The Story Behind Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Atlanta
The revival, and influence, of an icon of modern playground design
Written by: Alexandra Lange
Artwork by: The Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum
“I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational.”
Model for Play Mountain, 1933
Kodomo No Kuni Playground, 1965–1966
Though his career as a playground designer was a chronicle of frustration, Noguchi’s ideas for playscapes resonated. He incorporated many of the same spatial motifs and ancient landscape forms into gardens for corporations like Chase Manhattan and IBM, as well as public, all-ages parks like Hart Plaza in Detroit. Meanwhile, New York playground design pioneers M. Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner, clearly influenced by Noguchi’s modeled forms and embrace of movable, natural elements like sand and water, were able to find a sympathetic parks commissioner in Thomas Hoving. Their mountains and fountains still play across Manhattan.
“[Noguchi] had a really good concept that playgrounds should not be designed like military exercise equipment for a cheaply executed boot camp... He thought kids should experience the environment the way man first experienced the earth, as a spectacular and complex place.”
Noguchi's site plan and elevations for Playscapes at Piedmont Park
Playscapes, Piedmont Park, Atlanta, 1975–1976
With the $21,000 grant from Herman Miller Cares, the entire Playscapes was repainted and one wall in the pavilion fixed. Photography by Martha Clifford.
In fact, it’s still innovative. Interest in the design, safety, and efficacy of parks and playgrounds are on the upswing, as they were in the decades in which Noguchi was perfecting his approach to play. “He had a really good concept that playgrounds should not be designed like military exercise equipment for a cheaply executed boot camp,” says Hart of the Noguchi Museum. “He thought kids should experience the environment the way man first experienced the earth, as a spectacular and complex place.” Even if we can only experience the full complexity of the Noguchi play experience in Japan, the restored Atlanta Playscapes are a start—and should start a larger discussion about landscapes of play for the future.
To learn more about Noguchi’s designs for children, visit Serious Play: Design in Mid-Century America at the Denver Art Museum, on view from May 5 to August 25, 2019.
Archival images courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.