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Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Designs to refresh the spirit

Special to The Japan Times

Some Westerners, when faced with Oriental creativity, have a tendency to gush. Instead of taking a calm, rational, inquisitive point of view, they tend to ascribe the aesthetic effect of what they see to some mysterious, spiritual force -- whether they call it Zen, Tao, yin and yang -- something they perceive as alive in Asian culture but absent from their own.

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There is a particularly strong tendency to resort to such mystical language when visiting a building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect responsible for New York's recently reopened Museum of Modern Art, as his works have a subtle sublimity that hints at hidden depth. However, this is something the architect -- whose career is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery -- is keen to dismiss, as I learned when I met him at his unassuming office in Tokyo.

When, for instance, I asked him if the perfectly balanced inverse relationship of the circle and the square in the museum he designed for Shiseido in Shizuoka Prefecture was inspired by an attempt to balance the masculine and feminine, he replied:

"I didn't have anything like that in mind. But the museum consists of two parts: one for the art gallery and one to exhibit cosmetics and advertising posters. For the art gallery, I wanted to have gentler light, whereas for the other -- where they exhibit cosmetics -- I wanted light that came in from the outside."

The cosmetics gallery, wrapped around a square courtyard, faces outward in a circle with large windows admitting bright light; while the art gallery, a square structure, is wrapped around a small circular courtyard that admits more subdued light appropriate for paintings.

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The gallery for the Horyuji treasures in the Tokyo National Museum

Another key factor in the design was the museum's proximity to the tracks of Japan's shinkansen railway. For this reason Taniguchi gave the building's exterior a streamlined appearance so that it wouldn't hurt the eye when passed at high speed. The aesthetic merits of the design won Taniguchi the 1980 Architectural Institute of Japan Award, even though it was his first major commission.

The exhibition, which uses photographs and architectural models to present 12 of Taniguchi's designs, includes the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures completed in 1999 to display Buddhist artworks in the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum, and the Centennial Hall, a major expansion of the Kyoto National Museum, due to open in 2007. The main focus, however, is inevitably on his 1997 MoMA design, completed last year.

Now that his career has reached a pinnacle with MoMA, it is natural to see Taniguchi as first and foremost a museum designer and to assume that this is what he always wanted to do. The truth, however, is a lot more prosaic.

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The architect himself

"It was a matter of chance that I got into designing galleries and museums," he said. "Fortunately I was asked to design two museums when I was young, and they were quite successful, so people started asking me to design more."

The other museum that set Taniguchi on his path to fame was the Ken Domon Museum of Photography in Yamagata Prefecture, built to display the work and commemorate the life of one of Japan's most famous photographers. Even more than Shiseido, this museum reveals some of the key elements of his subsequent style, most noticeably the use of water and the internalization of external space.

"I can give three different reasons why I use water," he says. "One is that it provides a base to the architecture. Two, you can control the movement of people to change their view toward different scenery. Three, the color of the water always changes, depending upon the weather, season and time of day. That reflects on the architecture. So water makes my simple architecture more interesting."

For the Ken Domon Museum, he had a large lake constructed as an integral part of the design. The museum's primary facade is an apparently freestanding wall with a rectangular void through which the lake flows into an inner courtyard. This is an example of what Taniguchi refers to as "the internalization of external space," as a view of the lake enters the courtyard.

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The design for the Shiseido museum in Shizuoka Prefecture

Because of the unadorned, geometric elements of his style, Taniguchi is often referred to as a Modernist, a term that evokes cold and impersonal architecture in the popular imagination. His buildings, however, invariably avoid such characterisation.

As with the Ken Domon Museum, one of the most effective ways in which he softens the effect of architecture is through the internalization of external space, something he has used to good effect in MoMA, where vast windows bring the actual cityscape of New York into the design. Taniguchi's architecture was also praised for the way it preserved and referenced MoMA's complex architectural legacy.

For Taniguchi, visiting the MoMA is an unmistakably New York experience in a way that visiting the famous spiraling form of its main rival, the Guggenheim, isn't. The contrast between the two premier modern art venues is also a clear exposition of Taniguchi's architectural approach.

"The Guggenheim is very interesting architecture," he concedes. "But I don't think it's a good museum. Why? Because it doesn't fit there. That building can be in the middle of Tokyo. It can be anywhere. It has nothing to do with the pattern of the city. It is some kind of prototypical circulation museum, and in order to express this prototypical quality all the floors are slanted so when you're looking at paintings, you feel you're standing on a slope."

The important point for Taniguchi is not about flashy or showy architecture, but about beautiful forms arising out of function and a relation to the wider environment. Much of this comes from his training in urban design, which was very much in vogue when he studied architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in the early 1960s.

This aspect of his training found an echo in his appreciation of traditional Japanese architecture, where temples and teahouses are designed in conjunction with their surrounding to present carefully contrived views of nature.

Another way in which he gives warmth to his architecture is by "peopling" his larger spaces at different levels by using mutually visible balconies and walkways: "If you see my big spaces, such as at MoMA, you see the movement of people on different levels, so people watch each other, just like in a city plaza."

Although rightly renowned for his museums, Taniguchi has also designed other types of buildings, including an incineration plant in Hiroshima and his revolutionary design for Tokyo Sea Life Park, both of which make it into the exhibition.

Although museums are often thought of as latterday temples of the mind and spirit, surprisingly Taniguchi believes that, from an architectural viewpoint, there is no real difference between them and everyday buildings. "In a supermarket you see what you want, then you bring it back and pay," he says. "In a museum you see what you want, but you can't bring it back. That's the only difference, maybe. A building is an expression of the relationship between people and goods, people and information, people and people."

"Museums" by Yoshio Taniguchi runs till June 26 at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, 3-20-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Tokyo, 163-1403; tel. (03) 5353-0756, located just above Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line.

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