Hoki Museum by Nikken Sekkei
This is because many exhibitions in Japan — not only art exhibits, but also historical and anthropological ones — tend to attract such large audiences that visitors are encouraged to move through once without backtracking.
Looking at the streamlined space of the Hoki from this perspective, it seemed to me as if the design were merely recognizing the de facto modus operandi of Japanese museums, and seeking to serve it more efficiently.
Another point that struck me about the design was that, viewed from above, the shape of the building resembles a lens, with one long, gently curved section laid on top of another section curving the opposite way.
The fact that this shape had been reproduced as a kind of logo for the museum made it seem particularly significant. At the time, I thought that perhaps this was intended as some sort of symbol relating to art, light, and human sight.
A third point that struck me was the lighting system. It consists of myriad tiny lights set into the ceiling in a scatter pattern that eschews regularity. The similarity to stars in the night sky hinted at a possible aesthetic motive.
These three features each suggested to me very strong and convincing ideas for their design.
However, a lengthy face-to-face interview with the building's lead architect, Tomohiko Yamanashi of the architecture firm Nikken Sekkei, at the company's headquarters in downtown Tokyo, has demolished these first impressions, giving me, in their place, a simpler, deeper, and more integrated understanding of the building.
Speaking excellent English, Yamanashi explains that his starting point was to try to encourage viewers to look at realist art beyond its purely figurative elements, an idea that he says came directly from the man who commissioned the building, Masao Hoki.
"When people see this kind of painting at a glance, they say, 'It's like a photograph.' But if it's a photograph, people cannot be so deeply attracted to it," says Yamanashi. "However, if you look at it very carefully, you realize it is done by hand, and you start to realize the pigment itself is very well-controlled pigment.
"If we see abstract art, we realize it's not an illusion, but a kind of combination of pigment and materials. But if you look at realist art very, very carefully, you realize that the same kind of thing is happening on the canvas."
To get people to view realist art in a different way, it was important to avoid the architectural cliches associated with it, while also creating a building that facilitated deep concentration.
"Usually this kind of art appears in a very classical and decorative situation," explains Yamanashi. "But I thought if we could erase the architecture itself, then maybe people would look closer and deeper at this art and see its abstract qualities as well — the real artistic aspect of this kind of painting."
"So, one of my aims with this work was to try to erase all the architectural elements that I could, such as joints, rooms, and light fixtures."
To get a more self-effacing architectural space, Yamanashi turned to ship design. He sought to mimic the kinds of smooth, continuous, welded-steel surfaces found on ships, even employing a shipbuilder to fabricate steel components for the museum.
"I thought if we could use the same kind of technique and succeed to make the architecture itself like a tube, maybe we could erase the joints," the architect explains. "That was the first step to erasing the architecture."
The "erasing" of architecture, as it is experienced by visitors to the Hoki Museum, is a gradual process that starts when they enter the first section, which is at the top, and gradually increases as they descend through the building to the exit. According to Yamanashi, the museum is designed to reflect the manner in which its owner enjoyed his art collection — his own experience of the art.
Hoki decided to build the museum — which is located in the Toke area of Chiba, where he lives, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from central Tokyo — after he held some open houses at his home to showcase the collection, which includes over 300 artworks. As the events became increasingly well-attended, he realized there was a great deal of potential for a museum.
The founder of a medical supply company, Hoki himself serves as the museum's sole curator. "All the locations of the paintings are decided by him," notes Yamanashi. "Usually in this kind of museum the curators categorize the paintings, but Mr. Hoki mixes them all up. He has a kind of psychological narrative in mind."
The first gallery, the uppermost of the museum's three levels, has a mixture of natural and artificial light, with the size of the windows carefully designed to limit the variation of sunlight to a degree that the iris of the human eye can easily adjust to.
Visitors then proceed downwards through the second and third galleries, which rely increasingly on artificial light. Each section is wider and taller than the previous one: three by four meters (ten by 13 feet), then 3.5 by five meters (12 by 16 feet), and finally 3.8 by six meters (13 by 20 feet).
Yamanashi describes the building's intended role in the visitor experience: "In the first gallery, with the natural light, you see more of the details of the architecture, and the atmosphere makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. People start to see the paintings and talk about them. Next, the space is a little bit wider and the amount of natural light becomes less. They start to concentrate on the pictures."
"In the next section," he continues, "the space is bigger and natural light is reduced to almost nothing, becoming a dark space. People concentrate on the picture more wholeheartedly. So, in the process of walking through this museum, people's behavior changes from a very relaxed mood to deep concentration and becoming lost in the paintings."
The architects also took other steps to "erase" architecture in this design. For example, to get rid of the need for suspension wires or wall mountings to hang paintings, Yamanashi's team, which included Taro Nakamoto, Takashi Suzuki, and Masanori Yano, devised a system of magnets set in the frames of the pictures, allowing them to be placed directly on the steel wall panels.
Another innovation was the lighting system. Far from being an aesthetic choice, the scatter pattern of the lights was informed by practical considerations.
Yamanashi points out that gallery lighting can become a distraction when fixtures are positioned in a noticeably regular pattern. "This is something else we have also tried to erase," he says. "We tried to make the light only light itself."
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