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Playing with the Boundaries: Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes

Isamu Noguchi was a prolific American-Japanese sculptor/designer of the early- and mid-20th century. Challenging conventional distinctions between art and life, positive and negative spaces, sculpture and urban design, geometric and organic forms, he was a revolutionary whose interdisciplinary approach eased the strict binaries of Western art. In the context of this article, though, Noguchi was an artist whose inherent activism and utopic definitions of play-as-art were seemingly lost to the hostile regulations of the modern era.

Isamu Noguchi with Contoured Playground (1941) More Images

In 1934, sculptor Isamu Noguchi approached the New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses with the promise of a new radical design for a children’s recreation ground. A young sculptor with little to no architectural or landscaping experience, Noguchi relied solely on the commissioner’s priority to increase the number of playgrounds in the tri-state area. A playground sculpted from the surface of the earth and entirely free from equipment, his proposal Play Mountain (1933) was to be a fantastical civic playscape on which the categories of art and life could collide. In the context of Noguchi’s oeuvre, however, it was the first in a long line of playground designs drawn up by the artist to reform conventional definitions of play and, by consequence, art.

It was not until graduating from high school in Indiana that the now world-renowned modern sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi formally took up art and began thinking about recreational spaces. Encouraged by his mother to enrol at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art, it was in 1924 that Noguchi began sculpting full-time. By 1927, the artist had secured a Guggenheim fellowship to study with Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși in Paris. And just four years later in 1931, Noguchi returned home to New York to work on a series of public art projects similar to the sculptural public landscapes and geometric forms we associate with his artistic practice today.

It was during this mature period that Noguchi designed Play Mountain for the commissioner. Seeking to position a mountain within the city block, the work challenged normative playground designs by proposing a playscape devoid of walls and playground equipment. Children were encouraged to play by running along or sliding down the modulations the artist sculpted into the ground, and there were no clearly defined means by which the individual could engage with, or act within, the landscape. To use Noguchi’s own words, ‘instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb here),’ Play Mountain created a space ‘for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play’.

Isamu Noguchi, Play Mountain, 1933.  Noguchi’s first playground design which was never brought to realisation. More Images

Towards a Reintegration of the Arts

What this work also envisioned was an expanded definition of sculpture and a total rethinking of the relationship between art and life. That is to say, Noguchi’s artwork functioned not only as a unique assortment of forms to be admired, as is the case with most sculpture of the period, but also as a communal segment of the city fabric. It wasspace where children could play imaginatively and without strict boundaries, and one in which they might acquire the experimental skills and formative relationships necessary for success in everyday life.

More than this, the work seemingly emblematised the artist’s ideological struggle for national hybridity. American to the Japanese and Japanese to the Americans, Noguchi often found himself in ‘cultural limbo’, whereby claims to citizenship were effectively obscured. This feeling was perhaps perpetuated by the proliferation of criticism surrounding his work, which centred on the artist’s multi-ethnic identity and often anti-Japanese, racist rhetoric. To cope with these feelings of alienation, though, Noguchi identified with both nationalities, undermining illegitimate claims to a ‘pure’ or somehow ‘authentic’ racial existence by revelling in his ability to negotiate between the two. This informed his much larger political ideology of an American democracy built on cultural and ethnic hybridity.

Free from the walls which confine or, metaphorically, categorize us, Play Mountain apparently taps into this hybridity by offering a compelling case for freedom of movement. The user can liberally move amongst, within, and outside of the space without fear of confinement. Furthermore, situated within the public sphere, the art is intrinsically democratic and offers a utopic environment everyone can participate in. The work epitomized, therefore, what Noguchi later describes as the ‘reintegration of the arts toward some purposeful and social end,’ and the artist’s inherent desire to reform art into social experience.

An Imagined Playground

Despite being innovative and unlike anything seen before in New York City’s history of playground design, Play Mountain was never brought to realisation. Dismissed by Moses on the grounds that it showed a complete disregard for health-and-safety regulations, the work signalled the beginning of the artist’s 40-year struggle against standardized urban design and public authority. And, while initially contingent on its fluidity of forms and boundless space, from as late as the 1960s Noguchi’s designs were under increased pressure to follow conventional forms of urban planning. I think here of the playground Playscape (1976) in Atlanta, which, aside from its bright colours and abstracts forms, included swings, slides and climbing frames—conventional of state-approved playground design. In fact, when executed, Noguchi’s play sculptures tended to emerge in private corporations, art museums, and on films—spaces not always accessible to the publics, which apparently give social value to Noguchi’s work.

Isamu Noguchi, Playscape, 1976. Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Angular brutalist playground featuring swings, slide, and climbing frames.
Noguchi’s site plan and elevations for Playscape at Piedmont Park, Atlanta. More Images

In this sense, it would be easy to say that Noguchi’s Play Mountain was a failure. Rejected by the state, the work now represents only a figment of our imagination and the symbolic visualization of Noguchi’s utopic world of play and hybridity. And yet, at the same time, to do so would be to erase the rich legacy of Play Mountain within art history. It has had a tremendous impact on artists such as Vito Acconci and Mary Miss, who have created numerous social spaces, including their own public playgrounds, and it raises important questions: What are the politics of public space? What obligation does the artist have to the cultural sphere? How useful is play in shaping both art and social life? How do government regulations limit creativity? What we must read from Play Mountain’s story, then, is not an inability to reach realization, but its capacity to steer important debates within art history, and the compelling means by which it prompted a social art and activism long before the relational works of, say, Rirkrit Tiravanija and the new-genre public art of Suzanne Lacy.

Written by Hattie Stubbs, part of the third cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story. I am a final year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter. Currently studying Art History and Visual Culture, my interests are Contemporary Art from the 1960s onwards, with a particular focus on social practice art and performance. I am also passionate about representations of sexuality, technology and the body in art, and how queer theory enlightens our understanding of these practices. On graduating, I hope to obtain a master’s degree in Art History and/or Curation and pursue a career in co-curatorship, working alongside artists to create engaging and educational workshops and events.