For cultural critic Yuki Sumner, the work of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is a reminder that the best designers are inspired by travel, life experience and a willingness to step outside their comfort zone.
Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar; Bollingen Travels; New Delhi, India, 1949. Photograph by Isamu Noguchi/The Noguchi Museum Archives
Purportedly, one half of Isamu Noguchi’s ashes has been sealed inside an egg-shaped sculptural urn that sits on top of a hill overlooking the Seto Inner Sea of Japan and the other half scattered away. Noguchi was half Japanese and half American and to the end oscillated between the East and the West, between different cultures, unable to settle in one place for too long. The structural backbone of the exhibition ‘Noguchi’ showing at the Barbican Art Gallery until 23 January 2022 is repositioning the sculptor as “a global citizen” and recapitulating his “risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment.”
When Noguchi passed away in 1988 at the age of 84, the artist was working on the biggest project of his life, turning 400 acres of wasteland into a mega sculptural park on the outskirts of Sapporo in Hokkaido. Moerenuma Park was completed posthumously in 2005 with the help of an architect friend of Noguchi, Shoji Sadao, another Japanese American and a close associate of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who was also a friend and a mentor of Noguchi.
Isamu Noguchi (design) with Shoji Sadao (architect), Play Equipment at Moerenuma Koen, 1988-2004. Sapporo, Japan.
For both Sadao and Noguchi, the experience of living in incarceration camps during World War II, had a profound impact on their lives. Sadao met a Quaker architect in the camp in Arizona (many conscientious objectors were put into camps during the WWII) and decided to become an architect. Noguchi decided to put himself in a camp so that he could “help and improve the lives of the prisoners.”
Emeritus Professor of Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, Mark Treib, who is currently working on a book about Noguchi’s garden designs, says that the biggest issue with the first year architecture students is often “less a lack of architectural knowledge than a lack of living experience and the ability to generalise and understand issues facing those outside their age and social group.”
In other words, live and see the world and you will be a better designer.
Isamu Noguchi (design) Octetra Play Equipment, Moerenuma Park, Japan
Photograph by Toshishige Mizoguchi
Noguchi collaborated with many notable architects of his time – Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki, Yoshio Taniguchi, Marcel Breuer (who berated Noguchi for tinkering with the building plan) and Gordon Bunshaft of SOM (with whom Noguchi designed his most famous pieces, such as Chase Manhattan and Red Cube in New York). But Noguchi wasn’t happy simply being a sidekick to these architects. He considered his sculpture as being absolute equal to architecture.
Norman Foster of Foster + Partners tells me about the time when he was introduced to Noguchi through their mutual friend, Buckminster Fuller. The meeting took place at a restaurant in a Greenwich Village restaurant in the 80s: “It was then that I tried to interest lsamu in the idea of him doing a sculpture for the forecourt of our Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Tower in Hong Kong. His reaction was totally unexpected – he declined because he felt the building was a sculpture in its own right and he did not want to compete with it.”
A model representing Noguchi’s proposal for the Sunken Garden for Beinecke Library at Yale University, a collaboration with the American architect Gordon Bunshaft, is on display at the Barbican Gallery. Its monochrome gridwork is reminiscent of a series of collages the Italian architects Superstudio made for their conceptual project: The Continuous Monument. They were indeed made only a few years apart.
The two could not be more different in their outlook, however. Noguchi’s project was a celebration of materials and technology whilst Superstudio’s was a tongue-in-cheek critique of the monstrous expansion of urban cities. We should note here what they had in common: they both opened up new possibilities for architects.
Isamu Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at “Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?”, 1986 Venice Biennale Photograph by Michio Noguchi/The Noguchi Museum Archives
Isamu Noguchi in his 10th Street, Long Island City, Queens Studio, 1964. Photograph by Dan Budnik and Isamu Noguchi assembling “Figure” in his MacDougal Alley studio, 1944 Photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt/The Noguchi Museum Archive
Pushing the limits of accepted norms and boundaries was fundamental to Noguchi’s work. Pulpable tension can be felt up close. Pieces in his sculptures are held together only by gravity. With a flick of a finger, then, all would come apart. Noguchi’s art works and furniture pieces remind us that architecture cannot be purely about comfort. This is especially true if architecture were to become more than just buildings. Architecture can be meaningful and could potentially ‘teach us to be more human’ – a task Noguchi insisted was art’s most important role.
Protect the ‘Spaceship Earth” that we are all in together, first and foremost. This should be the priority for the future generation of architects.