Architecture That Lies: Becoming Post-Poston

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While driving to San Diego in December 1941, in search of a piece of onyx, Isamu Noguchi first heard on the radio about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Masayo Duus’ Journey Without Borders, in the face of war hysteria fueled by racism against West Coast Japanese, he and many Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) felt compelled to demonstrate their loyalty to American democratic ideals and the war effort and ensure honorable treatment for those funneled into 10 distant internment camps (or relocation centers) or voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. military as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese Americans.

Noguchi organized artists and writers in a group called Nisei Artists and Writers Mobilization for Democracy (NAWMD). By February 1942, this San Francisco-based organization had drafted a plan for an art and craft program, to be developed at the camps that would help the evacuees by offering them a way to be productive during the period of their stay.

Noguchi hoped to begin apprentice craft guilds, and the Poston schools superintendent agreed to distribute tools and books with pictures of “good Japanese art without warlike aspects” and bring in outside specialists on Japanese culture and Nisei visual artists from New York—“well-known anti-fascists”—to speak as role models. The NAWMD goals were put forth:

  • to present to the public at large a clear and accurate picture of the American citizen of Japanese extraction—background, status, and aspirations
  • to perform an educational service to the Nisei themselves by dispelling whatever confusions may exist among them as to democratic principles, the issues involved in the war, and their duties as American citizens, thereby promoting their morale and consolidating their trust in American institutions

He traveled that April to Washington, D.C. and presented a specific plan for a “Government Sponsored Farm and Craft Settlement for People of Japanese Parentage” embraced by John Collier, head of the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) and chief administrator of the Colorado River Relocation Center, being built on the Colorado Indian Reservation.

Noguchi was ultimately assigned to volunteer at Poston, the only camp to be administered by the OIA until late 1943 when tensions between the OIA and the WRA led to the latter taking over its administration. Upon entry, Noguchi was provided with an official letter precisely spelling out his status as a “volunteer, not an evacuee” at Poston and was told he would not require a permit to travel outside of the restricted military zone.

However, among Noguchi’s camp papers are copies of requests for craft supplies and tools from outside companies. The infrequency and parsimoniousness of these personal orders give the impression that Noguchi was not given much, if any, financial or moral support for his crafts project. In a letter to Man Ray, written only three weeks after his arrival, he expresses bitterly that nothing is of consequence or value at Poston. He complains about the lack of materials, skilled personnel, and a newspaper. He laments: “I would like nothing better than to be permitted to go to the various camps to enlist a corps of technicians, to start craft guilds here and elsewhere.”

The freedom granted by the official letter proved illusory. As reported by Noguchi, “It soon became apparent . . . that the purpose of the War Relocation Authority was hopelessly at odds with that ideal cooperative community picture.” The incarcerated Noguchi gradually became distanced from the Caucasian administrative staff, as well—some of whom he had known before internment; he began to see them as his keepers whose word was law.

Needless to say, the program was never realized.


Poston was situated on 71,000 acres of a Native American reservation in the desert and was perhaps the hottest of all internment camps. According to Robert Maeda, art historian and author of “Isamu Noguchi: 5-7-A, Poston, Arizona”, who was interned there as a child, Noguchi was among the first to enter Camp One, opened in May 1942; at the time two more camps had yet to be finished to eventually accommodate 20,000 evacuees.
Those interned were put to work building the structures. Noguchi, too, was subsequently tasked to develop a set of blueprints on behalf of the administration for a park, recreation areas, and a cemetery within the camp. Noguchi approached the task with utmost seriousness, however, and also saw in it an opportunity to satisfy his philosophical belief in the public use of art.

The product of these administrative requests was a set of schematics of a garden oasis in the midst of stockade-like barrack blocks. For the dead, Noguchi envisioned a columbarium (perhaps mindful of the Buddhist practice of cremation), chapel, and gravesites. Their restrained artistic simplicity might provide a semblance of dignity for those who died in the desert. His plans made use of stucco building material characteristic of the Native American reservation the camp was built on, while his gardens contained indigenous plants and complemented the existing architecture. How temporary or permanent did Noguchi intend his proposed designs, given the uncertainty of the duration of the war? According to Maeda, Noguchi was consistent in his long career in that his plans were at least meant to be executed.

In the case of Poston, an undated memorandum submitted by Noguchi to the Poston community council on the creation of his recreation and arts center indicates why it was ultimately rejected: The WRA again refused to allocate labor and money for its execution and equipment. Said Maeda: “Noguchi, famous though he was, had to deal with the reality of the moment. I don't think his designs were vetoed out of hand nor did they just slip through the cracks. They may have been politely ignored.”

Undiscouraged by this rebuff, Noguchi proposed that the project be built, owned, and operated entirely by the evacuees. In support of this proposal, he writes: “Already members of the athletic and art departments have contributed to constructing the shelter where we will build the adobe bricks.” Noguchi’s positive, self-reliance is continued throughout the memorandum: “We feel that the importance of this undertaking to our own development is apparent. [It] will secure a degree of strength in a spirit of democratic participation from the administration not otherwise possible.”

Although the internees themselves may have attempted to carry out Noguchi’s ideas, he nowhere indicates that any part of his vision, which he thought would have to be built in gradual steps, was ever concretized.


Unable to carry out his plans, Noguchi was instead left anticipating approval of his release, biding his time working in clay. His request to leave stated:

I am extremely despondent for lack of companionship. The Niseis here are not my age and of an entirely different background and interest. Also, I have become so out of touch with the administration that I do not know of what further use I can be in camp. I am sure they consider me more of a bother than a help. As you know, I sought some place where I might fit into the fight for freedom. This might have been the place were I became stronger or more adaptable. As it is, I have become embittered. I came here voluntarily. I trust that you will not have difficulty in securing this request. P.S. I might add it’s the heat that drives me frantic.

Noguchi’s appeal was repeatedly denied, largely because of questions about his loyalty and citizenship that arose when it was learned that he had spent part of his childhood in Japan. He was told not to feel despondent, that his request was spoken about, and steps would be initiated toward his release, though it would be impossible to tell when that would be. It was not until November that Noguchi left Poston on a temporary-leave pass—one he acquired after completing an application on the basis of a stipulation for evacuees of “mixed race” parentage. He flew back to his home in New York City and never returned. He was long gone by the time Poston was shut down in September 1945.

After his departure, it would be the mothers who were able to implement minor change after his departure. On behalf of their children, they demanded facilities for play. Between two barracks appeared a modest goldfish pond.


According to the contents of Noguchi’s FBI file, his life was full of uncertainties in the years after he left Poston. He was under apparently continuous FBI surveillance from December 12, 1942 until late 1945. To his surprise, he was asked to report to Manzanar (in east-central California) for re-internment. After repeatedly trying to satisfy the Western Defense Command that he should not be evacuated and interned again, Noguchi finally received clearance to remain in New York in late February 1945.

In an article published in the New Republic (Feb. 1, 1943) “Trouble Among Japanese Americans”, he critically assesses the performance of the WRA, which only responded to the needs of evacuees after mass riots. He recommended that relocation be done not only on an individual basis but in groups, particularly for Issei (first generation), who would adjust better with support; considered resettlement as a step toward speedy assimilation of the Japanese Americans into the larger American group; and urged the WRA to give those left behind in the camps as much latitude for self-government and self-sufficiency as possible, offering Issei the leadership roles that the WRA had denied them.

Noguchi wrote:

When people ask me why I, a Eurasian sculptor from New York, came so far into the Arizona desert to be locked up with the evacuated Japanese from the West Coast, I sometimes wonder myself. I reply that because of my peculiar background I felt this war very keenly and wished to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me. At other times, I say that I felt sympathy for the plight of the American-born Japanese, the Nisei, or else that relocation offered a presage of inevitable social change in which I wished to take part. All of this is true. But I might also have said that a haunting sense of unreality, of not quite belonging, which has always bothered me, made me seek for an answer among the Nisei (second generation).


Between 1943 and 1945 when Japanese American evacuation became an unavoidable public issue, Noguchi’s own abstract sculptures began to explore how identity emerges in culture. According to critic Amy Lyford in “Noguchi, Sculptural Abstraction, and the Politics of Japanese American Internment,” he evaded propagandistic usage and articulated a process of becoming a body in the world rather than exploiting the specificity of the body as a political tool—momentarily visualizing the nearly complete yet unfinished integration of identities within a single sculptural object. If internment made the inscription of racial and cultural difference concrete by institutionalizing racial segregation, Noguchi’s wartime works highlighted the process of hybridization by showing palpable connections between the individual, the landscape, and the social body.

Many artists at the time found in abstraction a form of visual production capable of evading direct connection to specific political agendas because of lack of realist cues but offering an apparently universal visual language to communicate new ideas about social change. Though discourse about the creation of a truly democratic “American” art often elided race in order to stress universal humanism, Japanese American artists such as Noguchi had to face the fact that after Pearl Harbor, “race” would not be easily forgotten, evident in the reception of Noguchi’s work.

Lyford writes:

One piece in particular, Kouros reconsiders the degree to which the image of a stable, universalizing man could be relevant in a world where migration, dislocation, relocation, and exile had become models for twentieth-century man’s existence. In addition to representing the ideal male figure as a movable effigy, it exemplifies a tendency in Noguchi’s work of the early 1940s to represent the process of transformation itself as an alternative to rigid hierarchies.

Given the sculpture was completed in 1945—the year the U.S. bombed Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and the year of Noguchi’s attempt to evade re-internment in Manzanar—the pessimism embodied in a work such as Kouros makes sense. While the sculpture may well reveal its reverence for the humanist tradition its name references, Kouros is also intended as a critique of that ideal: a polished bony relic of the past rather than a figure striding toward the future.

In Hess’s review of the exhibit of which Kouros was a part for Life titled “Japanese-American Sculptor Shows Off Weird New Works” the text emphasized the facts of Noguchi’s months of residence “in an alien Japanese camp.” Hess continued: “Now he works in a studio in New York where he patters happily about in his bare feet, cutting up marble slabs to fashion even more statues.” Hess incorrectly turns Kouros into the sculptural symbol of the artist’s fusion of a binary opposition between East and West connoting how race was a literal category of analysis at that time. As elucidated by Lyford, it understood racial difference as something to be contained by American democracy rather than something that might critique that democracy.

Setting aside the racialized references, Hess’s subsequent remark that the sculpture could be “packed up in two minutes” however, does seem a prescient, if ironic, analysis of Noguchi’s updated Kouros. Lyford continues:

It puts its finger on exactly how the relocatability of the work mimics—if unconsciously—the actual relocation that Japanese Americans endured during World War II. It may represent an approach to sculpture that gave form to the realities of the ideal man as a movable sculptural effigy. Kouros in effect reenacts the process of Japanese American internment each and every time it is exhibited. It offers the idea of universal humanity as a construction, while framing that tradition as empty.

Noguchi wrote about a kind of feeling about sculpture, of wanting to be inside the sculpture. A book on his Akari light series quotes him: “That’s when you’re really a part of it. The usefulness is integral. In that sense, you can say that architecture is sculpture. I think of sculpture as something to be completely experienced, not just looked at. You’re encased in it.”

—Bruna Mori