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An aerial view of Moerenuma park.

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A journey to Isamu Noguchi's last work

The designer's most fabled playground, Moerenuma Park in Japan, is a modernist fairy tale

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange journeys to Sapporo, Japan, on a pilgrimage to experience Isamu Noguchi's last work.

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.

And long before I got on the bus, I had begun to wonder if it was even there.

When the driver said "35" the first time I thought he meant that’s how many minutes it would take to get to Moerenuma. That is, 35 minutes on top of the subway, the plane, the train, and the other subway I had already taken that day to get to this place. The bus was the last link in a chain I had painstakingly plotted on a paper printout at home in Brooklyn, with tickets and schedules and an array of unfamiliar locations. I’d been following the bus’s progress on Google Maps. And yet here I was in a parking lot. Had he actually meant, "Take bus No. 35?" or "Wait for the bus at 11:35?"

He must have seen the panic in my eyes, because he pointed up the street. "Ten minutes walk," he said. Following the line of his finger I saw, over the low rooftops, the point of a blue glass pyramid. "Oh, the pyramid!" I cry in relief. "Pyramid," he says, and nods. Where numbers prove confusing, architecture clarifies.

I set off down the road, keeping the pyramid in sight at all times. More and more of its crystalline profile grew visible, wanly backlit by the winter sun. My quest would at least end at a castle.

Next to the pyramid, I began to see, was a large, smooth, manmade hill. Art or landfill? I wondered, but I already knew the answer: both. Once upon a time that might have been a silly question, but New York City parks at Freshkills and Governors Island are built on landfill. Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, a city park built on landfill, opened in 1974 as the first of its kind in the United States. One man’s trash, etcetera.

When the city of Sapporo first acquired a site bordered by marshlands in the early 1980s, they envisioned it as part of a "Circular Greenbelt Concept," which would eventually create a ring of parks and open space around the gridded urban center. In January 1988, Isamu Noguchi met Hiroyuki Hattori, the president of a tech company in Sapporo who had traveled to New York, where Noguchi was living, to try and convince him to design one of the new parks.

The Glass Pyramid at Moerenuma Park
Moerenuma Park’s Glass Pyramid was inspired by I.M. Pei’s 1989 addition to the Louvre. It holds a cafe, gift shop, and galleries.
Courtesy of Moerenuma Park.

As the pair walked around Noguchi’s Long Island City museum, the artist stopped at his bronze models for the Play Mountain (1933) and Monument to the Plow (1933). Both pieces were enormous carved and stepped earthworks proposed long before the so-called land art practitioners Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Nancy Holt attempted to rival the landscape of the West. "My best things have never been built," Noguchi said. (This story is recounted in Hayden Herrera’s recent biography, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi.)

In March of 1988, Noguchi went to Sapporo and visited three potential sites with Hattori and Sapporo’s mayor, who was happy to have an internationally-known artist work in the city. Noguchi was in fine form on this trip. Herrera reports that he dismissed one forested site as needing no improvement and a local art park as "a graveyard of sculptures."

Finally they went to Sapporo’s municipal dump … surrounded on three sides by a loop in the Toyohira River, and it had a broad hill where garbage had been piled. Noguchi was immediately taken with it and wanted to turn the whole 400-acre space into one large sculpture—the biggest of his entire career.

Noguchi was also driven through the center of Sapporo proper, which is bisected by a long and linear, French-inspired open space called Odori Park. (It even has an ersatz Eiffel Tower.) Noguchi Museum director Jenny Dixon says that Noguchi "wished to build a slide mantra for the children" at that important urban crossroad. Installed in 1992, and carved by stonecutter Masatoshi Izumi, the spiral "Black Mantra" remains a central amenity where it sits next to several generations of metal and plastic play equipment, shaming everything around it with its exquisite craftsmanship.

The notion of "play" had been an obsession of Noguchi’s since the 1930s. The mountain he devised, with one stepped side, a quarter-circle path to the top, and a pool at its base, combined geometry and the physical challenge of real landscapes. He would return to these elements again and again over the next 50 years as he tried, again and again, to get a playground built.

He made prototypes for play equipment in 1940 for the Ala Moana Park in Honolulu, Hawaii, but his designs were never built. When he was told his spindly swings and seesaws were too dangerous, he went back to the land, creating the Contoured Playground (1941) entirely in the ground, with no corners and no angles.

During the 1950s, Noguchi tried to build a playground in New York at a site near the United Nations. From 1960 to 1966, in collaboration with architect Louis Kahn, he tried again at a hilly site in Riverside Park. Robert Moses, unsurprisingly, was not a fan.

Noguchi’s first completed playground was temporary: Kodomo No Kuni, near Yokohama, built in 1965 for the Japanese Children’s Year. There were literally decades of disappointment in his remark to Hattori, combined with the irony that other designers had been given the opportunity to make earthy, sculpted, ancient-seeming "playscapes."

Noguchi returned to Sapporo two more times that spring and fall, making drawings and a model of the park at large scale. His last drawing includes Play Mountain. Noguchi died in New York in December of 1988, knowing that the park would go ahead. Seventeen years later, it was finished.

A marsh was dredged as part of a wider flood-control project, and what is now called Moere Lake forms a U-shaped moat around the park. On the map, I can see Sapporo Satoland, an agriculture-themed amusement park nearby, as well as a driving range, but the street view approaching the park is decidedly un-green: a two-lane road past single-story shops, garages, and houses.

I see sans-serif signage and an allee of trees next to a large parking lot. The first humans I meet are the couple running the park’s bike rental, housed in an Ando-esque pavilion. I get a bike, cycle over the moat and, finally, I’m here.

Play structures for children
Play structures in the park’s Forest of Cherry Trees.
Alexandra Lange

Directly in front of me is the pyramid, known as Hidamari, inspired by I.M. Pei’s 1989 addition to the Louvre. It holds a café, a modest gift shop, and galleries, but the highlight is the glass elevator that takes you partway to the peak. Two young women moved up and down the stepped amphitheater at the top, looking for the best photo angle.

To my left is the conical, 62-meter Mt. Moere, a popular wintertime ski hill. The city sits in a bowl surrounded by hills and the craggy, irregular mountains of Hokkaido. Beyond the pyramid is a second peak, Play Mountain, with the Aqua Plaza at its foot and the Tetra Mound behind. To my right, the park’s Forest of Cherry Trees, with seven clearings holding play equipment.

In the summer, a shallow circular pond, fed by three outlets, operates as Moere Beach. The park administration says the site gets 750,000 to 850,000 visitors per year, but they are concentrated in July and August, when the water feature is most appealing.

On a summer day the park fills with picnickers dragging carts and erecting tents, creating human-sized structures around the geometric grandeur. On this fall day the beach is a bare shell. I can hear voices on the other side of the mountains, but I only run into a handful of other visitors.

What strikes you first about the park is the scale. Moerenuma feels like it was meant to be seen from the moon, not explored on a tiny bicycle. Pyramid, mound, pyramidal mound, circular fountain, tripod, triangular bosque. You don’t always realize what shape you’re in (literally and figuratively) until you reach the top, and can look back over the ground you’ve traversed.

View from the top of Mt. Moere in Sapporo, Japan.
View from the top of Mt. Moere.
Alexandra Lange

When I reached the peak of Moere Mountain, winded and buffeted by strong winds, I couldn’t believe I had made it up the stairs. Down below, my bike keeled over in a gust. A plaque at the center with a map of Sapporo read, in one corner, "General summit for imagination. G.S.I. [Geographical Survey Institute] dedicate it to MR. NOGUCHI."

I did feel my imagination start to run a little wild. The paths seemed cinematically endless, stretched to oblivion, like the coltish screen heroine who calls out Nooooooo as she sees her beloved dragged away. I’d love to see Shakespeare set there, with the playgrounds as the Forest of Arden, the stepped mountain as the Court. The lovers can chase each other up, down, and around the slides.

These shapes reappear, in brighter colors and at a smaller scale, in that bosque, where formal paths between the cherry trees (they must be amazing in spring) lead from one circular clearing to the next. Each opening contains an array of Noguchi’s play equipment, some of it executed here for the first and only time.

Within the grove, there are no more earth mounds, but metal sculptures: lighter, more jewelry-like pieces. Bracelets, necklaces, and brooches upon which children may climb, including a Buckminster Fuller-esque climbing pyramid, three variations on the spiral slide, and a spiky swingset.

Each group has a slightly different personality. The first, with the pyramid, an angular double slide, and a set of Monument Valley-like walls and stairs, is an easy on-ramp, ready for big up-and-down movements. One in back, with a set of three swings bracketed by wedge-shaped walls, seemed like a place for flying high and then nesting in a set of stacked red Octetra pods.

Only when you’ve explored all the rest do you come upon the unique Slide Mountain, a cone-shaped stone mass with two arcing slides down and one narrow set of stairs up. I’d seen photographs of this but of course, no one ever shows the stairs. I’d come to think you had to burrow your way in.

The actual inspiration, I suspect, are the tense and lightweight sets Noguchi designed for the modern dancer Martha Graham. She was developing a new vocabulary of movement and needed complementary armatures. Children’s play is a kind of dance they make up as they go along, aided by curbs to traverse and walls to climb.

The most sublime experience, however, is at the rim of Sea Fountain, the large circular granite fountain, which is surrounded by a concrete basin and nestled in a ring of trees. A 50-minute water show plays three times a day when temperatures are above freezing, with an extra show after dark.

With a large crowd clapping and cheering, I can imagine the experience feeling something like the Bellagio in Vegas. But alone, with only a crow pecking at my backpack for company, I had the sensation of being drawn to my own weather apocalypse, and possibly to my doom.

Four images which make up a GIF and show the progress of the fountain sequence.
Visitors to Moerenuma can enjoy a 50-minute water show at Sea Fountain.
Alexandra Lange

The fountain sequence begins in a sprightly manner: At the appointed time, the crater-like ring comes alive with mist, first a little, then more and more, until the granite ring is obscured. A plume of water shoots from the center, higher and higher, cascading down in veils that the wind moves back and forth.

Then the plume subsides, and water begins to play about the stone blocks around the ring, plashing over their sharp edges. The wide mouth of the fountain is still, but soon it fills to the brim and splashes over, slowly filling the basin with rhythmic tides. As a pool forms, the water at the center goes still, then begins to shake and surge from side to side.

It was at this point that I began to feel nervous and exposed. What was down there? I knew it to be just design, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was making the water move, and the slow traveling of the wave felt as ominous as the moment when the spaceship glides over the screen, blotting out the sun. If I’d been swallowed by a sea snake, I would not have been surprised, such is the power of sculpted water.

I had always accepted Moerenuma as "Noguchi’s last work," albeit one constructed from his design, after his death. That’s how the park’s website presents it: "Moerenuma Park, Designed by Isamu Noguchi." It’s not an unheard-of scenario. When Eero Saarinen died, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo finished out his firm’s in-process projects under Saarinen’s name, only later starting their own firm with the Ford Foundation and the Oakland Museum of California.

It wasn’t until I got to Moerenuma and saw its size and complexity that the narrative of posthumous expression—tragically realized after death—began to seem curious. I posted a video on Instagram of the Sea Fountain disappearing into a blur of mist and got the question, "Was this before or after the Blur Building?" Diller Scofidio and West 8’s Swiss exhibition project of 2002.

I also wondered, was this before or after Fujiko Nakaya’s fogs (most recently seen in 2015, momentarily cloaking Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and in Tokyo at her "Fog Forest" the day before). Who owns mist? Who owns glass pyramids, for that matter?

Moerenuma Koen Model, 1988. Isamu Noguchi
©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Koji Horiuchi.

I put this general question to Shoji Sadao, executive architect for Moerenuma, and a longtime collaborator of both Noguchi and Buckminster Fuller. Before his death, Noguchi did a masterplan drawing for the site at 1:3000 scale that lays out the shapes of the major monuments on the ground. The model doesn’t specify the locations of the play sculpture or the details of those monuments.

Sadao then "selected and composed" the gardens of play sculpture, and he adapted both built and unbuilt designs executed during Noguchi’s lifetime for those locations. So, in the park we see today, there’s a version of downtown Detroit’s Dodge Fountain (1971-1979) in the Tetra Mound, and a replica of Miami Bayfront Park’s Pepper Fountain (1980-1996) in the Sea Fountain. The swings, the double slide, and the rocket slide were all executed at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park (1975-1976).

"He and I had been working on fountain design from the early ‘70s, when Isamu designed the Horace E. Dodge and Son memorial fountain in Detroit," Sadao told me. He also worked with Noguchi on the fountains at Expo ‘70 in Osaka—where Nakaya also debuted a pavilion enclosed in fog.

Given what I now know about its execution, I have to admit that Moerenuma verges on Noguchi pastiche. Dakin Hart, curator at the Noguchi Museum, calls it, more forgivingly, "a greatest hits of Noguchi land art ideas—including, as greatest hits albums often do, some new work. Basically, Moerenuma should be seen as the culmination of 50 years of thinking about and planning for major earthworks. He finally found an enthusiastic patron with deep pockets, and he went for it."

In case you can’t make it to Sapporo—where can you find the fragments?

As a plan, the park feels most like some of Noguchi’s courtyards, executed alongside the modular architecture of longtime supporter Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but blown up to gargantuan scale. The two courts at IBM’s Armonk, NY, headquarters, executed in 1964, feature a dome, a scooped-out fountain, a tetrahedron and a stone "tree."

The sunken court outside Bunshaft’s Beinecke Library at Yale has a pyramid, a donut, and a cube on one corner (like the Red Cube outside 880 Broadway in Manhattan), all executed in brilliant white. Without people for comparison (and the library’s court is inaccessible to visitors), it is impossible to tell how big any of these objects might be.

For the play projects, a plaster maquette of the Slide Mantra and prototypes of the equipment can be seen at the Noguchi Museum. A tabletop-size marble sculpture of the mantra is on view as part of the Smithsonian’s current "Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern" exhibition, and a playable, full-size white Slide Mantra is part of the permanent Noguchi design at Bayfront Park.

A bronze Play Mountain and one of the models for Noguchi and Kahn’s unbuilt Riverside Park are at the San Diego Museum of Art, as part of a traveling retrospective on Kahn. Many more drawings, sculptures, and models of Noguchi’s designs for children were shown at Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo earlier this year, and swings, Play Cubes, and a black-and-yellow sriped donut remain in the Bosque de Chapultepec outside the museum.

"The Playground Project," a separate exhibition and publication, debuted in 2013 at the Carnegie International, and put Noguchi alongside pioneers like Lady Allen of Hurtwood, Aldo van Eyck, and the designers who did get their playscapes built in New York City: Richard Dattner and M. Paul Friedberg. Suffice it to say: There’s never been more serious interest in play.

Left: A fountain on the water in a park in Miami. Right: A black and white image of a model for the Sunken Garden for the Beinecke Library.
Left: Bayfront Park, Miami Florida, 1980-1996. Isamu Noguchi. Exterior design with sculpture elements. Right: Sunken Garden for Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 1960-1964. Isamu Noguchi. Exterior design with Imperial Danby marble.
Left: ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Kozo Watabiki. Right: ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

As for the built work, there are the waterfront projects in Detroit (the tripod, the amphitheater made of stacked concrete "stones") and Miami (the slide mantra and the circular fountain). The courtyards at IBM Armonk are rarely open to the public, but the Beinecke Library was just refurbished.

You can still paddleboat around Noguchi’s fountains for Osaka ‘70, nine stainless steel geometric shapes, mounted on poles, which spray veils of water. Particularly at night under the lights, the shapes look like they are floating—or taking off. Children will love Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Noguchi’s only other playground, originally commissioned for the bicentennial by the High Museum and the National Endowment for the Arts, and restored in 2014.

There’s California Scenario, in Costa Mesa, where Noguchi executed a version of the ground-level topographic fountain at Moerenuma, creating an evocative desert landscape that appears with scintillating strangeness from between twin mirror-glass towers. Like the Black Mantra in Odori Park, California Scenario is just there, waiting, amidst the everyday. I felt a pang of sadness that Moerenuma wasn’t similarly situated in the city, where architecture would provide the contrast that makes Noguchi’s gardens great.

Because it was off-season, I was all alone amid the rustling leaves of the playground. So I did what any investigative play journalist would do. I slid down the slides, I swung on the swing, I climbed inside a bug-eyed concrete Octetra pod (originally designed in 1968) and looked up at the sky and thought for a bit.

There’s a valid line of criticism, vis-a-vis modernist playthings, that they are only an adult designer’s idea of fun. But Noguchi’s elemental shapes didn’t seem to be offering too little risk or too few options. And unlike contemporary catalog play equipment, their shapes were basic and non-narrative, letting even my boring adult mind draw curlicues around the climbing pyramid and flames below the Octetra.

I couldn’t decide what to do on the wavy striped caterpillar rings. Should I run along the top or ride it like a groovy spaceship? I did know I wanted to bring it home and install it in my own backyard. The ambiguity suggested the form was a success, even if I couldn’t shake the sense that Noguchi had, despite his and his team’s best efforts, built another "graveyard of sculptures."

A large winter crowd of skiers could animate Moere Mountain, but Slide Mountain (its form taken from ubiquitous Mount Fuji) was fun just for me, a tactile, full body experience that allows you to be an aestheticizing adult and a go-for-it kid at the same time.

Blown up to a slightly ridiculous scale, Moerenuma can only ever be a fantasy island, never a catalyst, which is what we ask today of grand urban parks. As much as I admire its effects, my visit now feels like a mirage. Maybe I never got off the bus and simply dreamed the whole thing.

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