There aren't many people who can have Henry T. Segerstrom, mighty developer of the South Coast Plaza, walking behind them, solicitously muttering, "We'll take care of that as soon as possible."
But Tuesday afternoon he hurried after a balding, slightly built man across an open plaza amid two towering Costa Mesa office buildings.
"Something's wrong here," the man said, pointing with the toe of his soft shoe to a pipe that was out of place.
"We'll take care of it," Segerstrom promised.
The plaza was the wide sandstone floor of "California Scenario," a sculpture garden Segerstrom commissioned that was dedicated in 1982. The man was not the local building inspector, but Isamu Noguchi, world-famous sculptor of the garden.
At 83, Noguchi was making his first return visit to the self-contained outdoor 1.6-acre site in five years.
The artist said he was in town for a purely social get-together with Segerstrom, during a stop in Los Angeles on a trip from Tokyo to his apartment in Manhattan. Repeatedly asked whether they were brainstorming some new art project, the men shook their heads. "Isamu just came to have another look," Segerstrom said.
And a very close look it was, as Noguchi stroked a piece of stone here, paused to examine a perspective there. Some artists might re-examine old works with regret, wishing they could have a second chance with a brush or chisel. Not Noguchi. "If you're satisfied with it, you should stay satisfied," the sculptor said Tuesday. "I like it very much."
Noguchi, who studied with Constantin Brancusi in 1927 and drove cross-country with painter Arshile Gorky in 1941, darted about the garden with the tightly coiled energy of an adolescent.
It was an impressive moment in the garden, as light drained from the sky and shadows loomed against its high white walls. Noguchi called the garden his "ode to California." For those unfamiliar with the project that celebrates "The Spirit of the Lima Bean," it looks like a chessboard toward the end of a long game, consisting of scattered pieces: fountains, stone forms related to the state's natural and man-made landscape, a planted stand of pine trees, a sandy mound planted with cactus and an artificial stream that winds through the sandstone floor like a lost stretch of the Colorado River.
The garden, which is believed to have cost more than a $1 million, combines the serenity of a Japanese garden and Noguchi's smoothly contemporary style of sculpture.
"I wanted to convey the idea of California that people have," said Noguchi, "the idea of the ideal place. The idea of a life here. A lot of people retire here. I wanted a green effect and a silhouette at night.
"Isn't that beautiful!" he said, stopping to admire a lingering film of light that gave a golden color from the pinkish sandstone. Then he moved away. While the artist seemed generally happy with how his creation had held up, he stopped in his tracks at the sight of a metal pipe that bent out of the stream, spewing water.
"That pipe is not supposed to be seen," he said. "I had a problem--how to make water flow when I did not have a slope. A real stream would flow down, but here it is flat. . . . I decided to have pipes that you can not see carrying water all through the stream. It looks like it is flowing. But you shouldn't see the pipe."
For a moment, the voice carried the hard tone of admonition. Then his voice softened, and he spoke of the garden as one of the more rewarding open-space projects of his career--"my favorite one, along with one in Israel." And he spoke highly of Segerstrom.
"I never worked with developers," Noguchi said. "I never trusted them. (But) Henry was open to the possibilities. He was going to fill up this space with earth and have a forest, and I thought you could have a wall over there. I thought there was more you could do. . . . He went along."
Segerstrom smiled broadly when Noguchi declared, "This worked well. It went very fast."
Then, lest anyone jump to conclusions, the sculptor declared: "I have not taken up with developers! I am an artist, and that is mostly what I do.
"I've done work in municipalities," Noguchi added. "I've done that. I'm working now in Miami, and I'm having such a trouble. Bureaucrats! All they are and all they care about is keeping their jobs, and you just can't work that way--that you are always scared you are making a mistake!"
Suddenly, he and pointed to a mass of greenery at one end of the garden, and asked:
"Isn't that honeysuckle?"
"Yes," Segerstrom said. "Sometimes the cactus dries out and breaks off. But we plant new ones. . . . We're very careful to take care of it as soon as we can."
At one point, like someone unwilling to even consider the possibility of competitors, Noguchi bristled when queried whether there are younger sculptors whose work he admires. "They're all so eager to excite," he said. "They all wanted to make it. . . . but who am I to say anything--so did I! They want to break new ground and so did I."
Looking again over the meditative scene he had shaped from stone and space, he sighed.
"I must say, this looks beautiful," he said, softly. "I am very pleased."