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Isamu Noguchi at Museo Tamayo

Extensions of the earth, his designs envisioned play as both social interaction and an interaction with the built environment

Part of Noguchi's playscape outside of Museo Tamayo, photo: Cuartoscuro/María José Martínez
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1 year ago

Isamu Noguchi’s designs, on display at Museo Tamayo, bring sculpture to the public realm. Curated by Manuela Moscoso, the exhibit “Parques de Noguchi” (Noguchi’s Parks) focuses on designs of parks and playscapes. Spanning over 50 years of design, the exhibit includes sketches, photographs, sculptures and his playscapes, both inside and outdoors, that viewers are free to interact with. The exhibit explores modern notions of play, youth and public space.

Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904 in Los Angeles to Japanese Poet Yone Noguchi and North American writer Leonie Gilmour. He split his youth and career between the United States and Japan and his work is marked by this unique perspective. Leaving behind his study of medicine at Columbia University, Noguchi pursued art at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School and in Paris through a Guggenheim Fellowship. He dedicated his career to blending aesthetics and function. Ultimately, Noguchi was a humanist who believed in the democratization of art through public space and the power of design to facilitate social interaction.

Noguchi's designs on display at Museo Tamayo

Noguchi’s designs on display at Museo Tamayo. Photo: Cuartoscuro/María José Martínez

His landscape designs and sculptures can be found around the world. He designed the garden at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, Hart Plaza in Detroit and the Moerenuma Park in Japan. Although he is most well known for his landscape architecture, he brought his sculptural designs to many forms. He collaborated with dancer Martha Graham for stage designs and with artists like George Nelson, Paul László and Charles Eames for a catalog of the century’s most important modern furniture.

The exhibit “Noguchi’s Parks” focuses on play in public space. Extensions of the earth, his designs envisioned play as both social interaction and an interaction with the built environment. The playscapes, modern and playful, were not prescriptive and often sculptural and abstract enough that they allowed children the freedom to move play in whatever direction. The grandiose yet sensual designs also sit on their own as beautiful works of art.

Riverside Playground, one of the designs which is featured through photos, miniature replicas and sketches, is a proposed project for Riverside Park, located on the Upper West Side in New York. It runs along the riverfront and follows the curvatures of the earth. The proposed project demonstrated the way his designs both interacted with a given space and attempted to facilitate interaction with others. Its ultimate rejection also demonstrates some of the difficulties designers had with making youth spaces relevant to urban planning. 

Confronted by conservative urban planners like Robert Moses, playscapes were often dependent on funding from wealthy donors and an ideological investment in both the public space and play as vital to youth. The modern playground was thus only possible after ideas of public play emerged, signaling a pedagogical shift in the Post-war era.

While privileging play, Noguchi’s designs are inspired by the region and do not mirror some of the more well-known brutalist playscapes of Mexico during the same era, such as Parque Morelos in Guadalajara. His designs have their own language and feel organic and familiar, demanding that the viewer approach the piece. In placing play, youth and pedagogy at the forefront, Noguchi’s designs demonstrate the power of the built environment in facilitating learning, creativity and social interaction.

The exhibit runs from to May 12 to Oct. 9 at the Museo Tamayo located in Chapultepec Park in Polanco. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10-6 p.m. Entrance is 60 pesos ($3) or free on Sundays.

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