Noguchi's Playscapes

‘I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational’, Noguchi said. But what does that mean?

In 1933, the Japanese-American sculptor and artist Isamu Noguchi designed a playground that was way ahead of its time. Play Mountain, with its steps, its curving ramp, a pool and a rock didn’t look much like a traditional playground, with swings and slides and so on. ‘I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational’, Noguchi said. But what does that mean?

Model for Play Mountain
“Noguchi had a really good concept that playgrounds should not be designed like military exercise equipment for a cheaply executed boot camp"
Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at the Noguchi Museum

Well, Noguchi “[Noguchi] had a really good concept that playgrounds should not be designed like military exercise equipment for a cheaply executed boot camp..." according to senior curator at the Noguchi Museum Dakin Hart.

Meanwhile, the art critic Thomas Hess explains that the “playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there), becomes a place for endless exploration.”

Drawings for Play Equipment, Isamu Noguchi (1966-1976)
samu Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at "Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?", 1986 Venice Biennale Photograph by Michio Noguchi The Noguchi Museum Archives, 144398 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Still, not everyone was immediately convinced. New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses rejected Play Mountain. Noguchi tried for decades to get a playground built in New York. His four-block proposal for New York’s Riverside Park, designed with the architect Louis Kahn, was also denied, as was his ‘lunar garden’, which he designed for the US Pavilion at the Expo ’70 in Osaka Japan.

. Isamu Noguchi, U.S. Pavilion Expo '70 (Garden of the Moon), 1968 Plaster, wire, paint. 40.3 x 58.4 x 83.8 cm Photograph by Peter Moore The Noguchi Museum Archives, 147232 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS
‘I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational’
Isamu Noguchi

Undeterred, Noguchi successfully completed more than twenty public works around the world, including gardens, fountains, playgrounds, and plazas.

In the last year of his life, 1988, he designed his most ambitious playscape yet: the 454-acre Moerunuma Park (1988—2000), which sits on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo, Japan. Through numerous iterations, redesigns and persistence, Noguchi realised a much more sophisticated version of his Play Mountain, complete with slides, fountains, sprawling gardens and play sculptures.

Isamu Noguchi (design) with Shoji Sadao (architect), Play Equipment at Moerenuma Koen, 1988-2004. Sapporo, Japan. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS
. Isamu Noguchi (design) Octetra Play Equipment, Moerenuma Park, Japan Photograph by Toshishige Mizoguchi © Toshishige Mizoguchi / INFGM / ARS - DACS

An exhibition celebrating Noguchi's work is running at the Barbican Centre, London, until 9 January 2022

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