Life on the Rocks


From her peaceful perch on a park bench, office-worker Gundi Thomas surveys a pile of beige granite boulders artfully stacked in the courtyard of her office building.

Behind the boulders is a row of slim, healthy redwoods on a gentle slope. And off to the side, a raised mound of cactus and other succulents evokes a desert environment, surrounded by a snaking stream.

The courtyard is no ordinary one but the artwork of one of America’s great sculptors, the late Isamu Noguchi.

For 11 years the sculpture garden, called “California Scenario,” has attracted curious tourists, art students and people looking for a quiet place to retreat from the rat race.

Commissioned in 1980 by Henry T. Segerstrom, developer of South Coast Plaza Town Center, the garden cost more than $1 million to construct.


The California Scenario is surrounded by two towering buildings with blue, reflective windows and two 40-foot, white walls that catch the glimmering sunlight from the fountains and dance with shadows of the garden’s trees. Six scenes representing California’s natural beauty are spread over the 1.6-acre sandstone courtyard.

In a 1989 interview, Segerstrom noted that the garden gave Noguchi an opportunity to pay homage to his home state.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi worked in wood, stone and metal. He created fountains, gardens and theater and ballet sets. He studied with Constantine Brancusi in 1927 and drove cross-country with painter Arshile Gorky in 1941.

“He was considered a New Yorker and a Japanese artist, but in truth, he was a native Californian and this was the first revelation of his own appreciation of and sensitivity to that element in his life,” Segerstrom said.

The pile of boulders is a 28-ton sculpture cut and fitted by Noguchi himself. Entitled “The Spirit of the Lima Bean,” it is a tribute to the Segerstrom family and the roots of their fortune: their history as lima bean farmers.

Among the six elements that constitute the sculpture is a fountain representing a mountain cascade and the source of the state’s water. A meandering stream bubbles over rocks and curves past cactus and large, sparsely placed boulders.

The mini-grove of redwoods celebrates one of the most famous gems of California’s environment. And a lively fountain spurting water through a stainless steel cylinder captures the energy of California’s people.

The sculpture garden offers a simpler version of new-age “aroma therapy” and “wave music.” The light, sweet scent of honeysuckle greets visitors who stroll by the sixth element of the sculpture, a raised mound representing the agricultural use of California’s land. When Noguchi returned to review his work in 1987, the year before his death, he said that it and a garden he created in Israel were his favorite open air projects.

California Scenario is at 611 Anton Blvd. Admission is free.