Talking with Taniguchi
"Thirdly, the color of the water always changes, depending upon the weather, season, and time of day. My architecture is very simple, but when it is night time, you can see the light reflected on the water. During the day, sunlight may hit the water surface and reflect against the architecture, making some kind of pattern. So, this water makes my simple architecture more interesting."
One of the main dangers of a modernist style is that it can easily become cold, harsh, rigid, and inhuman. Taniguchi's use of water helps to soften, pattern, and give fluidity to the unadorned geometric elements. Through its reflective qualities, water also helps to transmit other externals that soften and enhance the architecture.
But it is not always possible to rely on water. In Taniguchi's MoMA design, the primary elements that internalize external space are vast windows that bring aspects of the city into the building, creating a layered effect that loosens the intensity and simplicity inherent in the modernist elements, and also declares the act of viewing art to be part of a multifaceted urban lifestyle. A key reason that Taniguchi's design won the competition was the way it referred both inward to the function and history of the building and outward to the surrounding site.
"When I started studying architecture, urban design was a very important subject for architecture students," he says. "Kenzo Tange made his famous Tokyo Plan in 1960. Also at Harvard, when they were teaching me architecture they taught me architecture as an element of the city. They said, 'When you design architecture, you really have to think about the area and the city,' so introducing exterior space into the building to relate it to the site has always been important."
When he conceptualized his MoMA design, Taniguchi decided that visiting MoMA was an unmistakably New York experience, in a way that going to the famous spiraling form of the rival Guggenheim, by Frank Lloyd Wright, wasn'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 watching paintings, you feel you're standing on a slope."
The important point for Taniguchi is not flash and gimmickry, but beautiful forms arising out of function, related to the wider environment. But sometimes, he admits, factors of locale may dictate a pointedly showy design, as with Frank Gehry's titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain.
"I think Gehry's Bilbao Museum is very successful because, in that place, you have to make a special impact," he explains. "There isn't any history of a Bilbao Guggenheim. Before, it was nothing, just a truck yard on the site. So, they had to make an impact to draw people. To show works of art in a new situation you have to have an exciting box, like a gift box, so people say, 'What's inside?' But with MoMA you don't have to do that because they have such impressive stuff."
While paying close attention to the site, its history, and the function of the building is important, another key element in Taniguchi's philosophy is maintaining a human sense of scale, something that is not always easy with large projects.
"One criticism I have heard of my architecture at MoMA is that the central atrium is too big," he mentions. "But it's not too big at all. It's that size for two reasons. One is that every day they have over 10,000 people passing through, so they need a space to breathe. For this it's the perfect size. Also the big atrium creates a space that many contemporary artists can challenge."
Here again the function of the building has been recognized in the design, but what is perhaps less obvious is the way that Taniguchi tries to mediate the vastness of his larger spaces by "peopling" them. In both the atrium at MoMA and the spacious lobby of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum, he does this by using mutually visible balconies and walkways that break the space down into human-sized sectors and bring people closer to each other, often from unusual angles.
"The space is sequenced by different proportions," he explains. "If you are in the city you enjoy watching people in the boulevard, terrace, or plaza. Large spaces can be white and cold, but if you look at all my big spaces, such as the atrium of MoMA, you can see the movement of people from different levels. You can watch each other and say hello, just like you're in a plaza."
Although museums are often thought of as latter-day temples of the mind and spirit, Taniguchi believes that, from an essential viewpoint, they are really no different than more mundane buildings like supermarkets.
"In a supermarket you see what you want, then you bring it back and pay. In a museum you see what you want, but you can't bring it back. That's the only difference," he smiles. "A building is an expression of the relationship between people and goods, people and information, people and people."
C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based writer who writes for Japan Times, International Herald Tribune, Asahi Shimbun, and the South China Morning Post, and is editor of the Tokyo Journal.
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