Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Noguchi in Suburbia Vs. Noguchi in Nature

Photograph by Liz Ligon. Courtesy BBG/The Noguchi Museum.

The squat, mirror-glass office buildings by South Coast Plaza, in Costa Mesa, hard by the San Diego Freeway, look like a hundred other squat, mirror-glass office buildings scattered across greater Los Angeles. Most of the time, these buildings serve as a backdrop for nothing special, but Costa Mesa is different. There, the mirrors reflect Isamu Noguchi’s “California Scenario,” a little-known public plaza dotted with carefully placed trees, sculpture, mounds, and a meandering river. Noguchi spent decades trying to make something similar for New York City, but nothing ever happened. That chronicle of frustration provides a backdrop to the installation of fifteen Noguchi sculptures at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (through December 14th), in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary of the Noguchi Museum in Queens. It was fascinating to see Noguchi first in the epitome of bland office suburbia, and then in the Indian-summer lushness of the Botanic Garden.

Noguchi’s “California Scenario” is an essay on the landscape of California in seven parts. “Water Source” is a thirty-foot-high triangular sluice, with water flowing into a curving stream that is sunken below the sandstone plaza. The stream leads all the way to a flattened granite pyramid symbolizing civilization, called “Water Use.” A circular mound, dotted with desert plants, stands for one part of the state, while a wedge-shaped hill, circled by redwoods, represents another. A knotty stone sculpture called “Spirit of the Lima Bean” refers to the original use of the land under the South Coast development, while the circular “Energy Fountain” creates a rush of whitewater over stacked granite blocks. I’m not really sure what “Land Use,” the ivy-covered hill placed in front of 3200 Park Center Drive is doing. It does screen the door of the building, further separating Noguchi’s space from that of business.