October 18, 2017 – 2 p.m. EV - 6.735, 1515 St. Catherine Street W.
The work of designer Isamu Noguchi redefines beauty as an emergent quality rather than an aesthetic attribute, laying the groundwork for a transformation of contemporary urban space that values a deeper exchange between body, material and site.
Emergent Beauty in the Work of Isamu Noguchi
Aesthetic beauty is a byproduct of cultural conditioning. We attach the word beauty to something often because it follows a set of universal rules that we accept without question. Why prescribe beauty? Rather than imposing known formulas for aesthetic beauty upon the world can we allow beauty to emerge from the individual through a process of discovery? Given that design value tends to be judged by aesthetics rather than emergent beauty, the role of the designer must transform accordingly. This research proposes a new paradigm for design as an open-ended rather than fixed condition, thus destabilizing while expanding the role of the designer.
Aesthetic beauty desires completion. Programming a space is a means of completing it, defining it, and comprehending it. Yet as soon as a space is programmed it turns flat and is reduced to a label defining a function. Whereas a space that resides in a state of unknowing, resists completion and thereby buzzes with thickened potential, allows program to emerge, and invites a deeper exchange between body, space and site. Rather than beauty as an applied condition we might consider it an intense moment of encounter, a perceived condition that comes with haptic experience. Incompletion is a condition poised to seek and accept new forms of beauty.
The condition of flatness in the world of design comes with the issue of the finite. Visionary designers such as Frederick Kiesler and Isamu Noguchi went beyond singular, reductive aspects of spatial and social design, and were not concerned with design driven by program, scale, or an aesthetic style. Yet, their work holds the beauty of nature, transcending the flatness of a retinal experience by exploring spatial tactility - a thickened surface that offers a multisensory experience of inhabiting surface, a blurring of exteriority and interiority of place.
The notion of inhabiting surface in search of beauty is embraced by the work of Isamu Noguchi, a sculptor, artist, set designer who moved fluidly between the design disciplines. Whether working with stone, concrete, metal or topographic form his pieces invite an intimate dialogue between body and material, space and time.
Incompleteness and emergent beauty can be found throughout his prolific body of work but perhaps most potently in a series of un-built play-scapes, interactive landscapes designed for bodily encounter, physical exploration and blending of socio-cultural realms. His un-built play-scapes live as sculpture not merely representing what could but holding possibility and hope to be revisited in a contemporary context, adapted to new methods and tools of today. Like words left unspoken, Noguchi’s play-scapes honor the transformative power of design.
Our social responsibility as designers is not to tell people what beauty is but to let them discover it for themselves, to respect the natural human desire for curiosity and challenge. We must create spaces that invite conversation not demand a certain form of utility, that absorb our own cultural values not thrust an externally driven set of values upon them.
Naomi Frangos is Associate Professor, Lectures and Exhibitions coordinator, and curator of Center Gallery at New York Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture and Design. She holds a Masters in Architectural History/Theory from McGill University and a professional metalworking/welding diploma from Montreal’s Trade School. She has taught at McGill University, University of Montreal, UQAM, and Temple University. Architect, artist, craftsperson, and founder of her own design-build practice, naomifrangosarchitect, her cross-disciplinary work of over 20 years concerns materials/fabrication and focuses on the intersection of craft, liminal zones of perception, and phenomenological thought. Her work has been exhibited in galleries: Fischhaus, Fleurbain, Salon B, her writings published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, Journal of Architectural Education, Architect’s Newspaper, and her projects, Fabricating Intuitive Innovation in Digital Design, and Inhabiting Surface, Playscapes for Learned Environments with collaborator Rennie Tang (2017-18), awarded institutional and departmental grants from NYIT.
Rennie Tang is a designer and educator based in Los Angeles. She is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at California Polytechnic State University Pomona and Director of the Art+Landscape Fellowship Program. As coordinator of the Design Foundations curriculum she develops teaching methods that emphasize one-to-one scale topographic manipulation, materiality and landscape tectonics. Her research interests include intergenerational cities, inclusive landscapes and kinesthetic public engagement. Projects are often fueled by transdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists, choreographers and healthcare researchers. Her work is driven by concepts and methods drawn from her background in architecture, urban design, landscape architecture and dance. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in architecture from McGill University and a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University; she has worked in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Berkeley, Oakland and Vienna.
Naomi and Rennie met during their undergraduate degree in Architecture at McGill University in 1997. In the last couple of years, they co-founded nylaproject, a collaborative design-build-think-play practice between New York and Los Angeles.