, playground design, and landscape architecture. His work was innovative and traditionally inspired, combining his background in academic sculpture, a unique modern aesthetic, and the influence of his Japanese-American heritage.
Isamu Noguchi Sculptor, Artist, Landscape Architect (Image Source)
Noguchi advocated for sculpture to be a larger and more universal discipline, wanting to create art that was relevant to everyday people. These goals lead him away from academic sculpture to conceive of monumental landscape projects. Noguchi’s lesser-known works include monuments, playgrounds, and gardens. Many of his designs are unrealized, expressed in models for projects that were never built; yet, the concepts are groundbreaking and visually stunning. Noguchi’s landscapes are a profound contribution to art and design. Informed by a lifelong inquiry into form and its relationship to function, these large-scale works stretch the limits of what is considered art and functional object. Noguchi pioneered a concept that is still controversial. Design, successfully integrated into the larger discipline of fine art, becomes a pragmatic and inspirational model for innovation and creativity.
Noguchi refused to accept limitations in his work and was a prolific and tenacious designer. His approach to his profession may provide a map for designers seeking to create work that is unique and forward thinking. Noguchi’s work often changed throughout his career and this diversity was one of his greatest strengths. His sculpture was fresh and innovative, as he was always creating something completely new. Noguchi wanted a new art that was free of what he called the “limiting categories of architects, painters, sculptors and landscapists” (Larivee, 2011 p. 56). A uniquely American art, his work was less about dogma and traditional limitations and more about imagination, as he actively shaped the world in which he wished to live. Noguchi’s landscape works are noteworthy not only because they were his greatest passion, but also because they incorporated his largest scope and vision.
Born on November 17, 1904 in Los Angeles, California, Isamu Noguchi moved to Japan with his American mother to join his Japanese father when he was two years old (Hunter, 1978). He showed an early sensitivity to the visual environment and an interest in shaping his surroundings. He had an aptitude for creating gardens and water features from an early age. Noguchi created and cared for a garden in his childhood. In this garden grew peach trees and rosebushes. The boy fashioned a small brook by diverting overflow from a pump. His earliest memories were of flowering trees, a pine grove, gardens, visits to temples, and a playground that was unwelcoming: “I came to know a playground, or open space, that filled me with foreboding” (Noguchi, 1967, p.12). Noguchi’s childhood experiences, as well as those of his youth lead him to seek to fundamentally change his natural surroundings through his work.
As a young artist, living in New York City, Noguchi worked extensively on formal small-scale sculptures, often portrait heads, but was ultimately dissatisfied with making decorative objects for the elite. He found the work limiting and disapproved of its reliance upon vanity, its focus upon the individual. He wished for his sculpture to communicate more meaningfully to others and to function on a grander scale (Noguchi, 1967). This impulse turned his attention to a passion for the design of public spaces: landscapes, playgrounds, and monumental sculpture
Noguchi’s career shows that the design of public space is inherently political and reveals the designer’s aspirations and beliefs about the world, which are expressed through the aesthetic and functional aspects of each design. Noguchi saw landscape design as a way to merge art and function in a way that was truly democratic. Qualities of universality and neutrality are often desired in the design of public spaces, but these choices in themselves are impactful and ultimately political (Harrisson, 2003). The character of a public space, traditional or contemporary, economical or opulent, communicates visually and functionally to the user (Lawson, 2001). Landscape design conveys the values of a community and ultimately impacts whether individuals are welcomed or excluded from a space. Designed spaces can profoundly affect individuals, communities, and society at large.
Public places are ideally open to all people, regardless of class, race or economic status. Noguchi created spaces to accommodate a society that celebrated art, freedom, and individuality. He wanted people to experience sculpture in their everyday lives, and public spaces were the perfect forum for this goal. His artwork was intended to communicate directly with people, and in order to do this he intentionally expanded the scope and definition of art (Noguchi, 1967).
Noguchi’s early landscape designs began as several conceptual models. These generalized, rectangular reliefs include the designs for Monument to the Plough and Play Mountain and served as expressions of ideas that he developed in his later works (Noguchi, 1967). With an expansive vision, Noguchi saw the earth as a medium. Many of his projects included earth modulations, as he sought to literally sculpt the earth.
Isamu Noguchi’s lifelong interest in playgrounds grew from the precursor of his later playground designs, the 1933 Play Mountain (Figure 1). He claimed that the work was ‘purely instinctive’, not based on drawings or extensive preliminary work (Noguchi & Kahn, 1997, p. 132). This intuitive inspiration was a hallmark of Noguchi’s work, as was his determination to artistically express his unique and forward-thinking ideas.
Play Mountain was to take up one city block in New York City, the entire area functioning as one large play object. To maximize the amount of usable space, Noguchi imagined an inclined surface, a stepped pyramid that would house facilities and play space. The plan included an amphitheater, bandstand, spiral sledding hill, and a water slide that ended in a shallow pool. Sculptural concrete forms replaced traditional playground equipment (Noguchi, 1967). Noguchi sought to fundamentally change, through art, the traditional limited approach to playground design.
Noguchi’s most outstanding landscape work was comprised of the unrealized plans for Riverside Drive Park (Figure 2). Since he had past difficulty realizing projects in New York City, Noguchi decided to enlist the help of an architect and invited Louis Kahn to collaborate (Noguchi & Kahn, 1997). Noguchi and Kahn were at the height of their respective careers, and there was renewed public interest in innovations in playground design (Larivee, 2011). They worked for five years on multiple proposals for the project, and each proposal was rejected in turn. Noguchi said, “Eachtime there would be some objection—and Louis Kahn would then always say, ‘Wonderful! They don’t want it. Now we can start all over again. We can make something better’” (Noguchi & Kahn, 1997, p. 100).
Figure 2. Riverside Park Playground. (1960). Bronze from original plas- ter. (Watz, 2009).
While the initial plan for the Riverside Drive playground was innovative and forward thinking, it called for a massive modernist monument comprised of geometric concrete shapes and very little green space. Existing trees and structures were to be destroyed (Noguchi, 1997). If the original plans had gone forward, a traditional grass park, shaded by trees would have made way for a monolith of modernist stonework (Noguchi, 1997). A revised plan was submitted to the Parks Department in June of 1962. The central structure was again a massive earthwork, a stepped pyramidal building. Designed to be a suntrap, providing warmth in winter, the roof functioned both as an above ground play area and a shelter for facilities below. Play objects would be made of colored concrete and built into the landscape (Noguchi, 1967; Noguchi & Kahn, 1997). This plan was also rejected. The project was thought to be too costly, too large in scale, and markedly avant-gardist (Noguchi & Kahn, 1997). Noguchi and Kahn offered another model, followed by three others. Five plans were proposed throughout the five-year process, with over a dozen models created (Larivee, 2011). As the modified plans became less grand in scope, Noguchi became less satisfied; he felt it no longer reflected his vision (Noguchi, 1967). Noguchi said of the unrealized project,
the idea of playgrounds as sculptural landscape, natural to children, had never been realized. How sad, I felt, that the possibility of actually building one presented itself when it was past my age of interest. Why could it not have been thirty years before, when the idea first came to me. (Noguchi, 1967, p. 177)
The final version of the project was presented in 1965. Noguchi and Kahn had perfected a design that was accepted by the city, the plan was funded, and Mayor Wagner had signed the papers. Unfortunately, the process took too long, and the project was a casualty of political change. Republican John V. Lindsay who ran on the promise of fiscal responsibility defeated the Democrat, Mayor Wagner. The Adele Rosenwald Levy Memorial Playground was an obvious target.
Noguchi’s vision of art and architecture in relationship with nature continued to occur in his work. The artist felt that it was tremendously important for a community to have quality public spaces to provide both meaning and continuity (Noguchi 1976). The garden for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, 1965-1966, or Sunken Garden (Figure 4) in New York City is one of Noguchi’s most accessible landscape works. It was created in collaboration with designer and architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Ashton, 1992). Located outside Chase’s Manhattan headquarters, the piece is a water fountain, located in a circular well surrounded by a wide-open plaza. Left dry in winter, in summer the basin is flooded with water that cascades over the rim of the circular basin. Water shoots upwards from fountain at changing intervals, sending ripples over the water’s surface. The geometric pattern of the tiled ground was meant to contrast with the natural forms of the rocks. Noguchi wanted this surface to be “like the wild and surging shell of the sea, and . . . floating on it would be the elemental rocks” (Noguchi, 1967, p. 171).
Figure 4. Sunken Garden, (1965-1966). New York, New York. (Witcher, 2011).
In 1975, Noguchi established a studio in Long Island City in Queens, New York, which became his working studio with living quarters (Ashton, 1992). Later to become the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (Figure 5), the garden is an example of Noguchi’s work in which he made no compromises. A cement path curves gently through the base of the garden, which is comprised of soft gray stone. Intentionally placed trees interrupt the stone, as well as a number of Noguchi’s sculptures. One can feel a sense of place in Noguchi’s garden. Each piece relates to the other, standing solemnly apart, but intimately related.
Figure 5. Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, (1975-1988). Long Island City, New York. (Witcher, 2011).
Isamu Noguchi’s career resulted in work of impressive diversity. His playgrounds, landscapes, and gardens are products of his most enduring passion. These large-scale works stretch the limits of what is considered art and functional object. Study of his work reveals his tenacity, creativity, and unwillingness to compromise his artistic ideals. These qualities resulted in groundbreaking landscapes that arose from a desire to sculpt the world, to create it, as he would like it to be. His work reveals both a childlike wonder and the maturity of an artist willing to push the limits of his field.
Noguchi was a resolute modernist, but returned always to nature for inspiration. The quality and availability of public space pragmatically affects our daily lives. Exploring Noguchi’s landscape designs may challenge both artists and the larger community to question the nature and definition of art and its relationship to design. Noguchi pointed us to a new way to understand art. His work breaks free of a stagnant aesthetic, bringing a fresh viewpoint to the ancient and profound.
Designers and artists that integrate literary, cultural, and social issues into their work achieve a new measure of success. Noguchi modeled a willingness to imagine something new, a willingness to take on monumental projects, and finally a desire to create designs with the power to transform society. Noguchi listened to the inner voice that told him to return to his roots, to work hard, to persevere always with an open mind, and ultimately to not accept traditional boundaries. Indeed, Noguchi’s true triumph and contribution is that art and design are in fact one discipline, that those labels are essentially limiting, and that art and design are something larger than we imagine. His work is a call to action. Artists and designers must move forward to create something that is fresh, new, and meaningful and then do the work to functionally communicate that contribution to the world.
Online resources of interest
“I am excited by the idea that sculpture creates space, that shapes intended for this purpose, properly scaled in space, actually create a greater space. There is a difference between actual cubic feet of space and the additional space that the imagination supplies. One is measure, the other an awareness of the void—of our existence in this passing world.”
-Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 1967
“The essence of sculpture for me is the perception of space, the continuum of our existence. All dimensions are but measures of it, as in relative perspective of our vision lie volume, line, point, giving shape, distance, proportion. Movement, light, and time itself are also qualities of space. Space is otherwise inconceivable. These are the essence of sculpture and as our concepts of them change, so must our sculpture change.”
-Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 1967
“… I often craved to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living… I felt there must be a more direct way of contact than the rather remote one of art…”
-Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 1967
” At the threshold, the crossing of silence and light, lies the sanctuary of art, the only language of man. It is the treasury of the shadows. Whatever is made of light casts a shadow; our work is of shadow; it belongs to the light.
-Louis Kahn (Dore Ashton, 1992 p. 177).
More Noguchi Works
“[I] called the exhibition ‘Weightlessness’… many of the pieces were sold… Why should sculpture be so limited? Suppose it were possible to consider it ideally, ignoring superficial and passing circumstances, what would be its possibilities?”
“…I claim the whole garden is a sculpture. Here you have a sculpture fifty meters high, twenty dunams (5 acres) wide, weighing a million tons. No, it is a piece of earth itself, extending all the way to China. This is what I have sculptured, and one may walk upon it and feel its solidity under foot and know that it belongs to all of us without limit and equally. That it is in Israel does not make it less a part of any of us. We are all Israelis who go there and walk its slopes.”
“Radio Nurse” copyright Diana Witcher
Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, NY
Water Stone, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Long Island City, NY