Talking with Taniguchi
The cosmetics gallery, wrapped around a square courtyard, faces outwards in a circle with large windows admitting bright light, while at the other end of the building, the art gallery — a square structure — is wrapped around a small circular courtyard that admits subdued light, appropriate for delicate paintings.
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Another key factor in the design was the museum's location, always a major consideration for Taniguchi. "At that time, just as when I designed MoMA, I tried to find my architectural solution from the context of the site," he explains. "The Shiseido Art Museum is very close to the Shinkansen railway tracks."
"Also," he continues, "this belongs to a company, so it has to be visually identifiable, so I thought maybe I should give the space a sculptural quality, rather than something very architectural. The circle and square are very simple forms, so, as you go past them by train at high speed, you can see this round form, almost like the streamline of the train, something that doesn't hurt the eye."
However practical and down-to-earth such determining factors may have been, the resulting aesthetic merits of the design won Taniguchi the 1980 Architectural Institute of Japan Award on his first attempt at a major independent project.
Born in 1937, the son of an architect, Yoshio Taniguchi studied engineering at Keio University and architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. After graduating in 1964, he worked briefly for Walter Gropius before moving to the office of Kenzo Tange, another architect whose basically modernist inspirations have often been infused with a misplaced sense of Asian mysticism by Western audiences.
A 2004 exhibition and book Yoshio Taniguchi: Nine Museums, published by MoMA, stressed Taniguchi's role as a museum designer. His recent work for the Kyoto National Museum and the ongoing Asia House project in Houston — a building with two galleries and other cultural facilities for the Texas branch of the Asia Society — have further reinforced this image.
So, why did Taniguchi's career move in this direction?
"It was a matter of chance that I got into designing galleries and museums," he says nonchalantly. "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. It was just two small museums in the beginning. One was private and one was a public city museum. By designing the Shiseido Art Museum, I received a very important architecture award from the Japan Institute of Architects. Then I also received some very important awards for designing the Ken Domon Museum."
The Ken Domon Museum of Photography (completed 1983) was commissioned by the City of Sakata, in Japan's Yamagata Prefecture, to honor one of its sons, the photographer Ken Domon (1909-1990), well known for documenting the aftermath of World War II. Even more than the Shiseido Art Museum, this building reveals some of the key elements of Taniguchi's subsequent style, most noticeably the use of water and the internalization of external space.
A large constructed lake is an integral part of the design. Facing the lake is the primary facade of the museum, an apparently freestanding wall pierced by a rectangular void. The perfectly edited view of the lake that enters the courtyard through that void, rather like an expertly framed view would enter the aperture of a camera, might give the sense that the museum itself mimics a giant camera, with the visitor perhaps playing the role of the film.
Once again Taniguchi rejects such over-poeticized notions and points to Japanese architecture's long-standing tradition of internalizing external space.
"If you go to an old Japanese temple, you sit on the tatami mat and look out to the garden," he explains. "You see the garden framed by the projecting eaves. So these eaves can be classified as a kind of architectural element that captures external space. You feel you're sitting inside, but at the same time you are also looking at exterior space. So, I'm interested in how to relate interior space to exterior space. There are many different ways."
One of his favorite ways is to employ water features. As well as having an aural dimension to add to its visual appeal, water has specific properties that a working architect can take advantage of.
"I can say that there are three different reasons why I use water," he enumerates. "Firstly, it gives a base to the architecture. Secondly, you can control the movement of people and change their viewpoint towards different scenery. For example, if you go to the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures that I designed for the Tokyo National Museum, you cannot approach the building in a straight line. You have to turn right, then turn left. With water you can control the pattern of circulation and change peoples' viewpoint."
"It's just like a Japanese tea ceremony house," Taniguchi continues. "When you are going along a little path, you see a little lantern. You make a right turn and see a bamboo fence. Then you go left and finally enter the place."
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