Public art is a tricky thing. The line between satisfying the general public and maintaining artistic integrity is difficult to successfully straddle. Isamu Noguchi‘s Playscape manages to do both with flying colors. The playground/sculptural landscape at Piedmont Park allows art to become useful in everyday life. Somewhat sadly, it is the only playground Noguchi ever created in the United States. In the 1930s, the New York Parks Commissioner and the WPA Federal Art Project rejected Noguchi’s plans; the United Nations headquarters followed suit in the 50s. Luckily for Atlanta, the High Museum sponsored Noguchi to create Playscape in Piedmont Park in 1975.
In 1967, Jay Jacobs wrote in Art in America, “the public playground is suddenly in the midst of a renaissance as designers, sculptors, painters, and architects strive to create a new world of color, texture, and form for toddlers.” Noguchi’s Playscape, built eight years after the publication of Jacobs’ article, reflects this statement.
The playground uses all of the primary colors. They bounce off each other in various shapes—from a spiral slide, to a rectangular slide, to swings mounted from a giant triangle. The shapes and colors encourage children to interact with their environment. For this reason, Playscape is an educational haven for any preschooler.
In his 1949 essay, “Towards a Reintegration of the Arts,” Noguchi provides insight into his intentions with Playscape:
“In the creation and existence of a piece of sculpture, individual possession has less significance than public enjoyment. Without this purpose, the very meaning of sculpture is in question. By sculpture we mean those plastic and spatial relationships which define a moment of personal existence and illume the environment of our aspirations … therefore that the function of sculpture … is more than merely the decoration of architecture, or the treasure of museums. Both of these outlets, worthy though they may be, are an extension in kind of private ownership…. In the technological order alive today, another channel must be opened for sculpture, if that art is to fulfill its larger purpose.”
Noguchi further explains that his idea of reintegrating the arts into society is necessary to expand the limited versions of the current definitions of architect, painter, sculptor, and landscape architect. It seems to me that Noguchi’s hope for the arts was exactly what modern public art required in order to be accepted by the public. Artworks that do not interact with their surrounding spaces are considered to be less successful, or even to have failed. In this way, the time of the monument has ended.
Noguchi’s dedication to making a space that is intended to be used and enjoyed by the public is one of the reasons Playscape remains one of Atlanta’s most successful works of public art to date.
The playground is currently being restored by the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs to alleviate the weather damage and to integrate the safety modifications needed since its construction was completed in 1976. The Noguchi Playscape is located between the 12th and 14th Street entrances to Piedmont Park.