Sunken Garden, 1961-64

Isamu Noguchi

The Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, off Pine Street, between Nassau and William Streets. Sunken Garden is visible from both the top (looking from the plaza at street level), and from the side (looking from inside the bank). Although most of the building is not open to the public, the area that overlooks the sculpture from the inside is a full-service branch of Chase bank, open to customers. Enter the building, and look for the escalators on the west side of the lobby. Take the escalator down one level, and enter the bank through the glass doors ahead and to the left.

Isamu Noguchi's Sunken Garden is situated in the open plaza in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank building. The base of the garden is set one story below street level in a circular space cut out from the plaza. This opening in the plaza is bordered on top by a metal railing, allowing viewers to stand comfortably at the edge and look into the sculpted space below. The space is surrounded on all sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing the garden to be seen from the inside, and opening up the lower level of the building to the outdoors.

The "ground" of the garden is made up of small, light-colored stone bricks. The surface slopes gently, creating a series of low hills and valleys topped by seven black boulders of varying sizes that Noguchi collected from the bottom of the Uji River in Kyoto, Japan. The sloping of the surface is accentuated by the organization of the bricks, which circle around to show the contours of the ground. The lines from the bricks also serve to draw attention to the boulders, which are located on the highest points of the ground.

In the winter, Sunken Garden is dry. In the summer months, the garden turns into a fountain, with water spouting into the air, and flowing across the ground before disappearing around the edges of the space. Because of the variations in the level of the brick surface, some of the boulders are partly submerged, while others stand on dry ground, with water lapping around them.

Noguchi drew on the concept of Japanese Zen meditation gardens in his creation of Sunken Garden [1]. As with these gardens, the viewer is not meant to enter Sunken Garden, but rather looks in from the outside [2]. Additionally, the lines formed by the placement of the light-colored bricks are reminiscent of the raked sand found in Japanese gardens [3].

Although Noguchi found inspiration for Sunken Garden in traditional Japanese gardens, in particular the garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Noguchi veered from tradition in many aspects of his design [4]. Noguchi comments, "...I have never been interested in doing a Japanese garden per se" [5]. Instead, Noguchi chose what he wanted to include from among the many rules governing the design of Japanese gardens, and adjusted the rest to fit his needs. In describing some of his choices in Sunken Garden, Noguchi writes, "I had said that in the West the ideal was to triumph over gravity, and that in doing a rock garden in America it would be logical to have the rocks themselves levitate..." [6]. This is especially true of Sunken Garden in the summer time, when water flows across the surface of the ground except at the highest points, where the boulders are placed. Noguchi also combines eastern and western traditions in his inclusion of the European-style fountain in the garden [7]. Drawing on other traditions as well, Noguchi sites stylized Chinese paintings of ocean waves as inspiration for the wavy lines moving across the surface of the ground [8].

Possible discussion themes
How can a public sculpture make you think about your environment?
In placing rocks from the bottom of a river in an urban setting, Noguchi introduces a comparison between nature and the built environment, and how they can be found in the same places.

What are the differences between artistic inspiration, appropriation, paying homage, and allusion?
Noguchi has found inspiration in traditional Japanese gardens. While he uses some elements of these gardens in his work, he diverges from the traditions as well, making the work an entity on its own. How do artists find inspiration, and where do the lines appear between inspiration, appropriation, paying homage, and allusion?

How has Noguchi treated two neighboring spaces differently?
Looking at Sunken Garden and Red Cube, students can compare two pieces by the same artist. What are the differences and similarities in the pieces and in the spaces surrounding the pieces?

What are the relationships between public art and architecture?
How does the presence of public art works affect the way that a passerby views a building? How do buildings or other surroundings affect the way that a passerby views public art?

Related art works
Red Cube.
Noguchi made Red Cube a few years after completing Sunken Garden. It is extremely different from Sunken Garden in that it is an individual sculpture, rather than a designed space; its form is geometric, rather than organic; it is made of steel, evoking ideas of technology and the built environment, rather than of nature.

Group of Four Trees.
Group of Four Trees is located next to Sunken Garden on the plaza in front of the Chase building. Both pieces add an element of irregular shape and movement to the strict horizontal and vertical lines of the nearby buildings.

Federal Plaza.
Noguchi's conception of a public space is visible in Sunken Garden. Noguchi's ideas can be compared to those of Richard Serra, who created Tilted Arc for Federal Plaza, and [TK], who redesigned the same space after Tilted Arc was removed.

Pulitzer Fountain and General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Karl Bitter was an early proponent of thoughtful design of public spaces. His plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park is home to Pulitzer Fountain and


  1. Altshuler, B. (1994). Isamu Noguchi. New York: Abberville Press. p. 73.
  2. Altshuler, p. 73.
  3. Torres, A. M. (2000). Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space. New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc. p. 155.
  4. Threlfall, T. (1991). Isamu Noguchi: Aspects of a sculptor's practice: A continuity with life. Sussex, England: Seagull Books. p. 182; and Altshuler, p. 67.
  5. Noguchi, I. (1968). A sculptor's world. New York: Harper & Row. p. 171.
  6. Noguchi, p. 40.
  7. Threlfall, p. 142.
  8. Noguchi, p. 171; and Torres, p. 155.

For more information about Noguchi, visit the website of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. The museum is located in Long Island City, Queens.


home | themes | art works |
bibliography | resources