Fountain Sculpture Garden
 | St. Paul, Minnesota

Believing that exposure to the arts is impactful for all of its students, Macalester College undertook the renovation of its 1963 Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. This project strived to foster a stronger connection between the arts disciplines and the larger campus community through the creation of a more integrated, transparent and welcoming arts complex. As part of this recent renovation, Macalester College saw an opportunity to set a new garden stage for an iconic piece of art created by the renowned Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The integration of the client’s functional and cultural needs into the greater campus fabric resulted in an artful design, reflective of the institution’s vision. Through a synergetic, thoughtful, and well-researched design process, the Noguchi Fountain Sculpture Garden demonstrates the leadership of landscape architects in the development of a dynamic space that exhibits and preserves the cultural legacy of the sculpture, the artist, and a historical landscape.

Isamu Noguchi’s Fountain Sculpture was originally created in 1951 as the central element of a rectangular water feature at the Reader’s Digest office in Tokyo. Commissioned by the Wallace family, founders of Reader’s Digest and benefactors of Macalester College, the gardens and Fountain Sculpture complimented the award-winning building, designed by Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond. In 1963, the Reader’s Digest office was razed, and the Wallace family donated the sculpture to Macalester College, where it became the centerpiece of the newly constructed Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. Here, the sculpture was again positioned within a water feature: a granite reflecting pool. However, the fountain water feature was eliminated in the 1970s due to long, harsh winters and continuous maintenance. The 2013 renovation of the Fine Arts Center provided an opportunity to re-establish the expressive sculpture into a new context.

During the recent campus renovation, the client challenged HGA to create a garden for the sculpture reminiscent of its original setting at the Reader’s Digest office. The design team began by conducting extensive research into the sculpture’s original Tokyo setting. Due to the short life of Noguchi’s gardens at the Reader’s Digest office and limited documentation, information gathering proved to be a challenge.

The original 1951 garden included two distinct elements: a formal garden with an architectural water feature and freely meandering earth forms with a stream in the tradition of the Japanese Daimyo stroll gardens. Noguchi’s design wisely utilized the earth excavated for the foundation and the water features to create a series of undulating earth forms at the perimeter of the site. This organic topography crafted an artistic foil to the building, while incorporating a meandering stream and a reservoir.

The layout and character of the outdoor spaces adjacent to the building echoed the geometric purity of the architecture, featuring an orthogonally configured water feature. A lone, wrought-iron vertical sculpture, with a fountain at its base, became a focal point layered against a distant background of dancing sculptural earth forms and trees.
Noguchi worked in diverse media with sculpture, landscape, industrial and theatre design. The Reader’s Digest Fountain Sculpture has a symbolic character that is reminiscent of his many minimalist stage sets created for renowned choreographer Martha Graham. Noguchi’s ability to activate the stage with a few abstract forms is evident when seeing one of his most memorable creations for Graham’s dance “Cave of the Heart”, 1946. Following her request to design a dress that embodies the spiritual, half-goddess quality of Medea, Noguchi surprised her with a radiating wire sculpture that she could walk in and out of during the performance. Noguchi’s extensive work with Graham over the course of three decades provided additional inspiration and opportunities for creating subtle connections between the new Macalester garden and the adjacent Theatre building to the west of the space.

The design team’s exhaustive research informed the new garden design. Inspiration was drawn from not only Noguchi’s original Tokyo garden, but also from his diverse portfolio of landscape work, in addition to the traditional Japanese garden art which influenced and inspired many of his landscape designs.

Designing memorable landscape spaces had been something Noguchi was intrigued by for almost two decades, but his 1951 Readers Digest Gardens in Tokyo was the first opportunity for a realized landscape. The project became an expression of his understanding of how the garden could be crafted as a sculptural space and how incorporating a sculpture can influence the garden space as well. In his book A Sculptor’s World Isamu Noguchi wrote: “I am excited by the idea that sculpture creates space, that shapes intended for this purpose, properly scaled in a space, actually create a greater space. There is a difference between actual cubic feet of space and the additional space that the imagination supplies. One is measure, the other an awareness of the void-of our existence in this passing world“.
Similar to the numerous sunken gardens Isamu Noguchi created, the Fountain Sculpture at the renovated Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center is featured in a sunken field of crushed white granite, 18” below its surroundings. One of the challenges the design team faced was placing a delicately articulated sculpture in a space defined by complex architectural and vegetative forms. Instead of trying to create a dense background to set the sculpture against, the approach was rather to embrace the airy quality of the sculpture with the complexity of the surrounding architecture and landscape.

Depressing the stage and shaping the negative space around the art piece created an opportunity to elevate the Fountain Sculpture, placing it to be viewed and experienced in dynamic relationship to its surroundings.

The sculpture is elevated on a pedestal of limestone pavers and appears to be floating above the plane of crushed white gravel, which is often used in Japanese Zen garden art as a metaphor for water. Minimal detailing further defines the garden, with formal overlapping limestone seatwalls along the eastern edge juxtaposed with gently sloping banks on the opposing edges with a sculpted earth mound anchoring the western edge. In addition to serving as a humble stage crafted to showcase the Fountain Sculpture, the new garden is designed to offer a multitude of experiential opportunities, ranging from an open air class room to a reflective quiet study space. Strategic, linear plantings of ornamental trees and grasses delineate the contemplative space, acting as a threshold defining passive and active areas within the garden.

The new garden was constructed with minimal disruption, preserving a majestic maple tree, which anchors the garden at its southeast corner. The locally-sourced limestone seatwall is carefully positioned to define the sunken garden space and aid the preservation of the existing maple tree. On either side of the garden, new walks continue the aesthetic established through the campus renovation, transitioning from concrete sidewalks to permeable pavers as you enter the space. The use of permeable pavers and other porous materials provides opportunities to capture and infiltrate stormwater throughout the whole garden.

Existing campus lighting as well as the ambient light from surrounding buildings provides sufficient illumination for the garden. This allows for reduction of light pollution and creates a setting, which emphasizes the meditative quality of the space.

In a similar collaboration to Noguchi and Raymond in Tokyo, the landscape architect worked in tandem with the architects, the director and curator of the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College, structural and civil engineers as well as an art conservator. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation & Garden Museum provided additional information for the installation. The final placement of the sculpture on a raised pedestal balanced two important objectives: achieving an aesthetically appealing and proportionate setting with historic accuracy to the original 1951 installation, while also protecting and preserving this incredible piece of art from corrosion.
The landscape architect collaborated with an interior designer to create an informational sign raising the awareness of the sculpture’s significance, and its creator Isamu Noguchi, while aiding in the preservation of the Fountain Sculpture.


Noguchi Fountain Sculpture Garden

Client | Macalester College
Location | St.Paul, Minnesota, USA
Landscape Architect | HGA Architects and Engineers
Landscape Architecture Team | Emanouil Spassov, Erica Christenson,
Theodore Lee, Ross Altheimer, Nissa Tupper
Architects | HGA Architects and Engineers
Engineer | HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal in Charge | Gary Reetz
Design Principal | Tim Carl
Project Architect | Rebecca Celis
Project Manager | Rebecca Celis
Start date | May 2010 (construction)
Completion date | May 2013
Photographs | George Heinrich, Heinrich Photography; Emanouil Spassov, HGA Architects and Engineers
General Contractor | McGough Construction
Art Conservator | Kristin Cheronis, Kristin Cheronis, Inc.

Photography | Emanuel Spassov; George Heinrich;

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About Damian Holmes 5671 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at