Art + SOM: Isamu Noguchi's Garden for Lever House

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Groundwork for collaboration

In 1952, a gleaming new building on Park Avenue in New York City marked a turning point in American architecture. Lever House was the city's first glass and steel office tower, boldly expressing a modern style that would define an era. This landmark building also catalyzed an important but relatively unknown collaboration between its architect, SOM's Gordon Bunshaft, and the artist Isamu Noguchi. At a pivotal moment in American Modernism, Bunshaft and Noguchi envisioned for Lever House a synthesis of art and architecture that, although unrealized, laid the groundwork for years of collaboration between the two men.

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Complementary visions

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was one of the most prolific and versatile artists of his generation. Described in The New York Times as “a creative force who resisted boundaries," he worked in a wide range of media, from industrial design to large-scale outdoor sculpture, driven by the conviction that art should be present in everyday life. The architect Gordon Bunshaft held a complementary perspective—an avid collector of modern art, he appreciated the role of the artist in relation to architecture. Having admired Noguchi's work for years, Bunshaft invited him to collaborate on the Lever House project.

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Setting for an urban sculpture garden

Bunshaft's design for Lever House marked a radical shift from the dense, heavy masonry buildings that characterized New York at the time. Composed of a slender glass and steel tower, rising on a two-story podium with an open central courtyard, his design brought light and air into the center of the city. With the building already under construction, in 1951, Bunshaft commissioned Noguchi to design a sculpture garden for the courtyard. “We hoped to have sculpture integrated with the total design, including landscape,” Bunshaft said, "and Noguchi was the only sculptor that I knew of in the world who had the requisite knowledge of architecture, of plant material, and of space design."

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Noguchi's initial scheme

Noguchi began to create studies for the sculpture garden, envisioning an “oasis of art” at the heart of the city. The artist drew on inspiration from his travels, including in Japan, where he had lived until the age of 13 and would return to live and work throughout his life. Inspired by the white sand gardens of Kyoto, he imagined the garden courtyard of Lever House as a pristine marble stage, from which sculptures would rise. His initial design arranged a group of three granite columns in a reflecting pool—sculptural abstractions of a father, mother, and child. Informal seating areas around the podium completed Noguchi's initial design.

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The final proposal

When Lever House had its grand public opening, in the summer of 1952, its courtyard design was considered a placeholder for Noguchi's work in progress. The artist returned to New York in early 1953 to develop his final scheme. "I spared no effort or expense," Noguchi said. After making an elaborate model of the ground floor of the building, he began to craft the sculptural forms to place into his plaza. He retained the three granite columns and created a triangulated composition, with only one of the columns standing in the reflecting pool. He also included a study of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column—the first in a series of interpretations of the work of the Romanian sculptor, with whom Noguchi had apprenticed as a young man.

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Moving between two worlds

Despite his creative productivity in New York, Noguchi was unhappy with his life there. He was living apart from his Japanese wife, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who was struggling to obtain her visa to live in the U.S. When he finished the final model for the Lever House commission in July 1953, Noguchi flew to Paris to reunite with Yamaguchi. They spent several months traveling throughout Europe, scouting marble samples for the sculpture garden along the way. In their correspondence, Bunshaft relayed his excitement for Noguchi's proposal, but encouraged the artist to return to New York as soon as possible to finalize the details. "It is sometimes dangerous to let a project like this lag too long," he wrote.

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Silver lining

In January 1954, Noguchi received disappointing news. A bad financial year at Lever Brothers left the company unwilling to move forward with his design for the sculpture garden. "The Lever Brothers job fell through with a thud," Noguchi recalled. "Did the anguish under which I had worked show through, or had they really run out of cash?” Noguchi's proposal nonetheless set the foundation for future collaborations with Bunshaft. Over the next decade, they would collaborate on several major site-specific works—from the sunken garden at One Chase Manhattan Plaza and the iconic Red Cube at 140 Broadway in New York City, to the sculpture courtyard at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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The artist and the architect

The relationship between Noguchi and Bunshaft was not always harmonious. Both could be famously stubborn and uncompromising, but they challenged each other in ways that were often productive. As Noguchi later said, “The architect with whom I have worked most is Gordon Bunshaft...It is due to his interest that projects were initiated, his persistence that saw them realized, his determination that squeezed out whatever was in me."

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Rediscovering the legacy

Nearly 50 years after its completion, Lever House underwent a comprehensive restoration, including the replacement of its glass curtain wall. The restoration also provided the opportunity to realize part of Noguchi's proposal for the sculpture garden. After rediscovering the artist's plans during archival research, the project team fabricated and installed the outdoor marble seating elements according to Noguchi's original design.

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Homage to the original vision

In 2003, to further celebrate Noguchi's vision for Lever House, a series of eight sculptures—on long-term loan from the Noguchi Foundation—was installed in the plaza, and an exhibition of six works in bronze was presented in the building lobby.

SOM would like to thank the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, for contributing archival materials and research for this slideshow.