In Piedmont Park, Noguchi’s ‘Playscapes’ are both modern art and a children’s playground – WABE

At the heart of Atlanta’s Piedmont ParkA world-famous work of art by a master sculptor hides in plain sight: a collection of interactive sculptures titled “game landscapes” by American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi.

‘Playscapes’ has a distinctive dual role as a large-scale modern artwork and a playground for children. Built in 1976, the construction of “Playscapes” was sponsored by the High Museum of Art and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of an initiative to bring art to public spaces, an initiative that anticipated the efforts of many cities today.

Noguchi began designing landscapes for children in the 1930s, then made his first playground equipment projects in 1940. Over the next few decades, he made several 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 play area which was also a work of art. Gudmund Vigtel, then director of the museum, 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 on playgrounds was included in a fundraising newsletter prior to his official hiring in October 1975. Following a visit to the Piedmont Park site, Noguchi’s designs for the “Playscapes” were completed in December of the same year.

Dakin Hart, Senior Curator of Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to learn more about this unique Atlanta treasure.

Highlights from the interview and more images follow below.

An expression of “art for the people”:

“[Noguchi] did not consider ‘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. “[Noguchi] said, “Sculpture can be a vital part of our daily lives if pushed for common utility”, and he couldn’t think of a better way to push for common utility than to create something with which children could interact.

“What is most interesting is [that] it is Noguchi’s only playground in the United States. It was the only one he was able to execute during his lifetime, but [by] By the time it was established in the mid to late 70s, Noguchi had tried for 40 years to get a playground built in New York City, where he lived, and ran into all sorts of obstacles in trying to do this. So he was extremely happy and proud to finally find the right combination of circumstances to have a playground built,” Hart explained.

Children playing on Noguchi’s “Playscapes” in Piedmont Park, 1976. (Photo credit: © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY/ARS)

Shapes to stimulate the imagination and invite experimentation:

“This part of Piedmont Park is lovely. It’s not far from the road, and so he did a bit of contouring…He tried to create a bit more of a valley feel, a bit nestled in a forest,” Hart said. “Now your ordinary everyday neighborhood playground can be one that has extraordinarily complicated, very well designed and very interestingly shaped playground equipment, which made the Noguchi more and more subtle… They don’t look totally conventional. He created them in a particular way, but again, it will look a bit like a normal playground, just very suitable. He added: “But, in part, that’s because he had such an impact on playground design.”

“There’s a piece at ‘Playscapes’, a wonderful piece that uses playground equipment he created called ‘play cubes.’ So it’s an arrangement of cubes in a sort of pyramid shape, then one or more in an “S” shape, and these are combined into something that looks a bit like the ruin of a Mayan temple that you can climb and jump from.


Children play on Noguchi’s ‘Playscapes’ after restoration in 2014. (Photo: Martha Clifford)

Isamu Noguchi’s Deeply Thoughtful Game Theory:

“He was interested in very simple shapes because simple shapes are the ones children can do the most with in their imagination. It’s kind of the old joke… You give your kid the kind of super fancy battery-operated toy for Christmas, and they get it, they unwrap the present. That’s it… They play with it for two minutes and get bored, then pick up 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 this model of military training equipment; monkey bars and things where you were performing a repetitive activity over and over and over again, to physically internalize it,” Hart explained. “Noguchi didn’t think playgrounds should be based on this model. He was interested in what he saw as a non-directive model, closer to nature. So here’s a whole bunch of things that can be used in different ways. Have fun, go crazy.

More information on the life and art of Isamu Noguchi – and the preservation of his work – can be found at https://www.noguchi.org/.

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