Celebrating Noguchi Garden’s 40th Anniversary: A Closer Look into the Sculpture Garden

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Modernist master Isamu Noguchi found a supportive patron in developer and arts enthusiast Henry Segerstrom for what became “California Scenario,” the sculpture garden tucked amid office buildings in Costa Mesa. It’s counted among the sculptor and landscape designer’s most acclaimed gardens, such as the Garden of Peace at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. To mark the anniversary of its opening in May 1982, we invite you to rediscover this gem.

 

TIPS FROM AN EXPERT
UC Irvine art history professor Bert Winther-Tamaki, an expert in modern and contemporary Japanese art and co-author of “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics,” walks us through the 1.6-acre sculpture plaza and lends insight into its design elements.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Water Source: A 30-foot-tall sandstone triangle that serves as the start of the stream
“That seems like an abstract symbol of the California state water project, the 700 miles of aqueducts that carry water from the north to the arid south. That element—the triangular, vertical water stair—is related to an 18th century monument in India that Noguchi visited and photographed, an observatory that has a similar kind of geometry to it. So this is a “California Scenario” that has a trans-nationality to its making.”

Water Use: A polished white granite pyramid at the end of the meandering stream
“The element called Water Use is pretty extraordinary. Think of that in terms of the state of California where water is drawn out of the Sierra Nevada, and that water meanders through the desert. One subtle point that isn’t always noticed: If you look closely at the edges of the stone paving of the stream, at the point where they’re closest to the water source, that edge is thin. As you go downstream, it gets thicker and thicker in a way seems analogous to how water carries silt that builds up. Then that water in effect drains into this dark cavity underneath that pyramid of stone. … It seems to relate to the consumption of water in Los Angeles and Southern California, and maybe even to a waterway like the Los Angeles River that’s totally sealed in concrete.”

Energy Fountain. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Energy Fountain: A stainless steel cylinder mounted on a granite cobblestone cone, the fountain is 12 feet high and 25 feet in diameter.
“It has an optimistic, space-age excitement about it. Some people have compared the Energy Fountain to a nuclear cooling tower. That’s a little bit ominous from today’s perspective, but I think that Noguchi had a side to him that was a techno-optimist-utopian vision. He was a close friend of Buckminster Fuller for almost his entire life. So when I say there’s an association possibly with nuclear energy, it’s probably not a protest. It’s probably a slightly utopian vision, an excitement around the potential there.”

 

Land Use: An 8-foot-high knoll covered with honeysuckle and topped by a long, rectangular block made of Sierra white granite
“I say it’s a less optimistic symbol (than the Energy Fountain). It’s been likened to a sarcophagus, and once you hear that, it’s hard to forget that association. And if land use is being associated with death, and the whole garden was partly paid for by Henry Segerstrom, who was one of the most well-known developers in Southern California, there’s some irony there.”

The Spirit of the Lima Bean. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

“The Spirit of the Lima Bean”: A 12-foot-high sculpture composed of 14 Mannari granite boulders
“That’s one of the most unique components of the garden, I think. It has been associated with the Segerstrom family, who owned the land and grew lima beans on it. (Noguchi’s earlier titles for it were “Origin Stone” and “The Source of Life.”) You can think of that as an association with Noguchi’s birthplace of Los Angeles and also with the fact that those boulders came from Japan. … That relates the piece to Japan as well as Los Angeles as well as Henry Segerstrom as well as Isamu Noguchi himself. In fact, it’s signed, and I think it’s the only element that has Noguchi’s signature. There’s an ‘IN’ engraved on one of those 14 boulders.”

Forest Walk. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Forest Walk: A grove of redwoods beside a white granite pathway and lawn
“There’s a video of the ‘California Scenario’ installation that shows Noguchi supervising Japanese craftsmen who were installing elements in the garden. It’s wonderful to listen to him talk. One of the things he said was, ‘Each stone is a lesson to me.’ I think this is something that people appreciate about Noguchi: that there was an attentiveness to things like stones, to the sound of water, and also to the growth of the plants. (About) works that had plants in them, he often said, when you finish the installation, the garden is not really finished. It requires time for the plants to grow. I was looking at some early photographs, and those trees are tiny. You can see why the installation of a garden is a prediction of a later moment when the plants will grow into the size that would be effective.”

 

Desert Land: Circular mound covered with pebbles and studded with native California cacti, agave, and other desert plants
“I’ve thought about how to put the aspects of the garden together, and I came across a book, a geographer’s book about the state of California called ‘The Seven States of California’ (by environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin). You can map the seven elements of Noguchi’s ‘California Scenario’ onto this geographer’s analysis of the regions of the state. Desert Land, the component that has cacti growing out of something that looks like a sphere protruding out of a flat surface of the paving stones, that could be associated with the one-quarter of the land of the state, which is desert.”

© 2022 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

ARCHITECTURALLY SPEAKING
Marc Treib, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at UC Berkeley, shares his thoughts on the garden.

Q: “California Scenario” is highlighted in your upcoming book, “A Space Called a Garden: The Landscapes of Isamu Noguchi.” Is it your favorite of his gardens?
A: Favorite, yes, but more important, I find it the best of his existing gardens, his most complete and sophisticated work. With Henry Segerstrom’s sponsorship, he was given considerable latitude and relatively free rein. It’s important that the landscape architect, Ken Kammeyer, also receive credit for his contribution. He worked out many of the details that make the design exceptional. Unlike a few of Noguchi’s other gardens, the details are superb.

Q: Was the Noguchi Garden inspired by Japanese gardens?
A: In reflecting on his UNESCO garden in Paris, Noguchi called it a “somewhat” Japanese garden, that is, using selected aspects drawn from the Japanese garden tradition to inform his garden conceived as a sculpture. Like the dry gardens of Japan, the beauty of “California Scenario” doesn’t rely on plants alone, nor does its enjoyment. As his biographers have stressed, Noguchi spanned two cultures. That said, to me he is a Western modern sculptor whose work shares aspects with those of Japanese tradition. In the postwar years, as he spent more time there, in Japan he was considered American. To some Americans, his work appeared more Japanese—to some, it still does.

Q: Has the garden changed throughout its lifespan or was it meant to stay as it was when it was originally designed?
A: “California Scenario” was created as sculpture, a spatial sculpture in which we can enter and move. I would guess that Noguchi would have wanted the work to remain as he conceived it. As I see it, the changes have been relatively minor. Originally, the joints between the stones were set a bit below the stone surface, now they are nearly flush, perhaps for safety reasons or handicap accessibility. The stones do not appear as individual as they once did. But all designs change with time, from entropy if nothing else.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who visit the garden on how to have a great experience?
A: Nothing in particular—everyone’s experience will be personal. Henry Segerstrom told me that early on, even before the design was determined, he told Noguchi that although it would be a garden by day, it would be a theater at night. At certain times of year, it’s certainly a more comfortable place at night. My first visit was around noon and the space was almost unbearable—hot, glaring, and hardly welcoming. My second visit was in late afternoon after a rainstorm, with the low sun generating a strong raking light. Every element gleamed. The space was astoundingly beautiful. Also, step out of that central zone and find shade and seating, and the pulsing of the Energy Fountain. I would only say, just spend some time there, walk, and look—and if possible, visit more than once, by day and at night. It’s a unique and amazing place.

Photograph by Lauren Hillary

VISION OF THEATER COMES TO LIFE
In a nod to Noguchi’s background as a set designer who collaborated with Martha Graham and other choreographers, the garden served as a striking setting in August for a performance by Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project at a kickoff event for Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Candlelight Concert fundraiser. It had special resonance for Elizabeth Segerstrom, the concert’s honorary chair.

Photograph by Lauren Hillary

“I was wanting the garden to be alive and part of the narrative of the legacy of the land. My husband was always proud that his family gave the land to the arts,” she says of her late husband, Henry Segerstrom. “I’m so happy that Millepied picked it up and wanted to put the young artists there to dance.

Her husband often expressed great satisfaction with the garden, despite the project’s rocky beginnings, she says. In late 1979, Segerstrom visited Noguchi in New York to propose a project for a space between two office towers and a parking garage. He was turned down flat and left unhappy. But Segerstrom remained undeterred.

“Henry came back to California, and he wrote several letters to Noguchi, which are incredible,” Elizabeth says. “Henry was persistent.

“Henry got Noguchi at some point to come to California and visit (the site). Noguchi said, ‘I hate it. It’s a parking lot. I don’t want it.’ Henry said, ‘Mr. Noguchi, it is a parking lot, and I am a developer. But why don’t we make something remarkable out of it? … I want you to have the freedom to create something you want to create.’

“It’s a fascinating history. A lot of tension, a lot of fighting, a lot of fighting for Henry to get Noguchi to say yes. And he did.”

Noguchi biographer Hayden Herrera writes in “Listening to Stone”: “When Noguchi finally capitulated, he got on better with Segerstrom than with any other patron. There was a deep bond of sympathy between the two men, and the garden that resulted from this connection was all the more perfect because of it.”


“California Scenario”

611 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa

The garden is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, and admission is free.

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