In the 1940s, artist Isamu Noguchi experimented with a series of “lunar landscapes,” embedding lights in undulating magnesite cement. While some were freestanding sculptures, three were site-specific pieces installed in two buildings and a boat. This month, the only one of these architectural projects to survive was revealed in a U-Haul store in St. Louis, Missouri.
“It’s unique,” Steve Langford, U-Haul Company of St. Louis president, told Hyperallergic. “In 1945, we hadn’t been to the moon yet, so the ‘lunars’ were the idea of what another planet might look like, or perhaps the moon. The ceiling goes up higher above the sculpture in some areas, and it has recessed can lighting. The recessed lighting was meant to look like the sky at night.”
In the biomorphic shapes sunken into the ceiling, the starry impact was accented by contrasting dark and light paint. Noguchi molded similar pieces in a reception area of the Time-Life Building in New York City in 1947, and in 1948 on board the SS Argentina ocean liner along one of its stairwells. Both of those are now destroyed. Restoration to clean, repaint, and preserve the surviving ceiling, and return its internal lighting effects, started in November. The project was completed this March, with 80 percent of the sculpture now on view to anyone who visits the U-Haul showroom. A community open house is being held on Thursday, May 19, from 7 to 8:30 pm.
The project was first brought to our attention last December by KWMU St. Louis Public Radio, which reported the revived local interest in the city’s midcentury modernism, aside from its iconic Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch. While the Noguchi was covered with a drop ceiling sometime in the 1990s, it wasn’t entirely forgotten; last year, a maquette of it was on view in St. Louis Modern at the St. Louis Art Museum.
The U-Haul store on South Kingshighway and Northrup Avenue might appear a bit odd from the outside, where a huge rectangular curtain interrupts the main monolithic tower of the building. Designed by architect Harris Armstrong as the headquarters for the American Stove Company-Magic Chef Co., the building was constructed from 1947 to 1948, with an exuberant embrace of midcentury geometry. Noguchi was commissioned in 1946 for his sculptural contribution. Langford said that the original glass panes remain on all six floors beneath the current siding, although at this time there are not plans to remove them. “If the siding was ever to come down, it’s still the same building,” he said.
U-Haul is active in adaptive reuse projects in historic buildings that might otherwise remain vacant, and spearheading their preservation. For example, the 1925 mechanical clock tower on a U-Haul building in Flushing, Queens, was a recent focus, where U-Haul hopes to return it to operation, and in St. Louis the company is also taking on the restoration of the 1920s Globe Drug Store warehouse and the 1928 Art Deco-designed National Candy Building.
“They’re works of art, they’re beautiful, and if there’s no one to use them, often they get torn down,” Langford said. He added that much of the restoration can be done in-house, through their maintenance and remodeling specialist employees.
The Magic Chef building was vacant for about a decade before U-Haul acquired it in 1977, but there’d been almost continuous use, so there wasn’t irreversible decay. Yet until the showroom was expanded, the full Noguchi sculpture couldn’t be on view. Langford said that on occasions when curious people came to see it, he’d lifted a few of the drop ceiling tiles, but “until the ceiling came down, you couldn’t really appreciate what it was.”
According to the St. Louis Art Museum, Noguchi wanted visitors to the lobby to “feel better, feel happier to be there.” In regards to his “lunar landscapes,” Noguchi once stated, as quoted in Hayden Herrera’s Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, that his idea “was to create a completely artificial environment inside, the interstices from which light would emanate, so that one would, in a sense, be inside a sculpture.” The otherworldly topography may also have been inspired by his voluntary internment, as a politically active Japanese-American, in Arizona during World War II. He described his “memory of Arizona” as being “like that of the moon, a moonscape of the mind […] Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent — an illusion within the confines of a room or a box.”
Now with the channels of this strange landscape illuminated once again, visitors perusing boxes or renting moving trucks can also look up at this rare example of pre-Space Age unearthly art.