Isamu Noguchi's unrealised playground design revealed in New York

Contoured Playground
Isamu Noguchi's ‘Contoured Playground’ (1941), recreated at The Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York.
(Image credit: Photography: Nicholas Knight. © INFGM / ARS)

Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture and design work might seem focused on the individual’s experience, but in fact, the legendary artist also greatly considered the realm of public space, too. In a new exhibition currently on view at The Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, one of Noguchi’s unrealised designs for a playground takes centre stage.

Created in 1941, ‘Contoured Playground’ was a concept utilising ‘earth modulations’ to delineate a landscape where children could play. Like many of Noguchi’s other designs for playgrounds, it was never built, though one archival photograph clearly depicts the fully completed concept in a two x two ft plaster model, which Noguchi cast of the design.

It’s from this photo that the museum has created a 10 ft square enlargement of the original model, along with recreations of the original playground equipment that Noguchi had designed for it. (The equipment proposals were only ever documented in one archival photograph.)

Isamu Noguchi New York

Model of  Isamu Noguchi's ‘Contoured Playground’ (1941), fabricated 2018-2019.

(Image credit: Nicholas Knight)

The installation is further complemented by a 1:1 scale silhouette of the topography that Noguchi envisioned for the playground, giving viewers the feeling of standing at the heart of it, should it have ever been built. Co-curated with Naomi Frangos, an architect and visiting associate professor at Cornell University, the exhibition also featured is a bronze cast version of the original model, which dates from 1963, together with several other schematic interpretations of the playground space that all provide a multilayered experience of understanding this large-scale, unrealised design.

Noguchi’s other explorations in spatial design can be further seen in an additional curation of models, being presented at the same time. Five designs for projects have been grouped together to form ‘Models for Spaces’, a secondary exhibition highlighting some of Noguchi’s endeavours where little is known. These include a model for gardens for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (1956-57), which did get built, a memorial to Buddha (1957) in New Delhi, India, which was never realised, as well as a design for a stone and water terrace in the atrium of the Sogetsu Flower Arranging School (1977-78) that was realised.

Viewed as a whole, both exhibitions exemplify Noguchi’s belief in sculpture’s ability to manipulate our experience of space. In his own words, ‘If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.’ 

‘Models for Spaces’ at The Noguchi Museum

An installation view of ‘Models for Spaces’ at The Noguchi Museum. 

(Image credit: Nicholas Knight. © INFGM / ARS)

Model of Isamu Noguchi's ‘Contoured Playground

Model of Isamu Noguchi's ‘Contoured Playground’ (1941)

(Image credit: Nicholas Knight)

‘Contoured Playground’ by Isamu Noguchi.

Model of Isamu Noguchi's ‘Contoured Playground’ (1941). 

(Image credit: Nicholas Knight)


‘In Search of Contoured Playground’ and ‘Models for Spaces’ are on view until 2 February 2020.


The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road (at Vernon Boulevard)
Long Island City
New York


Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.