In the heart of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, a world-renowned work of art by a master sculptor hides in plain sight: a collection of interactive sculptures called “Playscapes” by American landscape artist and architect Isamu Noguchi.
“Playscapes” occupy a unique dual role as a large-scale work of modern art and a children’s playground. Built in 1976, Playscapes’ construction was sponsored by the High Museum of Art and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of an initiative to bring art into public spaces, a move that anticipated the efforts of many cities today.
Noguchi began designing landscapes for children in the 1930s, then produced his first designs for playground equipment in 1940. Over the following decades, he made repeated unsuccessful attempts to build a playground in New York , where he lived at the time.
In 1973, a High Museum volunteer named Frankie Coxe suggested building a children’s playground that was also a work of art. Gudmund Vigtel, then the museum’s director, decided that the work would be the institution’s gift to Atlanta in recognition of the national bicentennial in 1976.
Noguchi was always the first choice for the project; a quote from the sculptor about the playgrounds was included in a fundraising newsletter before he was officially hired in October 1975. After a site visit to Piedmont Park, Noguchi’s designs for Playscapes were completed in December of that year .
Dakin Hart, senior curator of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York City, joined City Lights host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk more about this unique Atlanta treasure.
Interview highlights and more images follow below.
An expression of “art for the people”:
“He did not see ‘playground’ and ‘priceless work of art’ as incompatible concepts. “He was really interested in making sculpture that played a role in civic life,” Hart said. “He said, ‘Sculpture can be a vital part of our daily lives if it’s put to good use,’ and he couldn’t think of a better way to put good use to it than to make something that kids can interact.”
“The most interesting thing about it is [that] is Noguchi’s only playground in the United States. It is the only one he was able to execute during his lifetime, but [by] By the time it was created in the mid-to-late seventies, Noguchi had been trying for 40 years to build a playground in New York City, where he lived, and had encountered all kinds of obstacles in the effort. that. So he was extremely pleased and proud that he finally came up with the right combination of circumstances to build a playground,” explained Hart.
forms to spark the imagination and invite experimentation:
“That part of Piedmont Park is wonderful. It’s not too far from the road, and so he did some contouring… He tried to create a little bit more of the feeling of a bloom, kind of embedded in a forest,” Hart said. “Now, your ordinary neighborhood playground might be one that has extremely complicated, very well-engineered and very interesting playground equipment, which Noguchi has made more and more subtle … They don’t look entirely conventional. He’s done them in a special way, but again, it’s going to look a bit like a normal playground, just very customized.” He added, “But, in part, that’s because he’s had such an impact on playground design.”
“There’s a piece in ‘Playscapes,’ a wonderful piece that uses a piece of playground equipment that he created called ‘play cubes.’ So it’s an arrangement of cubes in a sort of pyramid shape, and then a more of an ‘S’ shape, and they combine together into something that looks a bit like the ruins of a Mayan temple that you can climb up. and jump away.”
Isamu Noguchi’s deeply considered game theory:
“He was interested in very simple shapes, because simple shapes are the ones that children can do the most with in their imaginations. It’s kind of an old joke…You get some kind of super fancy battery operated toy for your kid for Christmas, and they take it, they open the gift. There it is… They play with it for two minutes and are bored, and then they take the box it came in and end up spending two days playing with the box instead of the toy.”
“The old model that Noguchi was working against was that model of military training equipment; Monkey bars and things where you were doing a repetitive activity over and over again to get it physical,” Hart explained. “Noguchi didn’t think playgrounds should be based on that model. He was interested in what he thought of as a non-directive model, more like nature. So here’s a whole bunch of stuff that can be used in different ways. Have fun, go crazy.”
More about the life and art of Isamu Noguchi – and the preservation of his work – can be found at https://www.noguchi.org/.