While sculptor Isamu Noguchi created some of the most beloved midcentury designs—like his namesake coffee table and paper Akari lanterns—there was one project that continually eluded him: a New York City playground. Despite many attempts across several decades to build one, Noguchi was constantly stymied by policy. “In Search of Contoured Playground,” a new exhibition at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, brings us one step closer to envisioning what it would have been like if he succeeded.
Intended for Central Park, Contoured Playground is a rolling, undulant landscape with gentle hills, subtle depressions, and ridges that gradually slope up from the ground to a defined edge. It almost looks as though it were molded over thousands of years by flowing water. Noguchi only ever made models of the early-1940s playscape, including a small bronze cast that’s typically wall-mounted when exhibited, a conceit that makes the model feel like an object, not an inhabitable space, as the artist intended.
So the museum, working with independent curator and Cornell architecture professor Naomi Frangos, created a 10-by-10-foot plaster model of Contoured Playground that allows you to envision yourself in the landscape. The installation illustrates Noguchi’s philosophy of space, particularly his emphasis on perceiving the body in relationship to space—a central and defining aspect to his work as an artist often overshadowed by the famous forms he made.
“Working with spaces, and working in the public square, was really the most important thing to Noguchi,” says Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum. “He said the essence of sculpture is the relationship between that thing you design, the space it’s in, and the people walking through it. Sculpture isn’t any one of those three; it’s not even all those three things. It’s the relationships you can’t even see between them.”
By enlarging the model—the original bronze cast is just 2 square feet—the museum makes the conceptual design more immersive. It takes up almost an entire room and is raised up to eye level. The curators also researched archival photographs to find three different play structures Noguchi envisioned for the park and replicated them for the model, which also helps bring the park from abstraction to life.
“When you move around [the model], you feel like you could be in it,” Frangos says. “That unlocks [the model’s] ‘frozen’ state and shows it as an inhabitable space.”
Most playgrounds today look the same: a plastic jungle gym set atop a flat, spongy surface. It’s clear that safety over imagination drives their design; a fall anywhere would bruise only a kid’s ego, not their body.
To Noguchi, playgrounds were “a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational.” His playscapes were composed of abstract climbing structures, swings suspended on spindly stepped frames, daring see-saws, topographical undulations, and vibrant colors. The playscapes were fun—and a liability. Noguchi thought of his designs as invitations to explore and learn about space, and movement.
“He knew how to move you without being like, as we designers or planners or urban architects would say, ‘Here’s the path, here’s the sidewalk, here’s logistics, here’s policies, here’s rules,’” Frangos says. “This is, ‘I’m going to guide you with my gestures to where you maybe want to go and to what comes after.’ But he’s never telling you in what order to do anything.”
Others saw danger lurking in Noguchi’s playscapes.
In the 1930s, New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses was busy commissioning hundreds of new playgrounds. Noguchi heard the call and in 1933 proposed an idea for Central Park that’s just as radical now as it was then: a ziggurat cleaved from a hillside, with a sweeping ramp, a precipitous drop, steep slopes, and hard edges. The idea was called Play Mountain. It was abstract and built for exploration, with no traditional equipment. Moses laughed Noguchi and his team out of his office.
“[He] took offense at me, thought I was trying to kill people, said a playground had to be tested equipment and that New York City could not afford to test my mountain,” Noguchi once said of the meeting. But that didn’t deter him. When another opportunity to design a park arose eight years later, in 1941, Noguchi presented Contoured Playground. With its gentle and subtle “earth modulations,” it was a response to Play Mountain’s perceived danger while still reflecting the same sensibilities about space and open-ended play.
“Noguchi once said that he wanted people who experienced his spaces to feel like the first person on Earth, which is such a beautiful idea,” Hart says, explaining the design. “Imagine you have some hillside somewhere in Central Park and what comes out of it is some emergent line, just knifing up. And now you have this little hill, this mound that’s forming. Then you realize something unnatural is happening, and you come up to a rise and then you realize you’re on a slide.”
The idea sounds beautiful and poetic, but it never came to be, this time due to forces beyond safety protocol: New York City suspended public works due to World War II. (Noguchi was also interned during the war.) After the war, the parks department revisited the idea but it never moved past the conceptual phase.
In the 1950s, Noguchi tried again to build a playscape in New York, near the United Nations, and that never went anywhere—same with a 1960s idea for Riverside Park. If you want to visit one of his playgrounds, you’ll have to travel to Atlanta or Japan.
Fortunately, Noguchi’s public-space forays weren’t limited to playgrounds, and some of the same sentiments can be found in art installations like his Red Cube and Sunken Garden in Lower Manhattan; the California Scenario sculpture garden in Costa Mesa, California; a garden for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Building; and Hart Plaza, in Detroit.
“The amazing understanding [Noguchi] had with respect to scale and the human body moving through space is completely uncanny,” Frangos says. “And you feel it when you visit his spaces, but also when you really start to engage in them.”
“In Search of Contoured Playground” and “Models for Spaces” are on view at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens, until February 2, 2020.