Two entirely disparate aspects of our present zeitgeist--the embrace of multicultural complexity in place of its former suppression, and the current elision of landscape design with "real" sculpture and art--might seem to be as adolescent as our own postmodern age. Both, however, were fully embodied in the work of the great Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi (1904-88), which as early as the 1930s was finding reconciliation in cultural rootlessness, and eroding the line between landscape and sculpture. Ana Maria Torres's handsome, erudite, and broad-ranging study of Noguchi's public works drives these two points home. Complete with a wealth of black-and-white photographs of both his completed works and models of his unrealized ones, the book prompts us to consider from new angles some of the unique accomplishments of this very enterprising artist who incorporated elements of ancient outdoor sites into exterior work that provided an uncannily fitting complement to the very midcentury-modern architecture that it was commissioned to accompany.
Here, more than 75 projects are presented and considered; they are divided into seven chapters (each of which focuses on a subsection of Noguchi's vast output, including playgrounds; "earthworks"; gardens, plazas, and parks; memorials; fountains; interiors; and public sculptures) and engrossingly narrated by Torres. Each chapter is kick-started by a Noguchi excerpt about the work in question. The thematic organization of the book means that we keep bouncing back to the 1930s just when we are familiarizing ourselves with the projects and artistic preoccupations of Noguchi's final decade. But that format also underscores how his style and ambitions evolved in a uniquely personal manner, even as they seem to reflect perfectly the spirit of their particular age.
The exciting work that is included here is almost too vast and varied to be summarized, although a small sampling of highlights might include Noguchi's gardens for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, for which he convinced architects Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi, and Bernard Zehrfuss to relocate a mobile of Alexander Calder in order for him to expand on his own ideas (needless to say that Calder was not pleased); the famous sunken garden for Yale University's Beinecke Library, with its three bold marble sculptures--of a pyramid, a ring, and a cube--and marble paving work that was inspired by that of Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio, which Noguchi adored; the massive pylon water fountain and sprawling circular plaza that he designed for downtown Detroit from 1971-79, much to the delight of legendary mayor Coleman Young, who prompted him to design a subterranean amphitheater just beneath it for the city's annual Ethnical Festival; and, three years before his death, the garden of the Domon Ken Museum of Photography in Sakata, Japan: an enclosed court of water that runs over four stone terraces, with a single granite pillar rising up near the center--surely one of the most serenely beautiful vistas in modern architecture, even as reproduced here (as are all of the photos, somewhat unfortunately) in laconic black and white.
There is some less monumental work here that fascinates and delights, too, including the boldly biomorphic and drop-dead mod undulating ceilings that Noguchi designed for St. Louis's American Stove Company building (1948) and Rockefeller Center's Time-Life Building (1947, now shamefully destroyed), plus potentially terrific unrealized work, such as plans that he devised in the 1960s (with beloved collaborator Louis Kahn) for a playground for New York's Riverside Park.
There is one thing that this very satisfying retrospective makes clear about Noguchi: instead of letting the contradictions of his own ancestry undermine his work, he used them to his advantage in a way that--for all of the diverse global influences of his oeuvre--struck this reviewer as quite distinctly and resourcefully American. --Timothy Murphy
About the Author
Ana Maria Torres
is an architect practicing in the United States and Spain and the principal of AT Architects in New York. Torres has taught in Madrid at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, where she completed her doctoral thesis on Noguchi. She is the author of Carme Pinós: An Architecture of Overlay
and the architecture editor for New York Arts
, who worked with Noguchi for over sixty years, is the executive director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation.