Noguchi Plaza and To the Issei

Background information

Isamu Noguchi, 1983. Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) 244 S. San Pedro
From the dedication plaque: "This plaza, a gift from the City of Los Angeles to the people of Little Tokyo, was designed by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and dedicated on July 26, 1983. Crowning the plaza is the monumental sculpture by Noguchi, entitled "To the Issei" as a tribute to the first generation of Japanese who immigrated to America.

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an Irish American mother. He studied sculpture in America and later, as a Guggenheim Fellow, with Brancusi in France. Noguchi was the first Japanese American artist to attain international prominence, receiving major commissions for public sculpture and parks around the world. In 1987 Noguichi received The National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center is honored to be entrusted with this plaza which is the first and only public installation created by Isamu Noguchi for his native city."

Seasonal changes, annual events, a reminder of the community's beginnings as Americans and a playground for young children all bring a sense of time and place to this plaza. It is an enclave for privacy as well as a community stage for an active public life. Making a visually coherent composition that is an aesthetic gift to the city, the plaza's rich symbolism links the present to past generations with references to shared traditions and culture.

Planning for the plaza began in 1978 when Noguchi was invited by the Friends of Little Tokyo Arts (FOLTA) to design a sculpture for an open passageway planned between an office and classroom building, a gymnasium and a theater of the proposed JACCC complex.

After looking at a model of the site the following year, Noguchi suggested enlarging the space for his work by completely removing the gym from the plans and relocating the theater to the gym's former site. His bold and innovative proposal, which created a unified composition of architecture, open space and sculpture, was enthusiastically endorsed by the Community Redevelopment Agency, and in January 1980, the Agency commissioned Noguchi to design the new plaza. The $200,000 sculpture, To the Issei, was commissioned two months later with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Atlantic Richfield Corporation, Lloyd E. Rigler, Lawrence E. Deutsch and the Friends of Little Tokyo Art (FOLTA). Engineering and construction drawings of the plaza were prepared by the architectural firm of Fuller and Sadao PC. Though the plaza and sculpture were both scheduled to be dedicated in time to commemorate the city's Bicentennial in 1981, construction of the plaza could not begin until the theater was completed that year.

Organizing the plaza as a focal point, To the Issei venerates the founders of the Japanese American community with two 12' long basalt rocks that harken back in material and form to traditional Japanese rock compositions. One rock lies horizontal, suggesting repose, and the other, standing upright but slightly tilted to form a diagonal line that is a Japanese symbol for mankind, evokes heroic power. The chipped surface of each of the 20-ton rocks exposes the inner texture of the basalt, reflecting a Japanese artistic tradition of slightly altering natural materials as a symbol of completing them with a human presence. By giving voice to the core Japanese belief of ancestral respect, these rocks, according to Noguchi, "express a congealment of time" and create an aura of the eternal, universal and immortal.

A pedestal, reminiscent of the terraced mounds raising Buddhist temples, and to the tumuli--the pre-historic burial mounds in Japan--lifts To The Issei above the surrounding plaza. Oversize steps, which force people climbing the pedestal to climb it like a mountain, serve as risers for an outdoor amphitheater. A 75 foot diameter concrete ring near the center of the plaza outlines the stage. The shallow steps and benches on the north and west side of the plaza serve as theater seats. A mound-shaped fountain near the west entrance is encased with black granite pavers that Noguchi carefully set to shape the flowing water. The patterns of brick in the plaza were influenced either by the raked sand in sansui (rock and sand) gardens in Japan or by the formal designs in Italian plazas. Designed to be a "surprise" for children exploring the plaza, ramps and a sand box near the north wall continue Noguchi's life-long interest in creating artistic as well as functional playgrounds.

Though local business people opposed enclosing the plaza because they wanted the open space connected directly with the surrounding community, Noguchi felt the 12' wall bordering the north and west sides would define the space, give it scale and prevent future encroachment by other buildings. A line of pines and eucalyptus soften the wall's stark surface and give a seasonal character and color to the plaza. And in contrast to the western practice of creating a finished design, Noguchi put in small trees so their growth would continually change the plaza's appearance, preventing the space from ever being completed. He also supported a community effort, led by the Japanese Gardening Federation, in creating a living connection with the past by replanting a nearby century old grapefruit tree in the northwest corner of the plaza.

Though Noguchi blended the composition and material of To The Issei with a sense of enclosure to suggest an abstract Zen garden, the space was conceived to be more than an aesthetic experience for viewing from the outside. Noguchi wanted the space to be a "piazza," serving a variety of community purposes and functioning "like a town square in Italy". Reflecting different moods, the plaza cannot be fully experienced in one visit. On quiet days, it appears stark and empty, a space to pass through and an enclave to rest in. But during the annual cycle of festival days, the plaza is a crowded outdoor urban theater hosting public events and activities that bind the community together.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, October 1997. Text from plaque added by Ruth Wallach in February 1998.

Back to Little Tokyo.