Page C3.2 . 17 September 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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    Suntory Museum by Kengo Kuma


    The museum features galleries on the third and fourth floors, a lecture and event hall on the sixth floor, a tea-ceremony room, a gift shop and cafe, a ten-meter- (33-foot-) high stairwell, and a curved bridge connecting the museum to margin of parkland with cherry trees surrounding the large mixed-use development.

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    Recycled whiskey casks partially form the flooring, connecting tactilely to the museum's operator, the Suntory brewing and distilling company.

    Relaxed Japaneseness

    Kuma has a physical presence not normally associated with Japanese architects. Tall, physically impressive, and well dressed, he has a relaxed demeanor and easy affability. You immediately feel this is a man who isn't trying to impress you, something that definitely works in the 54-year-old architect's favor.

    Many earlier Japanese architects were often obsessed with their Japaneseness, either to express it or to suppress it. In contrast, Kuma says, "For me, as a Japanese, it's only natural to use things from my culture. The present generation is generally more relaxed about being Japanese."

    Japanese elements infuse the Suntory Museum on a variety of levels. Materials include white porcelain, rice paper, and Paulownia, a wood traditionally used to make chests for storing kimonos because of its reputed antimold properties.

    The concept of a chest of valuables also informs the museum as a whole, while the mood of the building is low-key and self-effacing.

    Visual motifs include the taiko ("drum") bridge that accesses the museum from the park side, and the vertical louvers that give the museum its visual texture. Similar louvers are common in traditional Japanese architecture, used over windows to provide privacy and shade.

    None of these elements, it should be stressed, are used to give the building an identity. Instead, they are naturally grounded in the particular demands of this museum and its site, as well as a quiet, graceful functionalism that also includes poeticizing the museum in accord with its role as an important public building.

    Delicate Ceramics

    The most noticeable visual feature of the museum is the external facade, covered in its vertical ceramic louvers attached at 90 degrees to the face. The remarkable thinness of the white porcelain panels greatly enhances the overall elegance.

    Because of their weakness, ceramic panels are usually thick or cast into concrete for enhanced strength, making them appear bulky. Kuma was keen to avoid this.

    "These vertical louvers can cool down the building," he points out. "But in addition I wanted something very thin. The edges of my ceramic panels are about six millimeters [a quarter of an inch]. It is not so easy to create them that thin using just ceramics."

    "The secret is we combined the ceramics with aluminum, with the aluminum supporting the thin ceramic." reveals Kuma. "The ceramic panels have holes and they are joined to the aluminum with pins and some grooves to give flexibility."

    Study in Contrasts

    At the edge of the same park on which the museum looks out, you can also find another exhibition venue, Tadao Ando's 21_21 Design Sight. The contrast between the two buildings is stark and revealing. While Kuma's building is defined by texture, Ando's is all about shape.

    Fashion designer Issey Miyake, one of the artistic directors at 21_21, previously developed a technique for manufacturing a garment from one piece of cloth. Applying this idea to part of the architecture, Ando created an eye-catching design. He used a single sheet of steel, measuring over 50 meters (164 feet) in length, to create a roof, the eaves of which define the building's low angular quality.

    While this gives the building a characteristic and daring shape, the quality of the space and atmosphere is markedly inferior to that of Kuma's Suntory building.

    Ando's work is a piece of "archisculpture" that visually dominates its surrounding area. It embodies the urge to startle and amaze, often evident in the work of the previous generation of Japanese architects, most noticeably in Kenzo Tange's famous Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

    By appealing to the visual sense at the expense of the tactile, such works run a danger of becoming architectural pornography — exciting but unsatisfying. The Suntory Museum of Art by contrast comes the opposite way, quietly seducing and seeking physical contact with the visitor instead of empty titillation.

    "One reason for the difference is that in 21_21, the curators and the committee members of the museum always try to exhibit new things," Kuma says. "Always, they try to renew. I think it's a very hectic attitude. But at the Suntory Museum, the attitude of the museum curators is the opposite. They try to show old things, but so that the visitor can get some new inspiration from them. That approach is similar to my architectural approach."   >>>

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    ArchWeek Image

    A curving bridge provides first-floor access from the park to the Suntory Museum.
    Photo: Courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Stairs pass through the double-height third-floor gallery space.
    Photo: Ian Chen Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Wood from whiskey barrels was used in the flooring of the Suntory Museum.
    Photo: Courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Third-floor plan drawing.
    Image: Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    East-west section drawing looking north.
    Image: Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Daylight is screened twice before it reaches the open third-floor gallery space.
    Photo: Ian Chen Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The contrasting 21_21 Design Sight museum nearby was designed by Tadao Ando.
    Photo: Courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Although modern detailing pervades the Suntory Museum, the tea-ceremony room employs a more traditional motif.
    Photo: Courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates Extra Large Image


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