Noguchi in Paris: The UNESCO Garden & Modernism and Mediterranean: The Maeght Foundation

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Marc Treib, Noguchi in Paris: The UNESCO Garden (San Francisco, CA: William Stout, and Paris: UNESCO, 2003), 148 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, US$45.00 (hbk), ISBN 0970973144 (US edition), ISBN 9231039059 (UNESCO edn)

Jan K. Birksted, Modernism and Mediterranean: The Maeght Foundation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 208 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £55.00 (hbk), ISBN 075460179X

These books record and analyse two post-war modernist landscapes in France, which were carried out concurrently, and both saw the garden as an art object. The solutions are distinctive and resulted in innovative projects; yet one is now known as a Japanese garden, while the other is renowned as a sculpture garden of a modern art museum. These publications help to adjust these views and help us to read the landscapes as they were conceived. They highlight the endeavour by the artists involved to provide new meaning to gardens, one considering the garden as sculpture deriving inspiration from Eastern culture, while the other takes inspiration from ancient Mediterranean cultures and its cue from the site. They also show how the gardens have developed and changed over time.

By the time Isamu Noguchi (1904–88) was commissioned to design a garden for the new UNESCO building in Paris in 1955, he was well known as a sculptor and designer for modern dance, who had also revealed an interest in landscape. Born in the USA of an American mother and Japanese poet father, he spent ten formative years in Japan. While his style as a sculptor was primarily formed as a studio assistant for Constantin Brancusi in Paris in 1927, the Asian influence remained present throughout his career. This remarkable cultural mix made him attractive as one of the nominated artists to further international cultural affairs at UNESCO. As a new organization founded by the United Nations, it intended to resolve international problems with diplomacy rather than belligerence. Based in New York, its new Paris headquarters were an attempt to decentralize the organization. In due course, a modernist complex designed by Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Neri and Bernard Zehrfuss emerged, producing a ‘Y’-shaped tower block, a separate auditorium and square office block. Noguchi was commissioned to produce the delegates’ terrace, but he managed to expand his project shortly after.

Mark Treib’s book details the background and context to the design and chronicles the progress of what became known as a Japanese garden, despite the fact that Noguchi noted that while the spirit of the garden comes from Japan ‘the actual composition of the natural rocks, the granite (lanterns, waterfall), the concrete, and wood (seating) is my own’. Treib convincingly demonstrates this by contextualizing his design with his other creations, and includes an authoritative account of the Japanese influences on him. He does so with a clearly written text and well-illustrated layout, besides photographs, sketches and diagrams.

The Maeght Foundation was named after Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, owners of the Maeght Gallery, a progressive commercial art gallery in Paris that was a main centre of postwar artistic culture. The Maeghts were known as promoters of modern art, which was particularly cultivated through their support for an extensive group of modern artists. In 1950, they acquired a property in Saint-Paul de Vence on an idyllic hilltop position in pine forests that overlooked the Mediterranean. It was frequented by their Parisian artist friends shortly after. When the Maeght’s son Bernard died unexpectedly in 1953, it was Georges Braque who suggested the creation of an art foundation as a memorial. An art foundation, seen in the context of huge social and political changes in the post-war era, was an innovative answer to stuffy museums, which were considered as dead, as not representing the contemporary. It was given the seal of approval by André Malraux, De Gaulle’s famous arts minister, who opened the foundation in 1964.

Conceived as a complex of buildings designed by the modernist architect Josep Lluis Sert, it was a remarkable collaboration between the architect and a group of artists, including Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Braque and Pierre Tal-Coat. Jan K. Birksted explores some of the many ideas culminating from this group of artists, and explores how these ideas were articulated by the architect in the design of the building and by the artists in the design of their outdoor spaces, with specific reference to ancient and classical Mediterranean culture. A ruined chapel was rebuilt as part of the complex, and careful consideration was given to views towards the Mediterranean. There was an emphasis on the preservation of the pine forest, which provides its unique setting and a contrasting back foil, as well as the careful choice of building materials on the site. The terraces emerging from the buildings provide a magnificent setting for so much of the modern art displayed here.

After his comprehensive and perceptive architectural analysis of the making of the art foundation, Birksted uses the study as a basis to explore ‘spatial temporality’, presented as an ‘academic envoi’. This is clearly an attempt to intellectualize the book, picking up on contemporary issues in architectural theory and cultural geography. The value of the book, however, undoubtedly lies in the first part that provides material currently not available elsewhere and which is properly referenced and well-illustrated. The reproduction of the illustrations is slightly grey; and they could all probably have been reproduced with greater clarity and at a larger size.

The greatest shortcoming of both books lies in the lack of plan material; Birksted might have included the original site survey and, perhaps, the original proposals or a modern survey drawing; instead we will have to make do with a rather schematic plan.

The few plans reproduced by Treib are details of larger plans and it is unfortunate that there is no overall plan of what Noguchi produced, or exactly where the boundaries of what he ultimately produced lie. This type of drawing may not exist, but a measured survey of the entire area (a small section of which has been reproduced) would have been helpful, and this would also have been the case of the other projects referred to. This would have enhanced the comprehension of the various issues relating to the sites. Conceived in isolation from each other, both these landscapes and the publications about them have little duplication; the gardens were separate attempts to imbue them with meaning. These publications are a great attempt to bring these innovative projects to the general consciousness.

Jan Woudstra
Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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