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Isamu Noguchi, the Los Angeles-born sculptor who died in December at 84, is renowned for his ambitious environmental projects designed for locations around the world, including “California Scenario” in Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza Town Center, a 70,000-square-foot sculpture garden intended to symbolize California’s natural diversity.
The Times asked Henry T. Segerstrom, managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, developer of Town Center, to tell us how he came to commission Noguchi and what it was like to work with him on the project, which is believed to have cost more than $1 million. Segerstrom was interviewed by Times staff writer Cathy Curtis.
My first desire to work with Isamu came from reading an art magazine in the mid- to late ’70s. The cover showed the Dodge Memorial Fountain in Detroit. I remember being impressed by the strength of the design, its uniqueness, the creative force that he was able to bring to bear and its gracefulness, combined with the strength of function.
As our Town Center project design evolved, a space was created within the confines of the two adjacent office buildings and the parking structure. We had decided to build a park because the park in front of the (Westin South Coast Plaza) hotel was so successful. Then I remembered Isamu–the fact he had done gardens as well as structures.
I decided to contact him with the prospect of a commission for the garden. Through an intermediary (Los Angeles art consultant Tamara Thomas) I made an arrangement to go to New York in early 1980. It was a fast trip; I went and returned the next afternoon.
It was winter and it was bitterly cold. Noguchi’s studio is in Long Island City, across the river from Manhattan. I was not certain how to get there and I didn’t know if a taxi driver could find it, so I got a car and a driver. I arrived about 9 in the morning and I said into the intercom: “I’ve come to see Mr. Noguchi.” A voice answered, “He’s not here.” And I said, “Well, I’ve come from California and I have a flight leaving this afternoon.” The voice–which belonged to Shoji Sadao of the Sadao Fuller engineering and architecture firm that Isamu employed to do the scale drawings for his gardens–replied that Noguchi had a cold.
But I was allowed to come inside, and I was so impressed by a personal viewing of Noguchi’s works that I implored Sadao to call Isamu and ask if I could see him. Isamu agreed that I could come to his home for tea so I could show him the drawings for the site. That was the only time I visited Isamu’s home in New York City. He was an intensely private individual. His apartment, designed like a Japanese home, was a place where he did not entertain.
We looked at the plans I had brought from California and I explained to him the configuration of the buildings and the parking structure. He said he didn’t like it and objected to the presence of so many cars. Why didn’t people walk, as they do in New York, he wanted to know. I tried to point out the virtues of the project, but he was not receptive and his cold seemed to give him a more negative attitude.
And so I departed with very little hope that he would accept the commission. But when I returned to California I was so intent on having him do the garden that I wrote him a letter in longhand telling him of my admiration and the fact that I would like to work with him on his first commission in California.
He came to visit me in August. He asked me what our budget was and I told him a figure that I thought was less than the actual budget cost but still a significant budget. His immediate answer was, “That’s not enough.” I knew that his projects were expensive by their nature, so we more or less passed through that conversation by my assuring him that we would do what was necessary.
Then he asked me, “Why don’t you do something at Stanford University; you’re a Stanford grad.” I said, “Well, my interest is to do something here in Costa Mesa.” So we ended the meeting with the issue still unresolved.
After correspondence between the two of us and with the aid of a third party (Thomas) we finally reached an agreement that he would receive the commission. He became convinced that I was indeed committed to the independent integrity of his design and I was willing to be flexible in our conceptual use of the property in order to allow him to create what he felt should be in the space.
Noguchi came back when the Town Center project was under construction to look at the site and take photographs. He went to Japan where he worked on the design for several months. Later, after he and I had been in communication by telephone and by letter, he returned on a Chinese airline. The passengers were very casually dressed–they almost looked like refugees. I thought to myself, “There is no pretense about this man. He has a very humble attitude.”
Isamu was small of stature, rather frail. He wore a cap and a loose jacket and carried two valises. If a third party had tried to figure out who he was, I doubt they’d have been able to spot him. I told him I’d assembled our architectural and construction people so he could make a presentation to them, because they were obviously anxious, waiting for the design.
And he said “No, Henry, I want you to see it first. I want you to see it alone.”
So we went to his hotel and he opened this one briefcase and pulled out a board that was probably 20 inches by 20 inches. On it were drawn the elements of the garden. Then he took several small models out of his case, placed them where each of the elements of the garden were to go and described them to me. I said, “Isamu, what do you call this?” And he said, “California Scenario.”
(The plans called for six elements: the Forest Walk, a sloping granite pathway bordered by redwoods; Energy Fountain, a cone of granite pavers topped by a stainless steel cylinder; Land Use, a honeysuckle-covered mound topped by a granite block; Water Source and Water Use, two pyramids marking the source and emptying points of a stream meandering across the plaza, and the Desert Land, a cactus-dotted dome of sand-colored pebbles.)
I was so convinced of the purity of what he had created that I told him I thought it was absolutely perfect. I thought the concept was brilliant. He had a singular ability to translate the scope of a universe the size of the state of California into symbolic elements that could be placed on a small-scale area. So the die was cast. There was no redesign. He was very pleased.
Then I had a second thought, almost a remorseful one. And that is that I’d been successful in getting the man I considered the greatest living sculptor to do a commission which I knew was going to be a significant artistic contribution to the state of California, and yet when it was finished, it would contain nothing by his own hand. (Noguchi, as is common practice, delegated the fabrication of the individual elements of the garden.)
So once again I sat down and wrote a letter in longhand telling him how pleased I was that he accepted the commission but that I would like to have something in the garden that was done by his hand as well as by his mind. And we began the negotiations for a sculpture that culminated in his agreement to do a piece which originally he entitled “The Source of Life” and which later–in respect for my family background–he renamed “The Spirit of the Lima Bean.” (The Segerstrom family farmed lima bean fields.)
In November, 1980, my wife, Renee, and Toren, my eldest son, and I visited Isamu in Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku, Japan. And we visited the facility where a stonecutter worked with Isamu. There we saw “The Spirit of the Lima Bean” disassembled, and we watched them place the stones, take them down, recut them, re-miter them, place them again. The sculpture (a compact arrangement of large granite boulders) was totally different from anything Isamu had ever done on that scale.
While we waited for the construction of the garden to begin, the selection of materials had become the paramount question. Isamu wanted the garden to be entirely of natural materials that would weather and age and blend with the natural world. He always said he would like to have little weeds grow up between the stones as the mortar cracked because he wanted the garden to “return” to nature. And he thought it would take probably 10 years of weathering before the garden would finally convey its true meaning.
We spent time going to the Huntington Library (in San Marino), looking at plant material. The choice of sandstone in the garden was also very important to him. Isamu spoke of his conviction that stone is the most important element in nature. We looked at some from Mexico and California and finally found stone from Arizona that we thought was good. So Isamu, Toren and I chartered an airplane and flew there. It was the first time he, Isamu, had ever flown in a private plane.
During the flight back I asked if he had ever worked with a developer before, and he said no. I asked why not. His answer was simple: “Because I never trusted any of them.”
That told a lot about his character. He had always worked with institutions–museums, governments, public bodies, corporations–but never with an individual developer. I always considered that the greatest compliment I ever received from him.
At the appropriate time, Isamu came here and spent several days directing the placement of rock and completing the design. We had reconstructed the walls of the parking structure so that they became a flat surface and they were plastered and painted white. I mentioned to Isamu that they would make a wonderful theater–I knew that he had worked with (modern dance choreographer) Martha Graham in the theater. He didn’t react too much, but the next morning we had breakfast and he said: “Henry, I think we should have your theater.”
We designed a marvelous lighting system that transforms the garden at night. We had a lighting consultant, but essentially we implemented Isamu’s ideas and the lighting consultant was more or less the mechanic. The same thing was true of the Energy Fountain. The fountain consultant hadn’t achieved proper control of the water and the splash was much too great when it came out the top. It was Isamu’s idea to raise the stainless steel cone above the base to release part of the water so it absorbed the splash. Over and over again, he was the one who made the final design decisions.
The thing that was particularly gratifying to me was Isamu’s tribute to the state of California, his recognition of his birthplace, which had always rather been ignored. He was considered a New Yorker and a Japanese artist, but in truth, he was a native Californian and this was the first revelation of his own appreciation of and sensitivity to that element in his life.
I believe he considered “California Scenario” his finest garden. He was very proud of all of his work, but I think “California Scenario” was exceptional in that it gave him the opportunity to show his respect for his native state.
He was a person who, I knew, would not want a dedication ceremony. When the garden was completed, I think I rather seduced him into attending the opening by suggesting that instead of having a dedication with political dignitaries we have what I termed a Noguchi celebration. We scheduled four evening events in May, 1982.
The first was presented by the Japanese-American Cultural Society of Los Angeles, in recognition of his bi-ethnic culture. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles sponsored an evening, appealing to Isamu because he was a friend of Pontus Hulton, who was then director of the museum. The third evening was for the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the fourth was for the Orange County Arts Alliance.
In his typical way, Isamu attended two of the events, and then he left.