Walk along Atlanta’s Piedmont Avenue between 12th and 13th streets and look over towards Piedmont Park – you’ll see what might be a campsite for extra-terrestrials – on the top of a hill sit several large geometrical objects: an orange triangle, a blue and white tower, and several brightly colored cubes. But if you more closely, you won’t see any Martians, just kids and their parents.
They’re playing on the Nagouchi Playscapes, one of Atlanta’s most eclectic and famous outdoor sculptures. The Playscapes just reopened after a nearly two decade downhill slide. Today it looks just like it did at the dedication – in the Spring of 1976 when Atlanta’s first black mayor, Mayor Maynard Jackson, was at the dedication.
In 1976, Atlanta was feeling mighty good about itself as it began preparing for its own post-racial world. This was a time when everyone thought the Phoenix really was going to rise up. Developers, private philanthropies and the city, eager demonstrate their larger vision for their newly modern city, were investing in public art.
Playscapes was part of that larger vision and seventies optimism. It was the brainchild of Frankie Coxe, a member of the Junior League and High Museum volunteer. She believed that an “extraordinary playground” and outdoor sculpture would compliment perfectly the High Museum’s children’s Art in the Park program. Each day, kids hiked down the street from the museum to Piedmont Park to participate in the program – drawing, painting, and making arts and crafts projects.
The High’s long time director, Gudmund Vigtel, inspired by Coxe’s ideas, set out to get Isamu Nagouchi, a noted Japanese-American sculpture and designer to design the playground. Nagouchi was reluctant to accept the commission to build the playground – several other of his playground designs were unrealized due to lack of funds.
But Vigtel had to get him to do the playground: Nagouchi’s view that play equipment should bring art into daily art matched perfectly his and Coxe’s vision. Nagouchi saw children’s playgrounds as structural landscapes, and the shape of the equipment represented forms found in nature and in ancient cultures.
Coxe and Vigtel set out to get donations for the construction and within a few months, they had the $225,000 needed for the playground. The list of contributors – The Junior League and the High, John L. Portman Jr., the Rich Foundation, the Marshall Trust, Suzanne and Edward Elson, the Franklin Fund, and the Lubo Fund – reads like a list of who’s who of old Atlanta. The City of Atlanta donated the land and Beers Construction Company – Larry Gellerstadt – agreed to build it at cost.
Construction began in the spring of 1976. Vigtel recalls that working with Nagouchi during the construction wasn’t easy.
“He was not a good communicator, and quite distant. For him to relate to the Parks Department was not easy. These were friendly easy going Southerners.”
“He told them, the tree down there, I want that cut down, it’s in the way.”
“And they said, Mr. Nagouchi, the Parks Department does not cut down trees in Piedmont Park. He said, I will be back next Thursday, and I want to see it gone by then.”
“And that weekend there was a big thunderstorm, lightning struck that tree, and destroyed it, and the folks at the Parks Department didn’t know quite what to think.”
The Playscapes was an immediate hit – kids and their parents flocked to the park to play and experiment with art. It was a big hit with my family, too. We’d just moved to Midtown, and Playscapes was right in our backyard. Thirty-three years later, my daughter, Kellam, still remembers the experience.
“There was a huge curvy slide that was a big cylinder and you’d climb inside and you’d be in this building all by yourself. … I think everything there was a shape. A shape that had fun built in it. Very colorful. And very oversized.”
But by the early 1980s, the Art in the Park program ended and parents stopped bringing their children to Playscapes. The playground soon became a hangout for drug dealers and the homeless. The slides rusted, the swings broke, and the paint faded.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that complaints from the Midtown parents’ group and a series of articles in the AJC got the attention of City Hall.
But sometimes a quick solution isn’t the right solution. The Nagouchi Playscapes was more than a playground, it was a work of art, and it needed to be preserved and restored.
It took the pleadings of Eddie Granderson, head of city’s Public Art program, to get minds changed. In 1998, his group came up with a plan to restore Playscapes and do it right. That restoration would involve architects, art conservators, sculptors, and metal artisans; and it would cost 350-thousand dollars. It wasn’t until 2007 that enough funds were found to begin the restoration. They came from a reserve Fulton county recreational bond fund designated for parks.
After nine years of planning and nine months of construction, the restoration was finally complete. On June 1, 2009, The Nagouchi Playscapes was again open to the public. The playground looked like it did in 1976.
Granderson’s pleased. He thinks that the Nagouchi Playscapes is the kind of thing Atlanta needs to make it a world-class city.
“The only way you’re going to see a Nagouchi Playscape is right here in Atlanta. We gotta preserve that. Those are the kinds of thing that will make and set us apart as a world class city. A world class Southern city.”
Kids and their parents are again flocking to the playground, but they, like Kellam’s son – my four-year old grandson – George – aren’t concerned about the uniqueness of the Nagouchi Playscapes.
They’re enjoying playing on and in and around this magical outdoor sculpture