By Jenny Dixon, Director
The Noguchi Museum
Detroit’s first ideas for a vast urban plaza at the terminus of Woodward Avenue and fronting on the Detroit River were laid in 1924, when the Detroit branch of the American Institute of Architects commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design it. The project was never fully realized. Perhaps Isamu Noguchi knew of this history when he responded to the invitation by the City of Detroit to submit plans for the Horace E. Dodge & Son Fountain at that same location just shy of fifty years later.
© The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Photos by the City of Detroit.
In her will, Anna Thomson Dodge, widow of the automotive pioneer Horace Dodge, had bequeathed $2 million for this memorial in honor of her husband and family. Though no doubt a fountain more in keeping with the beaux arts tradition is what she had in mind, in 1971 Noguchi was selected by an eleven-member artist selection committee to realize the project. Heading that committee was esteemed architect Robert Hastings, Principal and Chairman of the local firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, which was charged with the overall design of the $15 million Civic Center Plaza where the fountain was to be located.
The year before, Noguchi had created three fountains for Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, at the invitation of architect Kenzo Tange. Considered marvels of technology with their lighting, movement, sound, and water display, clearly the Detroit committee had been taken with Noguchi’s futuristic interpretation of civic fountains, and with the 66 year old Noguchi, who had designed plazas, parks, and playgrounds around the world.
Evolving from the Osaka project, Noguchi, together with Shoji Sadao of Fuller & Sadao architects, founded Noguchi Fountain & Plaza, Inc. Through his new company, Noguchi, as he had in the past with the 1956 Paris UNESCO Gardens, went beyond submitting a proposal solely for the “Dodge Fountain,” but instead included a design for the entire eight-acre plaza. Intended to anchor the yet-to-be-built Renaissance Center, with the Ford Auditorium to the east and the Veterans Memorial on the west, the idea for the Civic Center was to be an anchor for the city, marking the rebirth of Detroit after the riots and “white flight” to the suburbs which marked the late sixties.
Site Plan prepared for April 1973 presentation to the City of Detroit. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Shoji Sadao, Architect.
Birdseye view of Hart Plaza showing the great Pylon, the Dodge Fountain, circular amphitheater, stepped pyramid and amphitheater. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Photo by Balthazar Korab.
Hastings, with the support of the selection committee, recommended that Noguchi be awarded the commission not only for the fountain but for the totality of the plaza. This was an unusual occurrence for an architecture firm, with few precedents at the time--an artist was given the mandate by an architecture firm to develop a whole site, not just an isolated work within. Here, Noguchi was once again a precursor to so many artists that followed, and who wished to take on the whole site--in the past typically the purview of architects. Noguchi Fountain & Plaza, Inc. would work with Smith, Hinchman & Gryllis, as local on-site architects and engineers, to realize the project.
Yet what Noguchi envisioned was never in fact completed. He described his concept as:
“‘The great fountain, projected to be the most significant of modern times, will rise from the plateau of primal space. It will be an engine for water, plainly associating its spectacle to its source of energy, an engine so deeply a part of Detroit.
‘It will recall and commemorate the dream that has produced the automobile, the airplane and now the rocket, a machine become a poem. The fountain will rise 18 feet high into the air hovering in an incandescent cloud of water [rising at a maximum of 40 feet high] at night.’”1
The project began with the optimism held by a great American City; the promise its civic leaders held for its future and renewal. Cleary, this is what Noguchi sensed, was inspired by, responded to and so conveyed to all who supported his vision to build an unprecedented public waterfront park anchored by a spectacular fountain for all the citizenry of Detroit to enjoy, activate and engage with throughout the seasons. By the late summer, the Director of City Planning Charles Blessing and Mayor Roman Gribbs had offered Noguchi enthusiastic approval and city support. Though the Detroit City Council had yet to approve Noguchi’s proposal at the time, they did so in the spring of 1973. A press release from Smith, Hinchman & Gryllis dated March 30, 1973, announcing the presentation to the Detroit City Council indicates Noguchi’s intentions:
“In addition to the fountain, the plaza now has the strong emphasis on a wide variety of uses by both large and small groups of people, many of which can occur simultaneously. … The fountain itself, a 30 foot high ring floating above a walled circular pool, is a refinement of the original concept of an ‘engine for water.’…The plaza now makes provision for a number of public activities on different levels, including a large circular festival amphitheater that can be used for outdoor music, dance, theater, or can be converted to ice skating; a tourist center, a smaller gathering place for a variety of entertainment or educational uses; shopping facilities; a riverfront restaurant directly overlooking the water; a riverside promenade; and underground restrooms, dressing rooms, service areas, etc.”2
Noguchi’s magnificent idea was temporarily thwarted with what, from a distant vantage point, does seem to be a spoiled child’s sense of entitlement. Within the week, after praise filled the press for Noguchi’s project, the following appeared in the Detroit Free Press: “The late Anna Thomson Dodge…bequeathed $2 million to Detroit to build what her will describes as ‘the fountain in the park at the foot of Woodward.’ The very phrase she used may lead to a long court fight and has already delayed city approval.”3
The site of the Noguchi’s fountain was to be just to the western side of the end of Woodward Avenue, yet this slight variance was a contention introduced by David Elgin Dodge, an architect and the grandson of the benefactor, who, having not won the commission, contested the city’s decision on a technical basis. “A friend of the Dodge family emphasized that Dodge ‘is a registered architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, not just some little rich boy who says: ‘I’m going to do this because grandma gave the money.’…David Dodge [living in Switzerland] is understandably unhappy because his plan, sweated out with William Wesley Peters, chief architect of the Wright Foundation’s Taliesin Institute, didn’t win.”4This was the tip of the iceberg as to what ensued, and was finally resolved by the fall of 1973.
© The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Photos by the City of Detroit.
View of the Plaza from the Veterans Memorial Building showing an estimated 500,000 people enjoying a 4th of July celebration. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Photo by Detroit Renaissance.
With all appropriate city blessings and the contentions of the Dodge family dropped, the project began to move. In November of 1973, Coleman Young was elected as Mayor of Detroit and went on to serve for five terms (1974-1994). This was the city and administration that Noguchi Fountain and Plaza, Inc., together with Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, would negotiate with to realize their project.
“[The Mayor] saw what we were doing, our models, our plans and so forth. The first thing he said was, ‘Where’s the Ethnic Festival?’ You see, the Ethnic Festival was something that had been going on for years at the river. I immediately said, ‘Well, downstairs, Mr. Mayor.’ until that point no ‘downstairs’ had existed. Martin Friedman [then Director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and curator of the 1978 exhibition Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes] has stated that, as with other projects, the design changed as the process unfolded. The original site was a parking lot, and from the beginning it had been assumed that the plaza would be raised sixteen feet above the existing level to minimize soil and structural problems. For that reason it was built entirely on piles. In order to create the ‘downstairs,’ two acres from the underground were retrieved to create a hollow in the plaza for the amphitheater. Noguchi’s solution offered two levels: parking, restaurant and performance facilities on a lower level – which preserved the simplicity of the plaza to emphasize the fountain as the dominant image – and the plaza with central fountain and 120-foot-height stainless –steel pylon as a gateway on an upper level.”5
In late August of 1974, almost three years to the day after Noguchi was selected, Mayor Young presided at ceremonies marking the construction of the pylon, the first component of the Plaza, and embraced the project: “this distinctive landmark is a big step in developing an outstanding, people-oriented, riverfront-downtown area,” he noted. The presentation of a plaque honoring the role of Robert Hastings with the project, who had recently died, was also part of the ceremony. The completion of the project was projected to be in 1976, to mark the 275th anniversary of Detroit, the United States’ bicentennial, and the Motor City’s part in its history. The fountain was dedicated in the summer of 1976, but not tested until the fall of 1977.
Mayor Young’s much anticipated Ethnic Festival did occur on the yet to be finished plaza in the summer of 1978, and the issue of the need for ongoing maintenance, as Noguchi had advocated would be necessary, became more than apparent. The highly sophisticated computerized system to control the light and water within the fountain became compromised. “The problem doesn’t seem to be with the design and construction as much as lack of know-how on how to maintain and run the fountain. Some of the pipes have been left on in winter….It seems an elementary precaution to drain water lines in winter with something costing $3 million, or $300 for that matter… A five gallon paint can [was] dropped into the fountain’s filter…. Noguchi [noted] the fountain needs a permanent maintenance man.”6
The Plaza itself, in its entirety, was not dedicated until April 19, 1979. The Detroit News noted that what had begun as a $2 million fountain had evolved into a $31 million project. Noguchi used the occasion of the dedication to further affirm to Detroit officials his disappointment as to the lack of maintenance of the fountain and the plaza. Thus, a rift emerged between Noguchi and Mayor Young. In the summer of 1979 Noguchi wrote letters noting that much was yet to be completed, that there were unforeseen issues that had arisen, that the response that he received that ongoing maintenance and such really had to do with the success of project itself, and that more specific issues such as problems with lighting and tables should be addressed directly by the Mayor.
View of the sunken Amphitheater-Ice Skating Rink during the winter. Changing rooms, nursery and a restaurant are located on the same level. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Photo by Timothy Hursley for Balthazar Korab, Ltd.
Current state of Hart Plaza, April 2016. Photo by George Etheridge.
Also noted were the problems still to be resolved with the fountain itself. It was the summer of 1980 when the fountain became fully operational with its 150 water jets, 180 lights and 300 different programs with the ability to change shape every 90 seconds. In 1980, Noguchi would contribute $2,000 to assure his landscaping plan would move forward, and that at least eight of the trees he wanted would be planted. In spite of his disappointments, kudos flowed in to the offices of Noguchi Fountain and Plaza, Inc. as to what a marvel he had created and what a gift for the people of Detroit. Beyond numerous letters, the project garnered large amounts of press.
“The Plaza is a monument for all seasons: sun-soaking times, teeth-chattering on the ice rink, for river watching and people watching. The fountain is programmed to interact with even subtle weather changes providing a variety of water shows.
It is a wonderful place to be, to lounge, to laze, to gaze in. It is comfortable, pleasant, harmonious. You don’t feel overwhelmed or oppressed by the urban hubbub, but somehow able to cope. It is a people place. Just what we needed.
That Noguchi can work within boundaries – of space limitations, tie-ins to adjoining structures, fit to specific uses and other people’s viewpoints – is his genius.”7
A center point for Detroit and the 1980 Republican National Convention, the fountain continued to limp on until the city committed $800,000 to its restoration in 1988. City engineers agreed that there were a number of reasons why Dodge Fountain and Hart Plaza had failed to become what had been envisioned: “[The project] was doomed by three unforeseen factors: loads of trash [including dirt in the fountain system], a dreadfully inadequate computer system,” and a lack of of maintenance and engineering knowledge on the local level.
Between the time when the Renaissance Center, the Dodge Fountain, and the Civic Center (renamed Hart Plaza in 1978 for the then-recently deceased Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart) were conceived of, and when they were actually completed, the economic climate of Detroit continued to spiral.
Robert Graham's Memorial to Joe Louis. Photo by George Etheridge.
The sculpture of Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac founder of Detroit was not part of Noguchi's original concept. Photo by George Etheridge.
Archival files at The Noguchi Museum suggest that by 1980, communications on the ongoing maintenance and completion of the project had stopped. Young’s administration would be known, overall, as corrupt; where it appears in hindsight so much good intention and hope was curtailed by the continuation of severe poverty , extreme wealth outside of the city center, and a pushed, struggling middle class. In retrospect, no real infrastructure, no business improvement districts, conservancy models or the like were put in place for the ongoing maintenance and care of the vast public space Detroit would realize. It is difficult for any civic amenity, as we have learned to just survive without due diligence, care and feeding.
“…The Industrial Crescent [of which Detroit was a significant part] is no longer the promised land it once was, so its cities find themselves with too many unskilled workers for the jobs available…
In the face of this, the Renaissance Center might be seen not only as a symbol of hope, but also as a target of doubt and skepticism for both Detroit and the Crescent.”
Mitigating circumstances beyond the dissolution of the Industrial Crescent also impacted the largest urban project to be realized by Noguchi. Envisioned to help change the ensuing urban blight, the problems of the city were seen as far greater than taking care of a beacon to civitas and, of course, politics also had to play a role, as it had in the eight years it took to realize Noguchi’s project.
The Ford Auditorium suffered from terrible acoustics, causing few to want to perform there, and by 1997, it had been abandoned. The Renaissance Center did not hold its anchor tenants for long, and was purchased by General Motors in 1996. In 2004 the company invested $500 million into the Center. Listening to respective constituent groups, most sadly the plaza seemingly became a dumping ground for far inferior public works, compromising the design of Noguchi’s massive project, of which the fountain itself was one component in the end.
On the occasion of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ 100th anniversary, Sports Illustrated commissioned an artwork by prominent American Artist Robert Graham, Memorial to Joe Louis, of a punching fist. This was objectionable not only because of the violence it alluded to, underscoring the blight rampant in the city, but also as the work was sited prominently on the front of Hart Plaza, where it interrupts the sense of entry onto it. Other artists whose works found a home on Hart Plaza were Marshall Fredrick, Giacomo Manzu and Gomidas Vartsad. Never properly maintained, with early, early computer systems running the fountain, it sputtered on and off throughout the years. By 2004, The Joe Louis Auditorium had been built in the vicinity of the Plaza, and the notion of the area being a civic center or renaissance center seemed over. The beloved skating rink was moved south from the river in 2004 to a new park, one ‘not so hard’ as Hart Plaza, which in fact had never received the landscaping and plantings designed for it.
In 2002, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was founded, and placed Dodge Fountain on their list of what needs to be addressed. Sadly, there is no mention of the Plaza that Isamu Noguchi and others so thoughtfully developed to hold that fountain, and so much more for the people of Detroit.
A few years ago, The Noguchi Museum was asked to advocate for the fountain to be removed to another location. As the Museum does not own the work, but does concern itself with the legacy of Noguchi, this was a topic of much debate by the Board of Trustees. In the end, all resolved that to remove the work would indeed be to destroy it, as the fountain is but one element in the massive public space Noguchi envisioned with the best of intentions for the City of Detroit. In a recent visit to Detroit, we noted Noguchi’s name had never been spelled correctly on one of the project plaques, saw that the caulking for the perfectly selected stones had long disappeared, and realized that so much of what was envisioned had been lost. With full appreciation as to the challenges and what must be priorities, we prevail upon those working on the revitalization of Detroit to consider Noguchi’s vision for their city, its renewal and vibrant future.
Image of project plaque with Isamu Noguchi's name misspelled. Photo by Jenny Dixon
Current view of Transcending, April 2016. The sculpture was not a part of Noguchi's original concept. Photo by George Etheridge.
Jenny Dixon joined The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum as director in April 2003. Since that time, she has consolidated the Museum and Foundation into a single entity, popularly known as The Noguchi Museum, and greatly expanded public awareness of both the Museum and Isamu Noguchi’s production. She has achieved this by initiating the Museum’s first program of temporary exhibitions and by greatly expanding its roster of public programs, among other initiatives. In all of these efforts, Ms. Dixon has sought to honor Noguchi’s vision of the museum he created.
Ms. Dixon began her arts career in 1977, when she joined the Public Art Fund, where she served as executive director from 1980 through 1986. Among her many accomplishments at the Fund was the initiation of the New York City “Percent for Art” program. It was during that period that she met Isamu Noguchi, working with him on a Public Art Fund project. In 1986, Ms. Dixon joined the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as executive director, and in 1999 was named director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts. During her tenure at the Bronx Museum, she initiated an extensive capital program and secured the organization’s position as both one of the leading museums in the Northeast and a major educational resource for local schoolchildren.
Long involved in New York City’s Arts and Design community, Ms. Dixon has served on numerous, local, national and international panels with a focus on public art, civic discourse, architecture and design in the public sphere
Accordingly, Ms. Dixon has taught at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Parsons School of Design, and New York University. She is on the boards of the Public Art Fund, Inc., and the New York City Arts Coalition, among other organizations. Her numerous past board affiliations include the New York City Cultural Institutions Group, the Alliance for Downtown New York, Community Board 1 and Art Table.
Jenny Dixon received an MBA in business policy from Columbia University, New York, and a BFA in painting and BA in art education from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
1. Ladd Neuman, “Artist Picked for Fountain. Dodge Gift to City,” Detroit Free Press, September 1, 1971.
2. Smith, Hinchman & Gryllis press release, March 30, 1973.
3. Ladd Neuman, “Dodge Fountain Artistic or Awful,” Detroit Free Press, September 7, 1971
5. Ana Maria Torres, Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space, by Ana Maria Torres (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2000), 177.
6. “Noguchi: The Fountain and the Artist Deserve Better of the City,” Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1979.
7. Marsha Miro, “What Noguchi’s Genius has Brought to Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, April 29, 1979.
8. N. Scott Vance, “A Fresh Doughnut, at Last. $800,000 to Make Hart Plaza a Thing of Beauty,” Detroit News, July 3, 1987.
9. William K. Stevens, “Center Raises Hopes of an Aging Industrial Crescent,” New York Times, March 13, 1977.