4 Lessons in Placemaking from Noguchi

March 5, 2023

In one of our recent ‘feed your eyes’ outings, we visited the excellent retrospective on the Japanese-American designer and artist Isamu Noguchi, at the Barbican. Seeing his work spanning over seven decades – from his 1920’s sculptures to 1980’s placemaking – generated rich conversations.
In the spirit of New Year Resolutions, we distilled 4 valuable lessons around the theme of what it means to be a placemaker.

  1. Expand your definition of Nature

’Nature is not just one thing. The nature of trees and grass is one thing. But there are many degrees of nature. Concrete can be nature. Interstellar spaces are also nature. There is human nature. In the city, you have a new nature. Maybe you have to create that nature.’

There is a sense, especially in property marketing, where literal representations of nature (a lavender field, freshly mowed grass, a butterfly delicately resting on a flower) have been used so frequently that become almost devoid of any meaning. Noguchi realised early on that nature – and especially urban nature – is a creation. There are endless opportunities to define it and represent it in new, unexpected ways. Let’s make the most of it.

  1. Reinterpret traditions to create something new

‘What I did was to bring an ancient art into our modern art by integrating it with electricity. I coined for them the name Akari, which in Japanese means light as illumination. It also suggests lightness as opposed to weight. The ideograph combines that of the sun and the moon. The ideal of Akari is therein exemplified with highness (as essence ) and light (for awareness). The quality is poetic, ephemeral and tentative’.

In the early 50s, Noguchi revitalised the Japanese paper lantern industry by launching the Akari electric light sculptures. He followed the traditional way of fabricating them – with a bamboo ribbing structure and paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees – but in contemporary, unexpected shapes. They were a hit, and are still on sale today all over the world. The lesson for us is to be rigorous when reinterpreting legacy and traditions, at the same time using them as a platform to create something original.

  1. Embrace the serendipity of spaces

‘I am interested in space – and the movement of objects and people wishing space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’

In placemaking, there are some variables which are difficult to control – like those ‘desire paths’ gradually appearing in urban parks, where people reject the designed pathways and erode the green areas with foot traffic. Noguchi invites us to embrace all the components of space, its objects and movements, and celebrate those relationships as a manifestation of life itself.

  1. Be a citizen of the Earth

‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere’.

Noguchi reminds us that a key component of our creations is… Ourselves, and our sense of identity. He never fully resolved his own conflict between Japanese and American heritage – but he travelled extensively throughout his life, even setting up various workshops in different countries, absorbing and documenting ‘otherness’ to enrich his own vision and creative outlook. Let’s keep on discovering, and feed our eyes with new, unexpected realities.

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