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Isamu Noguchi’s Playful Designs Dot The California Landscape

A man playing in South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
Isamu Noguchi's play structure at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s entryway | Brittany Shoot
Isamu Noguchi's play structure at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s entryway | Brittany Shoot

The giant play sculpture, a continuous, slightly bent cylinder in matte cherry red, resembled an art piece. But as soon as he saw it, one excited boy barreled toward the structure and leapt on top of one of its three curves. On his heels, an energetic girl bounded over and slid cautiously into one of the structure’s three slopes, lying down and then sitting thoughtfully as she gazed around the alleyway.

The play structure, designed by Isamu Noguchi, was tucked into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s entryway off of congested Howard Street in the South of Market District—and it's still installed as of this writing. That, and a Noguchi-inspired tiny-hoop basketball game, was part of the SFMOMA’s activities for Park(ing) Day, an annual nationwide urban parking spot-to-parklet conversion that creates space for play in the midst of car-centric city centers.

Most such works by the late, Los Angeles-born, Japanese-American multidisciplinary artist and designer Isamu Noguchi don’t get as much interaction. Most aren’t meant to — at least not quite to the point of being jumped on. Noguchi was known for many types of work, from sculpture gardens designed for major museums and the Paris, France UNESCO headquarters to his iconic coffee table designs. In 1942, he voluntarily interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp, hoping to create and force the government to implement designs that would humanize those desolate detention centers.

Despite his many unusual and inspiring plans for playground structures and engaging public spaces, most of his so-called playscapes remained undeveloped in his lifetime. Today, only a few major examples of fully completed parks, including Atlanta’s Piedmont Park and Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, show off creative plans implemented in his lifetime.

That isn’t to say others have not adapted or been deeply inspired by his work. Not far from the SFMOMA, another Noguchi-inspired piece, created by landscape architecture firm Fletcher Studio, is located in South Park, the city’s oldest public space dating back to 1852. The recently renovated park, complete with a brushed steel play piece, is often covered with curious children from the neighborhood. It resembles a similar space, Tongva Park in Santa Monica, a Noguchi-style, arroyo landscape-inspired playground designed by Field Operations, another San Francisco landscape architecture firm. A former parking lot near the popular Pacific Ocean pier has been transformed by the presence of several colorful monkey bar-style climbing structures, numerous wide slides, and an extremely low grade sloping rock climbing wall, all installed atop gently rolling hills.

The SFMOMA’s outdoor installation was created to augment the current museum exhibit, “Noguchi’s Playscapes.” Architectural drawings, sketches, and models of his whimsical playground equipment and imaginative public space designs are installed in a sixth-floor nook of the seven-story museum in what slowly becomes apparent as non-chronological order. Much like romping around an actual playground, museumgoers can pinball between various pieces while taking in the cumulative experience of delight and wonder.

Click left or right to see Noguchi play structures and contemporary designs it inspired:

Isamu Noguchi, Playground equipment for Ala Moana Park, Hawaii, c. 1940 | Kevin Noble
1/8 Isamu Noguchi, Playground equipment for Ala Moana Park, Hawaii, c. 1940 |  the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, gift of Linda Tatti Beck and Steven Beck from the collection of Alexandre Tatti Family, 2006; © the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Kevin Noble
Isamu Noguchi, U.S. Pavilion Expo ’70, 1968; © the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Kevin Noble
2/8 Isamu Noguchi, U.S. Pavilion Expo ’70, 1968 |  © the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Kevin Noble
South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
3/8 South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
 South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
4/8 South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
5/8 South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio
Tongva Park | Jeremy Reding via Flickr
6/8 Tongva Park | Jeremy Reding via Flickr/ CreativeCommons
Tongva Park | Eliot Phillips via Flickr/CreativeCommons
7/8 Tongva Park | Eliot Phillips via Flickr/CreativeCommons
Tongva Park | Ian T. McFarland via Flickr/CreativeCommons
8/8 Tongva Park | Ian T. McFarland via Flickr/CreativeCommons

Like so many visionary artists, Noguchi’s decades-long career defied classification. He collaborated with celebrated creators across disciplines, including choreographer Martha Graham and less easily-to-define multidisciplinary artists such as Buckminster Fuller and John Cage. While working in Paris, Noguchi palled around with Alexander Calder and Piet Mondrian. Noguchi never belonged to a particular movement or school, but he was highly respected by Frida Kahlo Willem de Kooning. During his lifetime, Noguchi garnered numerous awards. In 1987, a year before his passing, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2004, the U.S. Postal Service put his image on a 37-cent stamp.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design at SFMOMA, brought the recent Noguchi exhibit to San Francisco after encountering the comprehensive exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo in collaboration with The Noguchi Museum in New York City. SFMOMA has a number of Noguchi works, including sculptures and furniture, in its permanent collection. But Fletcher notes this lesser known aspect of Noguchi’s practice fits well in the museum.

Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden "California Scenario" I 611 Anton I Costa Mesa, CA 92626 I Photography by Kathryn Poindexter

“His proposals for public space are a little less well known but influential to the current generation of landscape architects and designers,” she explains. “Knowing that, I thought we should revisit Noguchi’s proposals from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s amazing how contemporary they still look.” His inspiration is perhaps most evident in the work of Richard Dattner, who built five inventive, enduring playgrounds in New York’s Central Park. M. Paul Friedberg, who built playgrounds with the New York Housing Authority, was also notably inspired by Noguchi, as was the Danish sculptor Egon Möller-Nielsen, who created curious playground structures all over Scandinavia. Noguchi’s influence is not limited to play spaces, though. The annually awarded Isamu Noguchi Award honors architects and designers generally aligned with Noguchi’s vision, with past winners including architect Norman Foster, sculptor Elyn Zimmerman, and industrial designer Jasper Morrison.

One of Noguchi’s playscape designs is located in Costa Mesa on a former lima bean farm. Introduced in 1980, “California Scenario”— known to locals as “Noguchi Park” — is a 1.6-acre public sculpture garden designed with California’s diverse natural environments in mind.

Unlike a lot of art, Noguchi’s parks and playscapes are meant to be touched, and are designed for inventive interaction. “That’s why I love that he used word ‘play,’” explains Fletcher. “Playgrounds can have so many rules — you must be this age, you must be this tall — but playscapes present the perfect invitation. Noguchi wanted his work to have many interpretations. If you have a bench, you sit on it, or you don’t. But if it’s sculpted earth, you don’t know if you roll on it, lie on it, or sit. He wasn’t imposing strict ideas for its use.”

The inspiring exhibition of the artist’s early work elicits strong reactions, even if some of his best laid plans never came to fruition. “Dude, these are awesome,” murmur two young women in summertime white, quietly perusing the Noguchi exhibit one recent afternoon. “I wish we had these here.” Another couple finds a different way to make Noguchi’s plans playful. After circling the piece, a woman poses behind the model of “Slide Mantra Maquette,” her male companion snapping several photos of her face framed by the marble staircase-slide. As she rises, they chuckle together and wander out to continue exploring the rest of the museum.

Top Image: South Park | Courtesy of Fletcher Studio

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