September 19, 2013

Playing with Art: The Isamu Noguchi Playscape

  • By: Aria Danaparamita

The Isamu Noguchi Playscape: Is it a park? Is it sculpture? Let’s call it visionary playground design.
The Isamu Noguchi Playscape: Is it a park? Is it art? Let’s call it visionary playground design.

Don’t touch the art -- play with it! Kids can definitely get their hands and feet all over this sculpture installation. The Isamu Noguchi Playscape, a colorful world of reimagined play and art, is found in the Olmsted-designed Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia.

At the Playscape, swings, slides, and jungle gyms are reconceptualized as sculpture. Likewise, sculpture is rethought for its communal function, blurring the line between fine art, landscape design, and good old childhood fun.

“The sculptural playground is a learning environment that children can enjoy and explore,” says Robert Witherspoon of the City of Atlanta’s Public Art Program.

The Playscape’s modern geometric design engages children in imaginative play.

The philosophy is simple: rather than dictate a play activity, the structures invite creative interactions. Kids can climb, swing, and roll around in the Playscape’s spiral tower, play cubes, and modernist geometric structures with integrated slides and swings.

“Kids are challenged to decide how to creatively play with these oversized objects," Witherspoon says. "It’s not scripted what to do on the climbing cubes, play mound, and jungle gyms -- you have to improvise.”

The Playscape also offers a multi-generational experience for all -- exciting for kids, parents, and art lovers alike.

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, later working in New York. He began submitting his playground designs for the Public Works of Art Program in 1934.

The avant-garde concept was designed by internationally renowned Japanese-American sculptor, designer, and architect Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). The playground or -- depending on how you look at it -- work of art was completed in 1976. It was commissioned as a gift to the city from the High Museum of Art by the Museum’s then-director Gudmund Vigtel.

Noguchi’s earliest concept drawings for a sculptural Play Mountain, dating back to 1933, initially envisioned a block of play structures for New York City. Unfortunately, Play Mountain was rejected. He tried again in 1960-66 for New York’s Riverside Park, this time collaborating with architect Louis I. Kahn. The plan was again rejected.

In 1975, Vigtel brought Noguchi to Atlanta. Under his commission, Noguchi realized the Playscape, passing on his imagination to generations of Atlanta’s children.

Now, quirky playgrounds exist elsewhere too, including those featured in our historic playground series. Piedmont Park’s Playscape, however, is one-of-a-kind: While Noguchi has other public sculptures, this was his only playground project in the U.S. built during his lifetime.

The Playscape is Noguchi’s only realized playground design in the U.S.

In June 2009, the Atlanta Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs unveiled the most recent restoration of the Playscape.

“The conservation team had to undo previous repairs and make sure the ferrous metal components were stabilized, aesthetically true to the original design, and structurally sound,” Witherspoon explains. “We worked with engineers and the Noguchi Foundation to make sure the conservation work was true to the original intent of Noguchi’s vision.”

The Playscape is certainly a unique concept and, according to Witherspoon, one of Atlanta’s greatest cultural asset.

“It’s culturally engaging and the high design hybrid is coming back in vogue for play environments,” Witherspoon says.

Should you find yourself in Atlanta and want to unleash your childhood creativity, Piedmont Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. To learn more about Noguchi, check out the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island, New York or the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan in Kagawa, Shikoku.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More