Thirty-five years after its creation, California Scenario continues to be, for many people, a secret garden waiting to be “discovered.” Beyond Southern California, few know that it exists, let alone that it is one of Isamu Noguchi’s most important and unusual public spaces. For those unaware as well as those that are acquainted with it, may now be the time to discover it, revisit it, or to be reminded of the special experiences and other worldly visions this extraordinary garden can offer.
California Scenario is Isamu Noguchi’s last completed garden in the United States. Commissioned in 1980 by Henry Segerstrom, a developer with an individualistic disposition, he gave Noguchi more or less carte blanche for his creation. In the beginning of their relationship, Henry Segerstrom said to Noguchi, “I want an artistic dictator and you are it.” Segerstrom had a deep sense of his native land in Orange County and was susceptible to Noguchi’s mythologizing about his own California birthplace. Segerstrom initially envisioned a fountain for a small park surrounded by high rise commercial buildings. However, Noguchi suggested that he design the entire space and make something that would surprise everyone.
California Scenario is essentially Noguchi’s vision of California’s diverse geography as he interpreted it. Hidden behind and between tall glass office towers, it is a surprise to encounter if one is visiting it for the first time. As a 1.6-acre public sculpture garden, Noguchi constructed it as a series of landscapes within a landscape. Elements such as Water Source, Water Use, The Desert Land, The Forest Walk, Land Use, and Energy Fountain, are distinct schemes that symbolize characteristics inherent in the California landscape. Completed in 1982, California Scenario is both a metaphorical garden and a minimalist theatrical installation.
Noguchi is known primarily as a sculptor although he is continually referred to as a landscape architect, a designation he most certainly dismissed. His creative practice was not developed from a formal education or from conventions in the profession of landscape architecture. His approach was from that of a sculptor who understands the world through materials.
And to understand the essentials of California Scenario, a hybrid of his vocabulary of forms and concepts, one needs to examine the history of Noguchi’s public spaces. His first related concept was in 1933, Monument to the Plough. This was an unrealized project that stands out for its singular imaginative largess and its visionary character. An early earthwork concept, Noguchi pushed this unusual idea further with Play Mountain, also from 1933, which he later called “the kernel out of which have grown all my ideas relating sculpture to the earth.”
In the 1940s, Noguchi’s interest in public spaces remained active if somewhat dormant as his studio practice took a meteoric rise. It was in the 1950s while traveling around the world on a grant to study spaces of leisure, that his commitment to sculpture in the landscape, within the earth, from the earth, became a central concept for him.
During these travels, Noguchi observed Japanese gardens, Buddhist and Hindu religious sites, ancient tumuli, and community spaces that functioned in ways similar to his convictions for a complete definition of sculpture; as an aestheticized, quasi-spiritual space that connected people. He was particularly taken with the geometric pyramids of Zen gardens as well as the astronomical instruments built in the 18th century by Maharajah Jai Singh II in Jaipur and Delhi, India.
Noguchi reinvented and appropriated many of these forms into his own designs as well as incorporating his skills and interests in stage set design, having collaborated for many years with Martha Graham. Visiting California Scenario at night is to be transported to a proscenium within a moonscape that assimilates a magical stage for shadows.
Whether it is a first visit of or a rediscovery, it is important to be prepared or remember that California Scenario is not a conventional garden with shaded walkways, benches, flowers, lakes, or ponds with ducks. Rather California Scenario functions as a gathering place, a public plaza, similar to the Italian piazza. Having spent many working years in Italy, Noguchi was drawn to the designs of the piazza, a public urban space he believed encourages community connectiveness. Nevertheless, Noguchi did make a few concessions to conventional park design in California Scenario, constructing fountains and places to relax, benches in an enchanting small redwood forest and a cool stream running through what appears to be a parched, stone dry landscape.
In many countries around the world, Noguchi conceived some of the most fantastical gardens. From The Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to the UNESCO Gardens in Paris, to name a few, California Scenario is unique because it brings together all of Noguchi’s formal and conceptual passions.
The travel season is upon us. Californians are lucky not to have to travel outside their state to experience one of the most unusual spaces any artist has created. Whether to be discovered or visited, again and again, California Scenario remains a special attraction, unique and unorthodox and staggeringly beautiful.