Noguchi: Useless Architecture is an exhibition of around fifty works mostly drawn from the Noguchi Museum’s collection and occupying its second floor galleries. In 1949 and again in 1960, Isamu Noguchi visited India’s Jantar Mantar in Delhi and Jaipur, two of the original five campuses of astronomical devices created on a grand architectural scale by the 18th-century Maharaja Jai Singh II. Noguchi described the conglomeration of instruments at each site—so large as to be more recognizable as monumental sculpture or architecture than as functioning devices—as “useless architecture, useful sculpture.” The exhibition was directly inspired by this phrase.
“Jai Singh’s structures are mystical sculptures that define space,” Isamu Noguchi is quoted in a brief essay accompanying his photographs of the Jantar Mantar in “Astronomical City,” Portfolio: A Magazine for the Graphic Arts, 1, no. 3 (1951): 115. “You might call them useless architecture or useful sculpture. They imply a use—much sculpture does that. Whether or not they were intended so, Jai Singh’s works have turned out to be an expression of wanting to be one with the universe. They contain an appreciation of measured time and the shortness of life and the vastness of the universe.”
In this context, the phrase “useless architecture, useful sculpture” represents an alternative to an architecture that is alienating in its totalitarian self-containment, and to sculpture irrelevant to life and time’s passage. It speaks to Noguchi’s ambition to sculpt spaces free from the specific responsibilities of architecture and to create sculptures imbued with more than purely theoretical, aesthetic purpose.