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Isamu Noguchi's Playground Designs

By Leslie McGuire, regional editor

Isamu Noguchi, seen here with his model for the Contoured Playground designed in 1933, combined traditional house and garden experiences with his conception of sculpture as lived space. photos courtesy of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

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Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a visionary sculptor and landscape garden designer whose innovative playgrounds and playground equipment designs are a fusion of earth sculpture and interactive play.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum has just reopened in New York after a two-and-a-half year renovation, and this event reminds us of the many reasons to re-open the discussion of Noguchi's work as well-especially his playground designs and play equipment-it boggles the mind. In addition to all his other visionary concepts, designs, theories and sculptures, Noguchi viewed the earth itself as the original sculpture medium. He felt that the ground-not buildings-embodies the spirit of creativity that inspired early humans and suggested a way for them to get control of their spiritual existence. In other words, to arrange your inner landscape you must sculpt your outer landscape.

The playgrounds and playground equipment designed by Noguchi were works of art that instead of being viewed from a distance were meant to be interactive, suggest activities without precisely demanding them, lead to a physical but creative use of each structure, and invite all levels of participation from the oldest to the youngest visitor. Photo by Kevin Noble

Noguchi, a famed sculptor as well as a designer of gardens, furniture, playground equipment and landscapes, was a prolific and eclectic artist. Although he began his career as an artist, he moved more and more into landscape garden design. Noguchi's whole life led him from one synthesis to another: the fusion that was his Eastern and Western heritage; the fusion of two cultures growing up as an American in Japan; the fusion of his artistic inclinations as a boy and his early apprenticeship to a carpenter; his return to America and education directed by a Swedenborgian minister in Indiana; his art training with his pre-med experience at Columbia University; his trips to Japan, Europe and Egypt; and last but not least, his relationships with so many of the creative expatriate visionaries in Paris in the 1920's.

Rather than requiring that children slide on the slide, they could climb it, or roll down it, or use it as part of an imaginative evocation of their own inner theater. Each playground design became more and more interactive as time went on, and the public reaction to them became more and more varied. The comments and criticisms ranged from vitriol to sheer delight. His last playground design -- the Adele Levy Memorial Playground in New York City's Riverside Park, done in collaboration with Louis I. Kahn, was the fullest evocation of a playground as an art form, an inviting creative play space that would provide not just interactivity but beauty, solace and a really nice place to sit for people of all ages.

This design for the United Nations Playground was a composite; part garden, part surrealist sculpture and part bas relief on a monumental scale. ''A jungle gym is transformed into an enormous basket that encourages the most complex ascents and all but obviates falls. In other words, the playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there) becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play.'' -Noguchi, 1952

As Noguchi said of his playground design for the United Nations Playground (which was cancelled in l952), many distinguished educators, child welfare specialists and civic groups had seen the model and had hailed it as the only creative step made in the field in decades. And it is a thing of beauty as the modern artist has found beauty in the modern world. Perhaps this is why it was so venomously attacked ('a hillside rabbit-warren') by the Cheops of toll bridges (Robert Moses).''

Robert Moses was the New York City Parks Commissioner for most of the years that Noguchi was attempting to get his designs accepted. Moses was best known by New Yorkers as the man who planned to put a six lane inner city highway through Greenwich Village, knocking down the Triumphal arch in Washington Square Park and ripping out the park itself. He appeared to be more interested in the free flow of vehicular traffic than free flow of pedestrians.

This earthwork, done in l947, is a synthesis of Noguchi's garden sculptures, his work with Brancusi, and his studies of Japanese Haniwa sculptures and ancient effigy mounds. It is called ''Sculpture to be seen from Mars.'' Photo courtesy of Soichi Sunami

It's difficult to talk about Noguchi without quoting him directly because no one else can better express his thoughts and feelings than the man himself. His influences were exquisitely varied, ranging from surrealism, ancient sculpture, early architecture and cultural differences, to Japanese rock gardens, Brancusi's surrealist sculptures, stage set design, Buckminster Fuller and working with natural materials. Among the more important of these influences on his playground designs were Pre-Colombian tumuli and an ancient Native American earth sculpture in Ohio, the Great Serpent Mound. ''I was much interested in pre-historic American Indian mounds at that time and had taken a trip to Ohio to see the Great Serpent Mound,'' he said.

Of course, whether or not tumuli were burial mounds or the result of agricultural clearing techniques is something archaeologists can quibble about indefinitely, however the Great Serpent Mound is truly an earth sculpture. Originally thought to have been created by the Adena peoples (500B.C. to 200 A.D.) who lived in what now corresponds to parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio, later carbon dating shows it to have been constructed sometime between 950 and 1200 A.D.

Effigy mounds sculpted in the shape of animals and birds were often constructed by ancient Native American peoples. The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio is over 1,300 feet long with an average height of four to five feet and a width of 20 to 25 feet. Photo courtesy of Soichi Sunami

Located on a convex ridge that overlooks a waterway called Brush Creek, its serpent imagery may relate to the rattlesnake of Mississippian iconography, a prominent image in that culture's ideology. The mouth of the serpent is holding an oval which was originally thought to be something being swallowed, perhaps an egg. Another view is that it represents an eye. The head of the serpent aligns with the summer solstice sunset and the coils may point to the winter solstice sunrise and the equinox sunrise. The purpose of the mound is not known, but the spiritual implications of earth as art, God-head, provider and protector embodied in these forms are apparent to anyone who studies proto-historical ideologies and cultures.

His first Earthwork, entitled ''Sculpture to be seen from Mars'' was created in l947, harked back to his fascination with pre-historic tumuli and mounds. Drawing on the smooth expressive forms he observed and created after his five-month stay with Brancusi, this land sculpture was yet another kind of synthesis-that of form and materials-and one that also crossed the traditional boundaries.

His sculptural play equipment, originally designed in l939 for Honolulu's Ala Moana Park, wasn't built until 1976 for his Playscapes in Atlanta, Georgia.

Noguchi felt that it was better to interact with sculpture rather than simply view it from afar. This theory was applied to his work with Martha Graham when he designed stage sets for her in the 20's and 30's. In 1931 he went to Japan and saw his first Zen gardens and ancient Haniwa sculptures. That experience, in turn, led to a synthesis that became the progenitor and living expression of what he called ''the sculpture of spaces'' and led him directly to sculpting the earth.

His trip to Japan trained him to view sculpture as an organic part of the environment. His desire to fuse occidental and oriental culture grew out of his own past having an American mother and a Japanese father. Noguchi learned the Zen art of gardening, working with mud and stone, from the world's most skilled gardeners, the Uekiya. Yet he didn't really apply these garden designs in the formal way of the Japanese masters. He was beginning to be more influenced by the stage sets he'd designed for Martha Graham It was there that his theory of the sculpture of spaces began to find form. His minimalist set for her ballet Frontier, which structured the dance space with two ropes that stretched from the edges of the proscenium arch back to a fence at the rear of the stage, was meant to inform the dancers. By doing this, he provided structural elements to guide movement and activity.

So hurt was Noguchi by the response to his play equipment, he immediately designed this super safe Contoured Playground. The outbreak of World War II prevented the playground from being realized.

During this period, Noguchi began designing anything that was part of the space in which people lived and moved: furniture, tables, lamps, radios, even an intercom for a child's bedroom. The intercom was very popular because of the earlier Lindbergh kidnapping. The concept of sculpting the earth became an outgrowth of his focus on the "lived environment." His furniture designs fused fine art and applied art, leading to even greater range in the application of his theories. His "Lunars," which are illuminated sculptures, and a musical weathervane that would sound notes as the wind blew through it were a fusion of art and nature. It was also during this period that Noguchi began long term and inspirational relationships with some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, among them Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, best known as the inventor of the geodesic dome, was a technical utopian who envisioned an end to global poverty by the year 2000.

It was a short step from his lived environment sculptures and to his first playground design in l933, Play Mountain. This earth sculpture was a fusion of architecture and relief sculpture. Above: Sketch for Play Mountain.

Reminiscent of an Assyrian Ziggurat, this terraced climbing structure that looks more like a table sculpture was his first attempt at fusing creative play and art. Noguchi said in 1933, ''Play Mountain was the kernel out of which have grown all my ideas relating sculpture to the earth. It is also the progenitor of playgrounds as sculptural landscapes. But these are afterthoughts. Who can foresee true significance? Not even the artist, and he is the least able to convince. With the help of Murdock Pemberton who was then art critic on the New Yorker, I took a model to show Robert Moses, the New York City Parks Commissioner. We were met with thorough sarcasm.''

His first experience with relief sculpture was in Mexico City where he was commissioned in 1936 by the government to create a wall 22 meters long depicting the history of Mexico. It was here that he began to apply all the influence of having been Constantin Brancusi's studio assistant to creating a monument on a large flat surface. (He was to be paid around $200 for his work, but only managed to collect $88 from the government.) The bas relief traced the history of the Aztecs through to the present and much of it was the story of war and cultural devastation. ''Yet the future looked out brightly in the figure of an Indian boy observing Einstein's equation for energy. In answer to my request, Bucky Fuller had sent me a 50-word telegram explaining the equation. However I could also appreciate the sardonic humor of the man who used to come by to watch me work, saying that E=MC2 really meant Estados=Muchos Cabrones2 ('the state equals many SOB's2').''

Plaster model for Play Mountain.

The saga of his play equipment designs is one fraught with the frustration a visionary who feels he's clearly ahead of his time. Although some people could see where he was headed with these projects, the powers-that-be often seemed bent on preventing his designs from coming to fruition.

''Following a discussion with architect Harry Bent and Lester McCoy, park commissioner, as to what I might do in Hawaii, I was commissioned to design play equipment for Ala Moana Park, for which they were responsible. I did this upon my return to New York. Unfortunately Mr. McCoy died, so my models were shown instead to the representatives of the New York parks department who warned me of their great potential danger. Some years later I recognized my equipment being used as the final set in a movie called Down to Earth starring Rita Hayworth. It depicted the world as again fit for human habitation. Columbia Pictures agreed to pay me.''

Noguchi drew from his theories of structured space, lived environments and sculptured landscapes in his playground designs. Perhaps there was also an element of the kind of synergy that Buckminster Fuller proposed. The term ''synergy'' originally referred to chemical interactions, but Fuller brought it into popular usage, suggesting that it was the basic principal of interactive systems.

Slide Mantra, done from 1966 to 1988, is carved from black granite and installed at Odori Park, Sapporo, Japan. As you can see from the working model, the inherent beauty of his cylindrical slides went from art to functionality. Here, the playfulness of a slide has been turned back into art. Photos courtesy of Michio Noguchi

''I designed a multiple length swing with different rates of swing (finally built in Japan), and a spiral slide (since copies and manufactured). Both were educational. There was climbing apparatus as well.''-Noguchi. 1939

Looking back at the reaction to his play equipment's failure to be accepted, in l941 Noguchi designed another playground called the Contoured Playground about which he said, ''I felt obliged to answer all the dire warnings of the danger to which I would expose small children with my play equipment and so designed a Contoured Playground. This would be proof against any serious accidents, being made entirely of earth modulations. Exercise was to be derived automatically in running up and down the curved surfaces. There were various areas of interest, for hiding, for sliding, for games. Water would flow in the summer.'' This playground design, too, was not constructed because of the outbreak of World War II, and for a while he devoted himself to art and industrial design.

"Play Mountain was the kernel out of which have grown all my ideas relating sculpture to earth. It is also the progenitor of playgrounds as sculptural landscapes."--Isamu Noguchi, 1933

In 1952 he was commissioned to create a sculptured playground for the United Nations Headquarters. ''The suggestion that I design a playground for the United Nations came from Mrs. Thomas Hess in early l951. It was proposed that the spirit of idealism and good will engendered by the United Nations should be matched with a new and more imaginative playground for the small children of the delegates and of the neighborhood. A private subscription was raised for the building, and everybody was enthusiastic about it including the people at the UN and, of course, myself... . The playground was killed by ukase from a municipal official who is supposed to run the parks in New York, and who somehow is the city's self-appointed guardian against any art forms except banker's special neo-Georgian... . Eventually the United Nations had to submit to Moses, who I understand, threatened not to install the guard rail facing the East River.''

Then, finally, after much critical acclaim, professional recognition and success in the art world came the opportunity to design a playground in Riverside Park. By this time he had designed the interior courtyard garden for Connecticut General Insurance Company in Connecticut and the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. He was in the planning stages for the sunken garden at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and the sunken garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York City.

Among the changes and variations in plan that were submitted over a five-year period, was a version of this Riverside Park design that included a large collection of small scale furniture that was to be fixed in place. Noguchi wanted to create a tiny public realm that would inspire children to use their imaginations. Photo by of Kevin Noble

''The idea of playgrounds as a 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 30 years before, when the idea first came to me?''

The design for the Adele Levy Memorial Playground went through six iterations, the size of the site changed three times and the entire process took from 1961 until 1966 when it finally died because of a change of administration. Designed in collaboration with architect Louis Kahn, the moving spirit behind the park was again Mrs. Thomas Hess who wanted the park as a memorial to her aunt.

''The purpose of the Adele Levy Memorial Playground is to establish an area for familiar relaxation and play rather than an area for any specific sport. We have attempted to supply a landscape where children of all ages, their parents, grandparents and other older people can mutually find enjoyment. The heart of the plan is a nursery building placed as near to Riverside Drive as possible which will supply the functions necessary to lengthy sojourns in the park for little children. This building is shaped like a cup, a sun trap for winter months, a fountain and water area for summer. The service and play rooms are built underneath the ramp and under the open air play and rest area (lit by light wells) so that the roof has a double function. From this central point radiates the play area with definite, but not limiting, forms to invite play first, integral with the nursery, is a play mountain, like a mound of large triangular steps -- for climbing, for sitting -- an artificial hill. Outside this central core are giant slides built into the topography, areas for home games. Things to crawl in and out of. There is also a large oval sand and pebble area which is crisscrossed by maze-like divisions: a theater area with a shell form music, puppets and theater. Other structures will be incorporated as we go along. The play elements are to be made permanent structures forming the landscape. They should be made of concrete with integral color.''

This park, Kodomo No Kuni was the only place to use a Noguchi playground design during his lifetime. Built in 1966, it included water features (above) as well as shade structures and earthwork play mounds for sliding, climbing and jumping (below).

Over all the objections and re-designs, over all the switches of venue such as a demand that vacant lots be used instead of a four block area of the park, Noguchi's resolve and faith in his design was deepened. ''I later came to feel that children should not be restricted to fenced-in concrete play areas, and that some parks or parts of some parks, should become 'play gardens'.''

In addition to all the criticisms, there were engineering issues to overcome. ''The many unforeseen problems and objections were met one by one: to minimize the disturbance to nature; to bed the buildings into the landscape; to cope with the uncertainties of subterranean structures; to avoid the New York Central Railroad tracks below Riverside Drive, and the retaining wall supporting it; to gain more space than we took away; and to double each function, i.e. no roof, but a functioning space that is also a roof.''

''I later came to feel that children should not be restricted to fenced-in concrete play areas, and that some parks or parts of some parks should become 'play gardens'.''-Isamu Noguchi, 1965

Noguchi's last project was the master plan for the 400-acre Moere Numa Park in Sapporo, Japan which is under construction and scheduled to open in 2005. The only Noguchi playgrounds to be built in his lifetime were Playscapes in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia and the Kodomo No Kuni (Children's Land) Playground near Tokyo in collaboration with Yoshio Otani. Completed in l966, he combined mounds, earth work slides and water features as well. His undulating earth work in front of the Reader's Digest Building in Tokyo, his rock garden at IBM in Armonk, New York, the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, as well as the monumental basalt sculptures done at the end of his life established his own identity as a functional synthesist whose art was a useful part of everyday life. His own eclectic mix of cultural baggage, artistic talents, intellectual acuity and restless use of esoteric materials and unexpected combinations fused together to make him a true master of form and space. Isamu Noguchi died in New York on December 30, l988.

In 1985, Noguchi opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. There he installed over 250 of his works. Noguchi's desire to share his work with a broad public audience has led the museum to continue building on his efforts by designing a range of innovative educational programs and resources for local and international audiences. The museum, an important resource for schools, cultural organizations, colleges and universities, has programs designed to meet the needs of specific groups. In addition to offering Noguchi's sculpture, designs and architecture projects, they also offer an online educational resource.

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