Play Mountain

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
You may have seen them to Noguchi table. Actually I know you’ve seen it. It’s like the coffee table in movies or TV shows when they want to show that a lawyer or an art dealer is really sophisticated, they put an a Noguchi table in their waiting room.

Jackson Roach:
And it is really a beautiful table. Two curvy wooden legs interlock and support this heavy slab of glass which seems like it’s almost floating above them.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Jackson Roach.

Jackson Roach:
Since the Noguchi coffee table was introduced in 1948, it’s become one of the emblems of mid-century industrial design. It has its own Wikipedia page and there’s a thriving Instagram hashtag #fynct, which stands for f*ck your Noguchi coffee table, which basically means f*ck your bougie cliche interiors.

Roman Mars:
Which is ironic because like all eventual cliches, Noguchi himself was quite avant garde.

Dakin Hart:
Noguchi was a prodigy, a sculpting prodigy.

Jackson Roach:
Isamu Noguchi was a sculptor and he was so much more than that.

Dakin Hart:
Choreographers and fashion designers and art directors, and a whole lot of different people across a really wide creative swath, look to Noguchi as a point of inspiration.

Jackson Roach:
This is Daikon Hart, senior curator of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Noguchi himself built this studio in Queens to house a lifetime of his abstract, evocative experiments in stone and metal. Hart says Noguchi was challenging himself with every sculpture.

Dakin Hart:
Can I make something hard, feel soft? Can I make something heavy, feel light? Can I make something far away feel like it’s right next to you. To make rock feel fluid that way.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi sculptures seem to twist and balance on themselves undulating with form and texture, but this is all his later work.

Roman Mars:
Back in the 1930s before Noguchi had a signature museum and a namesake coffee table, he was a struggling artist in New York City. He paid the bills by sculpting busts of rich people.

Dakin Hart:
He called it head busting, and he did it just to make money or he said he did it just it just to make money, but in truth he used it brilliantly as a way to social network, and it was a way to romance the people who were his patrons.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi was as great a networker as he was a sculptor, but head busting wasn’t exactly fulfilling. He wanted to think bigger. Here’s Noguchi in an interview from the 70s.

Isamu Noguchi:
In 1933, having done some more heads and so forth and being disgusted with doing heads, one has to decide to get away to another dimension. I suppose the same thing that makes us go to the moon, so I have to get away.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi wanted to make art that would live in the world, not just in a rich person’s home or on a gallery wall. He wanted to change the physical landscape that people moved through.

Dakin Hart:
Noguchi said that he wanted people to feel like the first person on earth, the first person to explore earth.

Roman Mars:
And so he started to think of a concept for a giant public sculpture. It looked like a massive, massive pyramid.

Jackson Roach:
Imagine a cross between a Mayan temple and a mountain, pushing up out of the earth, with a long slide slipping down it, and steps on two of its spaces.

Dakin Hart:
It is a step pyramid essentially, but on each side the steps are different heights and they’re irregular, they’re asymmetrical.

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t just the sculpture for a museum or a bank plaza. Noguchi thought of it as a playground. He called it Play Mountain.

Dakin Hart:
So he talked about play as the primer for a purposeful approach to space. Trying to teach people to be more mindful of space and how we occupy it and how it works.

Jackson Roach:
This giant ziggurat wouldn’t come with any specific instructions, would have no rules, no single obvious way to play with it. Noguchi wanted Play Mountain to be a strange new landscape, that would dare children to imagine other realities, so that perhaps they could grow up into creative, open-minded adults.

Dakin Hart:
And I think Noguchi hoped that by making playgrounds, he could impact people at that key stage in development.

Roman Mars:
In fact, the inspiration for Play Mountain came to Noguchi when he was at this key stage himself, when he was a little boy.

Jackson Roach:
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904. His father Yone was a famous Japanese poet and his mother was a white American writer named Leonie Gilmour. They met when she answered an ad he placed in a paper for a translator and assistant. Pretty much as soon as Isamu was born, Yone abandoned them and went back to Japan.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi and his mother eventually followed, but his father had already started another family by then. So Noguchi and his mother moved to a countryside town, where Noguchi’s bright blue eyes marked him as an outsider to the other kids at school. His childhood was pretty lonely.

Dakin Hart:
But from their little house in the little town they lived in on the seaside, they did have a great view of Mt. Fuji, but Fuji quite far away. So like just the perfect little pyramid. So you can imagine that view, that the little boy has everyday going down the stairs seeing Mt. Fuji.

Jackson Roach:
That idea of his own Mt. Fuji stuck with Noguchi. It followed him when he moved to Indiana as a teenager. It followed him to Paris where he apprenticed with the sculptor Brancusi, and it came with him to New York City, the place that he decided would become his home.

Dakin Hart:
So it was like, imagine taking Mt. Fuji and turning it into a giant play structure, I think that’s what play mountain was.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi wrote, “Play Mountain was my response based upon memory of my own unhappy childhood, the desolate playground on a cliff in Tokyo, which I approached with dread. It may be that this is how I tried to join the city, New York, to belong.”

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi wanted to move the mountain from his lonely childhood and reincarnate it as a place for gathering and playing, as a kind of gift to the children of New York. And after years and years of carrying that concept in his head, he got his big break.

Roman Mars:
In 1934, one of the fancy people Noguchi had made a bust of, helped him get a meeting with Robert Moses, the newly appointed commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. Moses had said his number one priority was to build more playgrounds in the city, which at the time, had very few. So Noguchi decided to bring him his idea.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi brought Moses a model of Play Mountain, two feet square, in a white plaster, on a wooden frame, designed to take up an entire New York City block. Noguchi carries this miniature mountain to Robert Moses’s office, dunks it down on Robert Moses’s desk.

Alexandra Lange:
And says, “What if we build this for the children of the city?”

Roman Mars:
This is Alexandra Lang, architecture critic at Curbed and author of the Design of Childhood.

Alexandra Lange:
And Moses is like, “No way.”

Roman Mars:
The playgrounds Moses envisioned were simple, asphalt or dirt surrounded by a chain link fence, with the four S’s of playground equipment – swings, slide, sandbox, seesaw – all made out of steel. Moses was planning just to plonk these four S’s in vacant lots all over the city by the hundreds.

Jackson Roach:
And here comes Noguchi with this massive, ambiguous, otherworldly urban mountain, which would have required the movement of huge amounts of earth and concrete, and probably would’ve cost a ton of money.

Isamu Noguchi:
He just laughed his head off and threw us out more or less, you see.

Alexandra Lange:
Like no way, nope. Four S’s. I’m just going to order them and like we’re going to have 400 playgrounds by tomorrow.

Roman Mars:
Robert Moses did end up erecting 658 playgrounds in New York as Parks Commissioner, but from this moment on he and Noguchi became lifelong enemies.

Dakin Hart:
He took his model and went home fuming. And he fumed about it for the rest of his life, really.

Roman Mars:
The concept of Play Mountain remained very close to Noguchi’s heart. As Noguchi himself wrote, “Play Mountain was the kernel out of which have grown all my ideas relating sculpture to the earth.”

Jackson Roach:
Play Mountain represented this idea that Noguchi had, that children didn’t need instructions to play with say swings or a slide. There’s only one way to use them and kids just do the same prescribed activities over and over again. But if you give children an abstract surreal landscape, they can interpret it however they want. They can make up stories and have adventures and use their intuition to play in a thousand different ways.

Roman Mars:
This philosophy would later be called non-directive play.

Jackson Roach:
For Noguchi, this was the way that sculpture could be out in the world and really change the way people move and think. He wasn’t going to give up on it so easily. In 1939 Noguchi offered to design a playground for Honolulu’s Āliamanu Park.

Roman Mars:
But that fell through.

Jackson Roach:
Still not discouraged, Noguchi pitches his Hawaii playground ideas back to the New York Parks Department again.

Roman Mars:
Again, he gets rejected.

Jackson Roach:
But Noguchi is relentless.

Dakin Hart:
And so Noguchi still excited by the challenge, went off and designed Contoured Playground.

Dakin Hart:
Contoured Playground is really gentle, basically a smooth abstracted landscape of sloping hills and dales and river beds. It’s still a non-directive playground, but it’s very subtle. This time the New York Parks Department actually seems open to it. They even start talking about finding a spot in Central Park to build it.

Roman Mars:
But by then the year was 1941, and Noguchi’s plans were about to change.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi was in California, visiting a friend, and he was out shopping for some onyx for a sculpture.

Isamu Noguchi:
In fact, I was on my way to San Diego and I happened to turn on the radio and that’s where I heard it.

Radio Announcer:
We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

Isamu Noguchi:
And my immediate reaction was, oh wow, oh my God, I’m a Japanese or I’m a nisei at least.

Roman Mars:
Nisei, or Americans born to Japanese parents.

Jackson Roach:
With the US entering World War II, Contoured Playground was forgotten by both the Parks Department and Noguchi. There were bigger stakes now.

Isamu Noguchi:
I felt that I wanted to be able to help in some way.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi started to link up with other Nisei looking for ways to make it clear to the government that they were firmly on the American side of the war.

Isamu Noguchi:
And so we had these meetings and our intention was that we would counteract the bad press, to stop kind of hysteria that’s developing,

Roman Mars:
But that hysteria was quickly coming to a head.

Roman Mars:
Barely two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066.

Dakin Hart:
Executive order 9066 gives the American military the right to declare martial law in any part of the country that it deems necessary to protect the homeland. And that’s with the understanding that in the western United States, they would round up the Japanese American population.

Roman Mars:
Evacuation orders with fast approaching deadlines started landing on peoples’ doorsteps

Isamu Noguchi:
And we have to get out of California. Everybody had to get out, including me. I had to get out, I abandoned my car in Los Angeles and flew out, came to New York.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi had always been good at finding exactly the right person for the moment. In this moment, he needed someone to help him take action, and so he found him in Washington DC.

Isamu Noguchi:
So I went to Washington, went around, inquiring whether there’s anything I can do. Finally, I happened to bump into John Collier.

Jackson Roach:
John Collier was the head of the bureau of Indian affairs, because the government needed to build the internment camps in large open areas of federally controlled land, they decided to build two of them on Native American reservations, which meant that the actual undertaking of building and running these camps would fall to John Collier’s department.

Roman Mars:
John Collier was relatively progressive. He wanted to give tribal governments more autonomy and support Native American culture. And then suddenly, he’d been given the task of designing and building prison camps on reservation land. Noguchi reached out to him.

Isamu Noguchi:
And he says, “Well, come on over. Let’s talk about it.”

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi and Collier started talking about what they could do with this assignment, now that there was no way to prevent internment from happening.

Dakin Hart:
They cooked up, and this is going to sound so crazy, but in a way they cooked up what was a utopian scheme. Because from their point of view, if it’s going to happen, let’s make it as good as it can possibly be.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi drew up a suite of plans for the largest of the camps being built. The one at Poston, Arizona,

Isamu Noguchi:
I made plans for the park development and this and that and the other, to make an indoor park like place.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi took the rigid grid of a military style camp with rows and rows of tarpaper barracks, and cut an avenue right down the middle of it, lined with public services, schools and gardens, a hospital, restaurants, a department store and a movie theater and a church and a cemetery, and a zoo, botanical garden, sports fields and a mini golf course and playgrounds.

Dakin Hart:
What you’re looking at is what he thinks the key parts of civilization are. You have a huge population of people who have been removed from their lives and artificially plunked down in the middle of nowhere where they are expected to “live.” What does that mean? What is a life? What does life consist of? What does it need to be real, to feel real? The playground is critical to it.

Jackson Roach:
The plans themselves are pretty unbelievable. But the really wild thing is that even though Japanese internment only affected people living on the West Coast and Noguchi was living on the East Coast, Noguchi and Collier decide Noguchi should actually go to this concentration camp in Poston, Arizona voluntarily, and live there while he carried out his plan.

Isamu Noguchi:
And that’s how I happened to go to Poston.

Jackson Roach:
The camp was being constructed in the middle of the desert in the southwestern part of Arizona, on the Colorado River Indian reservation. There was hardly anything for miles around, just scrubby brush and dust, mountains in the far distance.

Dakin Hart:
So Noguchi got to Poston like a week before it opened.

Isamu Noguchi:
So I was one of the people getting the base ready. Most of the people were coming in there to help, you see, and I was among them.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi was given his own room and thought he’d soon be getting to work on realizing his vision for a utopian community. I mean, this was a guy who plunked Play Mountain down in front of Robert Moses and said, “Let’s build this for kids.” His strange hopefulness knew no limits. But as soon as the camp opened, it became painfully clear to Noguchi, that the people weren’t coming there for an idyllic new lifestyle. They were prisoners.

Jackson Roach:
To the camp administrators from the War Relocation Authority, Noguchi looked just like another one of the prisoners. They wouldn’t give him the time of day, and because he had some special privileges, the other internees, assumed he was this trader in cahoots with the camp administrators.

Dakin Hart:
He immediately realized he was sort of the worst of both worlds, because he was just an internee from the administration’s point of view, and he was a turncoat, like a spy, from the other internees point of view.

Jackson Roach:
After about two months at Poston, Noguchi realized that the War Relocation Authority had no interest in making it a nice place to live. They ran it like a prison camp.

Roman Mars:
Because it was a prison camp.

Jackson Roach:
All of John Collier’s and Noguchi’s idealistic plans were ignored.

Roman Mars:
Seeing that there was no chance of doing what he’d come to do, Noguchi decided to move on. He figured he’d just go back to normal life, being a famous artist and hanging out with his famous artist friends.

Dakin Hart:
And they wouldn’t let him leave.

Jackson Roach:
Which was definitely not a part of the plan.

Dakin Hart:
He had no idea that he wouldn’t be able to leave.

Isamu Noguchi:
So I was locked up and couldn’t get out for seven months. That made me very uncomfortable.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi was suddenly a prisoner, having made enemies of internees and administrators alike, he spent most of his time alone with nothing to do. Poston was a bleak, barren place. Almost every day there was triple digit heat and huge dust storms tearing through, coming in through the thin walls of the barracks, getting stuck in your bed, and your mouth, and your eyes.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi wrote to one of his famous friends, the artist Man Ray, “Here time has stopped and nothing is of any consequence, nothing of any value. Neither our time or our skill. The world is nuts.”

Jackson Roach:
After seven months and many, many letters and phone calls, John Collier was able to get Noguchi out.

Isamu Noguchi:
After seven months, I got out on pass.

Roman Mars:
And he never went back.

Jackson Roach:
It’s hard to know what to make of Noguchi’s failed mission to Poston, and it kind of leads to this deeper question. Does it even make sense to try to find joy or beauty or playfulness, in a system that’s just fundamentally awful?

Alexandra Lange:
Trying to make a prison better when the prison shouldn’t exist.

Dakin Hart:
Critic Alexandra Lang again.

Alexandra Lange:
Like he thought he could make this internment camp more humane, but it’s in a sense…, like it’s an inhumane endeavor.

Roman Mars:
The whole experience was painful for Noguchi. His goals had been so compassionate going in, but racism and fear and bureaucracy killed those dreams. And then imprisoned him, when he tried to help.

Isamu Noguchi:
When I finally landed back in New York, in 1942, it must’ve been back in the late fall, in ’42, you see, I got back. I had about enough of all causes and everything else, and I just f*ck the whole work. I mean, I wasn’t going to have anything to do with it.

Jackson Roach:
After Poston, the idea of designing public works and playgrounds must’ve seemed wrong somehow. Like, how could you think about play when there’s so much cruelty in the world? In fact, in 1943 the year after Noguchi gets out of Poston, he makes this sculpture called This Tortured Earth, which is like the nightmare version of his model for Contoured Playground. A twisted landscape, it looks like it’s been stabbed and torn with a knife.

Roman Mars:
But once he was back in New York, Noguchi put Poston behind him. He threw himself into the art scene.

Dakin Hart:
He’s designing furniture, he’s making sculpture, he’s building a career in New York City.

Jackson Roach:
Noguchi steps back from his utopian ideas about art and sculpture, and this is the period when he designed some of the things he’s most famous for today, including the iconic coffee table.

Roman Mars:
Noguchi’s career in sculpture really took off, and he also got to design other kinds of environments. He designed dance sets for Martha Graham and sculpture gardens for corporations like IBM and Chase Bank. He was schmoozing up a storm, becoming a household name and a real star of mid-century art and design.

Jackson Roach:
Still, Noguchi has that hunger in his soul for something more meaningful than the New York art scene. He still wants to make something that can transcend a gallery space.

Isamu Noguchi:
And that is because, again, I have this feeling that sculpture was an important part of the living experience, you see, and not something for collectors to buy.

Roman Mars:
After a decade of looking inward, indulging in the adoration of the art world and recovering from Poston, Noguchi turns his sights back to playgrounds.

Jackson Roach:
He couldn’t shake that realization that he’d had, that playgrounds were actually the perfect way for a sculptor to make real change in the world. So he tried two more times to build playgrounds for New York. Once in 1950 at the new UN building and another in the early sixties, in Riverside Park.

Roman Mars:
And again, Noguchi’s playground plans were shot down by the city. But something was different in this round of rejections, because Noguchi was now mega famous. Everyone in the art world had heard all about his rejected playground designs. They’d been written up in newspapers and the models were displayed in museums, so other architects, artists and designers started copying them.

Alexandra Lange:
So there are a fair number of people in the 50’s and 60’s making abstract concrete forms and saying that they’re for children.

Jackson Roach:
It becomes a movement, a whole strand of playground design that Noguchi kind of founded. Alexandra Lang calls this the Abstractionist Strand. You can play with an abstract form any way you want, and imagine it as anything you like.

Alexandra Lange:
These shapes can become anything in your mind.

Jackson Roach:
In the 60s and seventies designers, artists and architects build abstract playgrounds all over the world. Climbing arches and stepping stones in Amsterdam, blobby triple slides in Austria, webs of steel and rope in Japan, and in the U.S., modular octahedrons and pixelated wooden landscapes, all made by famous architect designing and building abstract non-directive playgrounds. Even Noguchi himself was able to build some abstract-ish sculptural playground equipment in the 60’s and 70’s.

Alexandra Lange:
Noguchi was one of the first people to say that and make those things and kind of taking children seriously as connoisseurs of form, in a way.

Roman Mars:
It would seem like the perfect time for Noguchi to build the thing he wanted his whole life, the true Play Mountain vision of something that could turn landscapes into massive abstract forms.

Jackson Roach:
But just as it seems, Noguchi’s ideas are gaining traction, it’s cut short as the 60’s turned to the 70’s and the seventies draw to a close. The abstract playground movement goes underground, because in the 1980s the entire world of playground design in the US changed dramatically.

Credits

Production

Reporter Jackson Wiley Roach spoke with Dakin Hart, Senior Curator of the Noguchi Museum; Alexandra Lange, architecture and design critic. This episode was edited by Avery Trufelman.

Special thanks to Katie Swanson and Landscape Structures, Janine Biunno, and the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Diana Nguyen, Carlos Morales, and Marfa Public Radio, Stefania Gomez, Liza Yeager, Marlene Shigekawa and the Poston Community Alliance and Preservation Project, and the staff of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation Museum

Oral history interview with Isamu Noguchi, 1973 Nov. 7-Dec. 26. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Comments (12)

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  1. Bob Normal

    I was so excited listening to this episode but then so let down! I have known about the Noguchi Sculpture Garden hidden in a weird little commercial plaza in Santa Ana, CA. I totally expected you to mention it. I would like to know more about the history and what Noguchi himself thought of it. It’s enormous, open, and very interesting.

    The garden seems like it follows a lot of the design intents of play mountain, even if it isn’t as large. It’s still a very large area and plays with the space well, it’s a great place to go relax and read. Here’s a link with more information and pictures: http://www.southcoastplaza.com/stories/2016/12/noguchi-garden/

  2. Takeshi Moro

    This was a great story until you used the term internment camp. POSTON WAS A CONCENTRATION CAMP. You, as part of the media world, have a responsibility to use the official terminology. Please make this correction ASAP.

    1. sd

      There is much debate about what the most accurate terminology is with many scholars having different views. There is the possibility of confusion on the part of the general public but also a need to not downplay the circumstances. Just saying “concentration camp” is not accurate enough. A good discussion is found here: https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2012/02/10/146691773/euphemisms-concentration-camps-and-the-japanese-internment

      I think this short document provides good guidance.
      https://jacl.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Power-of-Words-Rev.-Term.-Handbook.pdf

      I would not that I have not seen much evidence of this discussion in Canada where internment is used by most survivors I know.

  3. Les

    Always read the plaque!! I was at a playground in Atlanta a few weeks ago which felt uncommon by design and I found a plaque and it is one of Noguchi’s. It is amazing how 99PI keeps connecting with my real life experiences.

  4. Topher Soltys

    I liked the episode, but there seemed to be an underlying assumption that children can’t play creatively on a slide. If you think that, you clearly haven’t seen children on slides. They don’t just march up and slide down.

  5. Onux

    I have to question the assumption that traditional playground equipment doesn’t allow for imagination or creativity. My elementary school playground had a post-and-deck structure, although older with logs and steel pipe instead of plastic. However, at various times it served as a castle, a pirate ship, and a space freighter suppling a distant galactic outpost. We never felt that there was “only one way” to play with the conventional equipment (at the “space colony”, the slide was the unloading dock and the adjacent monkey bars the cargo cranes). In fact, our imagination was enhanced by a very non-generic piece of equipment: a ship’s wheel that we used to pilot our vessels.

  6. Onux

    I wonder how successful these playground designs would have been in real life. One thing I notice from Moses-era and UN designs is a lack of anything to play in or under; there is only terrain. Yet being in or under things is part of the environment both built (buildings, bridges) and natural (caves, tree canopy). The Noguchi designs seem barren. They remind me of another mid-century design for public space, City Hall Plaza in Boston, that is most notable for the absence of almost any use by the public. The post-and-deck play structures, despite being “all the same”, remind me with their human (in this case child) scale features of Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market in Boston, next to City Hall Plaza. Although not a dramatic work, Faneuil Hall is always crowded in a way the plaza is not. I wonder if Noguchi’s designs would have ended up empty like the plaza, with kids and families flocking to more traditional playgrounds elsewhere.

  7. Kasey

    IWe were walking the Queens waterfront over the weekend, and stopped at Rainy Park – one of our favorites with two large hills that have a slide built into them. Instead of stairs there are rock climb grips or to hike up the slope. It’s such fun. On the walk home I realized it’s just around the corner from the Noguchi Museum. Then the next episode in my que was this one! I think this playground must have been inspired by Noguchi.

  8. The “Post and deck” playgrounds are a horrendous design. Kids naturally start running under the structures.
    Even on the picture above, you can see the sharp edges under the stairs.
    ( * see the two sheets holding the steps).
    This is one of the areas where kids run and hit their little heads all the time.
    Its time to redesign them. So glad you bring this issue.
    Awesome show.

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