It’s a sizzling afternoon on the western edge of Piedmont Park, with the shadows of oaks and Midtown high-rises slowly, mercifully leaning over, and a little girl yips in Spanish as she tries to summit what looks like a massive, mostly submerged egg—or a miniature, concrete cousin of Stone Mountain. Elsewhere, diverse clusters of families shriek down twin metal slides, a boy plows toy bulldozers through a huge sandbox, and a father takes flight on long-chain swings.
In other words, the most revered play area in Atlanta’s marquee park is doing the job its creator intended: setting a stage for exploration, rather than regimented play, as scholars have described it.
Nobody, however, seems cognizant of the playground’s historical significance, or that a nearby placard describes it, with no exaggeration, as a “world-renowned work of art.”
Called Playscapes, this recognizable playground so vivid with primary colors was designed by one of the 20th Century’s most prominent, critically acclaimed sculptors and designers, Isamu Noguchi, who once mused: “When an artist stops being a child, he stops being an artist.”
Beyond his sculptures and gardens, Noguchi is famed for the tables of glass and wood that bear his name, coveted by midcentury modern enthusiasts in particular. He designed play environments for parks in Hawaii (unrealized) and New York (rejected), among other proposals, throughout his career. But only Atlanta’s was completed in the continental U.S. during his lifetime.
Find Playscapes near the park’s 12th Street entrance, resembling at first blush more a modern sculpture garden than playground. Closer exploration reveals a white-painted spiral slide, a vibrant triangular swing set, and blocky climbing features that “help familiarize children with shapes, colors, and textures,” as an Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation official described recently to Curbed Atlanta.
Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American mother, a writer, and Japanese father, a poet, Noguchi forged a career of artistic experimentation. His studies of Eastern architecture and Zen gardens sparked an interest in marrying art with the everyday environment.
His sculptural installations and public spaces dot the world, including Hiroshima’s Two Bridges for Peace Park, New York’s Red Cube, Miami’s Bayfront Park, and Paris’s UNESCO Gardens.
In Atlanta, Noguchi’s sculptural playground was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in 1975 and completed a year later. The museum donated the work to Atlanta in honor of the country’s bicentennial, with Mayor Maynard Jackson accepting the gift, per the city.
In 1985, Noguchi opened The Noguchi Museum—established and designed by the artist himself—in Long Island City, New York, marking the culmination of his commitment to public spaces, as the museum’s Noguchi biography states.
Two years later, President Ronald Reagan presented Noguchi with the National Medal of Arts in Washington D.C. In 1988, Noguchi died in New York.
On the 20th anniversary of its creation, Playscapes was carefully restored—a pro bono project led by Kajima Construction with more than a dozen subcontractors chipping in volunteer work. It was rededicated in September 1996. Subsequent touchups have been lead by likes of Herman Miller Cares.
In a 2009 meditation on Playscapes and its legacy, BurnAway art writer Susannah Darrow opined that the installation succeeds “with flying colors” in straddling the “line between satisfying the general public and maintaining artistic integrity”—remaining “one of Atlanta’s most successful works of public art to date” and “an educational haven for any preschooler.”
The work, it seems, of an artist still a child at heart.