We drove into a parking garage, parked, wound our way through the stalls, exited, went around a corner, and suddenly found ourselves in another world. Actually, we found ourselves in an abstraction of where we were, which was California. Hidden between a freeway access road, office buildings, and parking garages lies one of the Golden State’s hidden treasures: Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario, a 1980 sculpture garden that condenses landscapes into rocks, water, trees, and grass.
A few rocks strewn around the site reminded me of Joshua Tree National Park, through which we had walked the day before. The “desert’s” dry surface cracks open to reveal a meandering creek, evoking the resource hidden beneath the state’s agricultural wealth and cities. The water emanates from a thirty-foot high triangle that represents the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and ends at a gridded, polished, and tilted stone triangle standing for the urban plane that uses so much of the water.
Other elements sign and serve as park elements, as well. A mound represents the high desert, complete with cacti, while a sloped, green plane evokes the coastal ranges, its tall conifers sheltering a stone bench at the top from which you can survey the landscape. Together with a circular fountain at the entrance and a small hillock that acts as a miniature of California’s rolling hills, this small plot gives you a sense of all that the state has to offer, while actually offering a place to sit or wander. Another mound, planted with green grass, leads up to a sarcophaguslike stone slab, Spirit of the Lima Bean, which commemorates the site's other uses before it was developed by Segerstrom.
We arrived at the garden after having traversed a good deal of the state on the Palms to Pines highway, which crosses a desert and two mountain ranges before descending to the coast, so we were well tuned to what the park might mean. I assume, however, that most people who brown bag their lunch in the Scenario, or who walk through it just to get to work, have no clear idea of what these forms mean, but you can’t help but be struck by the strength of the forms. The site’s enclosure turns the whole place into a stage set, its rear, white stucco wall making plants, and mineral forms pose and dance under the California sun.
We often think that architecture can, through symbols and ornament, the choice of materials, and the use of so-called vernacular forms, evoke and be a way of understanding the region in which it stands. We are used to paintings that show us that landscape. I know of no other three-dimensional, inhabitable construction, however, that paints a picture that you can inhabit—that makes a larger landscape so immediate, so habitable, and so easy to understand. California Scenario is a whole state made present and tactile, shaped into spaces we can inhabit. It might not keep the rain or the sun out, but it does make you at home, even if you're just stopping for a quick lunch.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.