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Blurring boundaries

REVIEW: LANDSCAPE BOOKS - Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space By Ana Maria Torres.Monacelli Press. 324 pp. £45

A sculptor who designed gardens, a land and public artist before either role was established, a transnational nomad at home nowhere and everywhere: Isamu Noguchi was a Modernist with all the right credentials for our Post-Modern times, so it is surprising that this is the first study of the environmental projects - earthworks and gardens, playgrounds and plazas, fountains and memorials, interiors and public sculptures - that remain his most distinctive achievements.

The early years of Noguchi, born in Los Angeles in 1904, read like the stuff of fiction.His father, a Japanese poet, deserted him before birth and later prevented him from using his paternal name while in Japan. His mother, whose ancestry blended Anglo-Saxon and native American blood, emigrated to Japan and then sent him back to secondary school in Indiana, which he regarded as a second desertion. After a brief spell as a premedical student, Isamu adopted his father's name and determined to become an artist. In 1926 he visited a major New York exhibition of Brancusi and the next year won a Guggenheim Fellowship to Paris, where he became the master's assistant.

From Brancusi he learned the importance of craft, the power of abstraction and a lofty vision of art as a universal medium of expression deploying archetypal forms. Back in America, he got to know Buckminster Fuller, whose visionary ambition probably helped to inspire vast, unrealised earth-works such as the 1933 Monument to the Plough - a 1,200 foot-wide, three-sided pyramid, variously cropped - and the delightful 1947 Sculpture to be seen from Mars, a face with a one-mile long, tetrahedral nose.

Noguchi's interest in the archetypal deepened after the Second World War and, inspired by Japanese models, the garden became his focus of interest, a place of would-be symbols and mythology. For Lever House - the start of a long-running collaboration with Gordon Bunshaft - he proposed (but had rejected) a 'marble stage' populated by plants, water and totemic, Brancusi-inspired sculptures.

Radically abstracted, something similar was eventually realised for the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale. For the UNESCO building in Paris, he created a traditional-seeming garden, while in the California Scenario the surrounding landscape was abstracted into a series of cryptic forms.

Noguchi designed some spectacular fountains - the elevated doughnut in Detroit's Hart Plaza and the computerprogrammed delights for Expo 70 in Osaka being the best known - and among architects is remembered for the five, ultimately unsuccessful, proposals for the Riverside Drive Playground in New York, designed with Louis Kahn.

Represented using beautiful plasticine models, scarred and scratched to evoke archaeological sites, these reveal another influence that ripples through the mature work: the Samrat Yantra Observatory in Jaipur. Noguchi saw playgrounds as a means of introducing children to the archetypal form-world of art and architecture, but many of his ideas were watered down by parks departments worried about maintenance and safety.

Although in black and white throughout, as visual documentation this book is unlikely to be bettered for a good while. The text, however, is disappointing, presenting a succession of projects in an uncritical, even-handed way that neither conveys the enthusiasm the author affirms at the outset nor enables the reader to grasp the essential nature of Noguchi's achievement.

The 'sculpture of space' was, we are told, 'his most significant contribution to modern sculpture', but he is not adequately situated in that larger context and the formal means by which designed landscapes, such as the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, are transformed into 'sculpted space' are not analysed.

Similarly, the determination to introduce 'history and ritual into modern society' is repeatedly asserted without any critical examination of just how it was - or even might be - achieved in public art.

Despite these shortcomings, for anyone interested in Noguchi, or in the now ubiquitous blurring of boundaries between art and environmental design he pioneered, this book will be an essential reference.

Richard Weston is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture. An exhibition of Noguchi's work opens at London's Design Museum on 20 July and continues until 18 November

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