Isamu Noguchi’s whimsicle playscapes at SFMOMA

This post is coming to you from sunny California! I absolutely love this part of the world. Yesterday I visited a very fun ‘Noguchi Playscapes’ exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition explores the sculptural playscapes of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). This post presents some of the key artworks and themes from the show including the role of public sculpture in bringing art and creativity to everyday living.

An image from the exhibition at SFMOMA

“Noguchi’s desire was to bring fine art into the context of everyday living. His lifelong involvement in the design of playgrounds and “play sculpture” stemmed from this ideology and belief in the educational potential of sculptured forms for physical use by children” (Larrivee, 2011).

“The playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there), becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play. And it is a thing of beauty as the modern artist has found beauty in the modern world” Isamu Noguchi (1967).

Noguchi Playscapes revisits the work of pioneering artist and landscape architect, Isamu Noguchi. The exhibition presents a myriad of Noguchi’s designs, sketches, models and archival images used to construct his sculptural playscape. These colourful, quirky and even downright wacky works explore his ‘vision for new experiences of art, education, and humanity through play’ (SFMOMA website, 2017).

Noguchi strove to create public spaces that sparked imagination through people’s interactions with different forms, surfaces, textures and shapes. Children’s play served as a creative and experimental process for engaging with these spaces. The role of sculpture in the urban landscape allowed for Noguchi’s playscapes to bring together the powerful combination of aesthetics, functionality and human’s ability play.

Noguchi believed that: “sculpture in the public realm is an aesthetic and cultural tool capable of reconciling social inhibitions and individuality. This shaped his vision for the democratisation of art, leading him to devise outdoor play structures that encourage creative interaction as a way of learning” (Noguchi Playscapes, 2017).

Noguchi also understood “creative play as a way of learning about and participating in the world, emphasising imagination, especially that of children, given that they represented the future that would be rebuilt by the fractured postwar society” (Garcia & Larrivee, 2016).

Noguchi 2
Isamu Noguchi’s design for the U.S Pavilion Expo from 1970. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY. Image:

Playscapes such as ‘The U.S Pavilion Expo” (1970, pictured above) bring together re-moulding of the earth with sculptural play equipment. I found designs that were devoid of equipment such as ‘Play Mountain’ (1933, pictured below) particularly thought-provoking. In the absence of swings, slides and see-saws, the design proposed moulded and hollowed earth that created slopes for rolling, sliding and sledding down.

Play Mountain
Noguchi’s ‘Play Mountain’ (1933). Cast 1977. Bronze. Image: noguchi.or

Children’s experience in the playscape would therefore be driven by physical exercise such as running, jumping and climbing over the organic forms and geometric shapes of the earth (Larrivee, 2011). ‘Play Mountain’ was a radical proposition for children’s play in 1930’s New York with nearly all public playgrounds being produced from mass-constructed, pre-designed equipment. The design was unsurprisingly rejected by New York Parks Commission and never realised into an actual playscape.

I was surprised to discover that only two of Noguchi’s public playscapes were actually realised in his lifetime – one in Kodomo No Kuni park in Yokohama (this was torn down one year after it was built) and the second in the Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia (pictured below). Out of all the wacky models and sketches of playscapes featured in the exhibition, ‘Piedmont Park’ seems one of the simplest and least extravagant. Perhaps it was also one of the more straight forward and least risky designs to build. Fed-up with government bureauracy, Noguchi chose to work the rest of his career on largely private commissions liaising with architects, musicians and theatre designers as a way of escaping the restrictive health and safety regulations of creating public play spaces (Larrivee, 2011).

Noguchi Playscapes is on display at SFMOMA from July 15 – November 26, 2017. You can also visit The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York to view a more comprehensive body of work by this amazing artist.

Art. Play. Children. Pedagogy. will be on holidays for the next couple of weeks. The next post will make its appearance on Friday September 1, 2017.

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Piedmont Park park, Atlanta. Built 1975-76 from basswood. Image:


Garcia, M & Larrivee, S (2016). Isamu Noguchi: Playscapes, RM/Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo; Bilingual edition.

Larrivee, S (2011). ‘Playscapes: Isamu Noguchi’s Designs for Play,’Public Art Dialogue, 1:01, pp. 53-80.

Noguchi, I (1967). A Sculptor’s World. Tokyo: Thomas and Hudson. pp.176-177.

Noguchi Playscapes (2017), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 15 – November 26, 2017.

SFMOMA website (2017). ‘Noguchi’s Playscapes,’ SFMOMA website. Viewed August 14, 2017.


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