The bus stops in a parking lot next to a trailer, in an industrial area north of Sapporo, one of the snowiest metropolises in the world, capital of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Everyone gets off, including the bus driver. Standing on the asphalt outside the door he looks at me and says, “35.” That’s what he had said to me at the bus station when I queried him with the one word, “Moerenuma?”
Moerenuma Koen is Isamu Noguchi’s last work, a 400-acre public park, completed in 2005, that includes mountains, rivers, beaches, and forests of play equipment. It combines Noguchi’s greatest ambition, in terms of scale, with his smallest, in terms of audience. In any chapter on the artist and designer’s desire to shape space, Moerenuma is the endpoint. And yet, even among modernist friends and Noguchi fans, I couldn’t find anyone I knew who had been there.
Travel stories about the Hokkaido region focus on skiing and real mountains, not tetrahedrons. Design-inclined tourists head south to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, in Takamatsu, which looks lovely and rural. I, however, was looking for the ultimate Noguchi experience.
“Play freely at your own risk,” a well-known sign at Tokyo’s oldest adventure playground, Hanegi Playpark, reads. All three elements—play, freedom, risk—are in ample evidence at Kodomo Yume Park, a newer addition to the city’s play infrastructure. There’s an open space where young kids are building a village with their own hands, and a mesa of dirt, donated by a construction company, that has been riddled with canyons and holes. I was in Japan to visit adventure playgrounds for book research, and at every playground, at some point, a child poured a bucket of water down a trench, just to see where it would flow. News articles about adventure playgrounds tend to focus on the hammers and the saws, but for many urban children simply mucking about can be a pleasurable way of spending an afternoon. I was reminded of my own younger brother, who never found a stream or puddle too small to fall into. If Hanegi Park had been down the street, he would always have known where to go looking for mud.
My trip coincided with the publication of “The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play!” in the Times Magazine, a masterful bit of parental trolling whose comment section reached a symbolic two thousand and sixteen entries before it was closed. The dozens of adventure playgrounds in Tokyo offer, as a public amenity, what Mike Lanza (the “anti-helicopter parent” in question) says he created in his private Menlo Park, California, back yard: a challenging and unscheduled place for physical play that is largely free of parental supervision. Lanza is far from alone in believing that American children have a play problem. Take a look at Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog, which is peppered with reports of cops and child-protective services being called when parents leave their kids to play unsupervised. Lanza’s own book, “Playborhood,” describes the kids-can’t-play problem as both a social one and a spatial one. Without broader community support, such back-yard attempts at free play like his are doomed to become exercises in vanity. Look at them on the roof! My kids are more resilient than yours!
On Thursday, November 10, the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, providing the 54-year-old house—which has been called “The First Postmodern Anything”—with its first preservation protection. The historical commission will now have to be consulted about any changes to the house’s exterior.
In a perfect world, the interior would be covered too, as the so-called Mother’s House without its angular stair or slot-like widow’s walk would just be a flat symbol— the kind of superficial interpretation of postmodernism Venturi and partner Denise Scott Brown have always fought against.
By coincidence, I had my first opportunity to visit the Mother’s House two days later, as part of a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art on Venturi’s concurrent project, the book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which just turned 50. Along with two busloads of architects, I descended upon Chestnut Hill to shift positions within and share in the strange beauty of the small, low-ceilinged rooms of this building, iconic because it was designed to be so, but unmonumental IRL.
There was a time when I wrote about many apartments. Apartments with rubber floors. Apartments with transparent bathtubs. Apartments with flip-up facades. Toward the end of interviewing their architects I would ask, almost as a throwaway, “is there a house that inspires you?” Nearly everyone answered, “the Maison de Verre.”
Maison de Verre—designed by architects Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet in Paris in 1932—is, as its name suggests, a glass house designed to solve a set of strangely familiar urban problems: a historic hôtel particulier; a tenant who won’t move out; a doctor who wants to work from home.
The result is a poetic machine, a two-story building set in a courtyard between two existing party walls, that creates a specific atmosphere out of its compromises through the deployment of translucent, textured curtain walls and movable parts—louvered windows, retractable stairs, pivoting screens. It makes those other glass houses, which only have to keep out the rain, look a little bit lazy.
Apparently, you have to see it to believe it, which makes the idea of a retrospective on Chareau (1883-1950) that’s not in Paris, home of his only remaining work of architecture, seem perverse at best.
Jarrett Fuller interviewed me in June as part of his thesis project on design media and criticism. That interview has now become part of his new podcast, Scratching the Surface, and is available on SoundCloud and via the link below.
His first guest was Google Design’s Rob Giampietro, and I know he has many luminaries lined up. If you are a podcast person, and interested in the ins and outs of design writing today, I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
Manhole covers of Japan do not disappoint. pic.twitter.com/gUbChDKpGE— Alexandra Lange (@LangeAlexandra) October 23, 2016