Discovering Noguchi’s Lost Garden

The story of the artist’s unbuilt vision for Lever House

Left: Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto. Right: © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Charles Uht.

Among the artists who have collaborated with SOM over the years, the modernist sculptor Isamu Noguchi played an especially influential role in shaping spaces that unite art and architecture. Today, on Noguchi’s birthday, we trace the origin of a creative partnership that would last for more than a decade.

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

Lever House, 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.

Isamu Noguchi (left) with Gordon Bunshaft in Japan, circa 1970. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

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.

A model of Lever House. Noguchi designed his sculpture garden for the open central courtyard, which is visible in the left image. Photos © Ezra Stoller | Esto

Imagining 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.”

Noguchi’s first scheme for the central courtyard at Lever House. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Charles Uht

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.

Noguchi’s final scheme for Lever House. The second model pictured was fabricated by Larry List in 2003. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photos by Charles Uht (left) and Kevin Noble (right)

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.

Correspondence between Bunshaft and Noguchi. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.
Noguchi peers into a scale model of Lever House and his first scheme for the open central courtyard. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Charles Uht

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.

When Lever House opened in 1952, its courtyard was considered a placeholder for Noguchi’s planned work. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

An ongoing relationship

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.

Noguchi works on a sculpture in the sunken garden of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Vytas Valaitas

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.”

Drawings for Noguchi’s final proposal for Lever House. Image © SOM

Homage to the original vision

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.

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.

Lever House and its central courtyard circa 2004. Pictured right: Thebes (foreground left); To Darkness (center); Sun at Midnight (background left). Photos courtesy Ken Smith, ASLA
The Noguchi Foundation’s installation in the Lever House lobby gallery. Clockwise from top left: Sun at Midnight; Shodō Flowing (center), Sculpture Finding (behind glass); Victim (left) and Spirit (right); Mortality (left) and Victim (right). © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photos by Kevin Noble
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated SOM’s story.