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An Improbable Place

January 5, 2011

Redwoods and Lima Beans

California: not only a state, but also a state of mind, is impossible to pigeonhole. Just when you think you know what it is, what it thinks, what it means, you find out you’ve got it all wrong … California defies easy explanation. It’s a state that encompasses amazingly diverse climates and environments from one end to the other, and it offers the improbable opportunity to go from sea to mountain to desert, all in the same day … Offering the same improbable opportunity, albeit in a much smaller space, is ‘California Scenario’, a garden by Japanese-American artist-designer, Isamu Noguchi. Commissioned in 1979 by Henry T. Segerstrom, a developer and philanthropist, it occupies the improbable space between two glass office towers on the site of a former lima bean farm in Costa Mesa. Essentially a stone plaza enclosed on two sides by buildings, and two massive walls, opposite, it’s an inviting, and free, public garden. Approaching the garden Sunday morning through a huge pivoting gate, we were met by one of my favorite features of the garden: “The Spirit of the Lima Bean”. A 12-foot tall sculpture made of carved granite, it pays stony tribute to the site’s former crop. Improbably, a stand of California redwoods rise up behind these giant bean-stones, and behind them a glass office tower. This is a place that begs to be explored …

Walled plaza

Looking past the limas, into the Scenario itself, the lay of the land is before you. Stone pyramids share the space with larger than life boulders, slashes in the pieced stone floor expose rushing streams, a succulent-planted berm sits serenely in the corner formed by intersecting concrete walls. It’s a stunning space, inviting and intriguing …

Point of origin

Moving ahead, against the wall on one side, a stark pyramidal structure Noguchi called ’Water Use’ is 30-feet wide and has a monumentally geometric presence in white granite. Emanating out from its underside, a series of crescent-shaped cutouts reveal water coursing rapidly beneath the floor of the plaza. The openings move outward, curving toward another water feature, and the source of the flow … but, first there’s an amazingly perfect berm to address …

Succulent island

Titled ‘The Desert Land’, the perfect berm is made of decomposed granite and planted with a variety of succulents and other desert plants and trees. This unexpected, and improbable berm, is representative of California’s desert habitat, but also seems like an island in the plaza’s corner. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous; a calming and peaceful place I’d love to get lost in …

Contrast study

On the berm, these remarkable tree aloes may be considerably smaller than the sleek office towers they share space with, but their wild spikiness — their essential aloe-ness — easily stands up to them. Their texture, sculptural structure and beauty, to me, far surpasses any glass fronted box, no matter how massive. I love these plants and their primordial beauty ….

Wedge falls

‘Water Source’, a 30-foot tall sandstone wedge, depicts the mountainous source of California’s water. Like melting snow, the cascade rushes down the wedge, over river rocks and into the stream that courses through the plaza/landscape. ‘Water Source’ is a free-standing, massive presence in the plaza; awe inspiring, really.

Serene landing

Rounding the corner facing one of the towers, we encounter the serene ‘Land Use’ mound. Representing the ways Californians have harnessed the land and its resources, this mound is planted with honeysuckle and topped with a form carved out of white granite …

Granite capped

‘Land Use’, while serene, has an almost funereal air about it; the feel of a Native American burial mound of some sort. Adding to that feel, is the carved granite topper with its casket-like form. Another perfect structure in the structure, I can’t help but marvel at Noguchi’s exacting vision.

Energy flow

‘Energy Fountain’ is a stainless steel cylinder atop a conical form of intermittently chipped Rockville granite. This fountain reminds me of a giant battery or turbine, and it pulses with an energy appropriate to its title. Encircled by a perfectly carved granite ring and sporting a cup anemometer for measuring wind speed, it’s both natural and mechanical at once.

Standing tall

Of all the improbable elements in the plaza, a perfect stand of California redwoods, might be the most improbable of all. Called ‘Forest Walk’, the trees edge an elevated planted mound with a granite walkway. At the top of this path a wooden bench awaits contemplative visitors. The redwoods stand tall; equal parts sentry and protector. Not as tall now as they will be, I expect they will exceed in height the tower they face.

Fissures, rushing

Another view of the ‘Water Source’ underground waterways. Mini-waterfalls and rapids rush over smooth round rocks inside the fissure-like openings, creating a calming whoosh of a background sound. Calming is a word that describes ‘California Scenario’ perfectly, in fact … Other improbably perfect adjectives are: surreal, grand and embracing. My overall impression was that of being a small figure inside a diorama, or maybe a game piece inside some kind of educational boardgame. Pleasantly weird and totally gorgeous.

Goodbye, Limas

An improbable garden and artistic statement, in an improbable location near a major shopping center (South Coast Plaza), depicting an improbably enormous and diverse state, Noguchi’s ‘Scenario’ is worth seeking out. The garden is located at 611 Anton, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; easy directions: take Interstate 405 San Diego Fwy to Costa Mesa, exiting east at Bristol Street, then turning right on Anton, then right again on Park Centre Drive (bordering the sculpture garden). An improbable landmark to look for?: TGIFriday’s restaurant … if you see Friday’s, pull into the parking structure behind it, and you’re there. Go … I know you’ll enjoy it!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Guida Quon permalink
    January 5, 2011 2:38 pm

    My husband and I were married at Forest Walk 22 years ago, with Segerstrom approval of course. I will have to dig out the photos to see how much the redwoods have grown. It was such a pleasant surprise to open RanchoReubidoux this morning to see this facinating place. So hidden, so special.
    It was lots of fun to be there back then, in the Summer their were small concerts with the restaurants surrounding selling sandwiches and drinks. There was always a nice breeze there too.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      January 5, 2011 2:51 pm

      What a great memory you must have of the ‘Scenario’! I’d love to see a picture if you have one to email:

      • Guida Quon permalink
        January 5, 2011 4:01 pm

        I’ll send it to you IF I can find it. Thanks…

      • reubix1 permalink*
        January 5, 2011 4:09 pm

        Thanks, I’d love to see how it looked 22 years ago

  2. January 6, 2011 3:29 am

    great post! a much undermentioned garden

    • reubix1 permalink*
      January 6, 2011 3:38 am

      I’m more than a little ashamed that this was my first visit!

  3. mattisalomaki permalink
    January 6, 2011 10:52 pm

    Wedge falls rocks. Almost an Andy Goldsworthy feel…who I love…along with those tree aloes. we saw something similar to those…brand new plant for me…at least of that size. Matti

    • reubix1 permalink*
      January 7, 2011 12:10 am

      Good call; I’ve only seen Goldsworthy pieces in pictures but I always think: what would I feel in the presence of such man-assisted natural grandeur? I saw the tree aloes in your Santa Barbara post and they were spectacular!

  4. January 7, 2011 11:57 pm

    i lived in oc for about 15 years and lived about 10 miles from this cool space before i sought it out and visited it. so worth the effort!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      January 8, 2011 3:40 am

      I agree completely and can’t wait to meet friends there for a happy hour visit …

  5. January 8, 2011 4:33 pm

    Wonderful garden visit post. Noguchi seems to have absorbed the essentialness of California, the subtle landscape that’s become almost invisible, like all the paved over creeks he alludes to. A bracing garden, bittersweet and beautiful at the same time. I love his stark titles — “Land Use” and “Energy Fountain” — dark humor referencing exploitative attitudes toward our Golden State?

    • reubix1 permalink*
      January 8, 2011 4:48 pm

      Thanks, Denise … I think a lot of people think of Noguchi as a Japanese native, when he was actually born in Los Angeles. Although he left here as a very young child, I like to think of him as a Californian, already having ‘absorbed the essentialness of California”, as you say.

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