21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

i recently had the chance to visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, by Pritzker Prize winner SANAA.  It's an interesting building for what it says both about modern art and Japanese architecture and culture.

The building is a circle in plan, meaning there is no facade in the traditional sense; it has an insistent neutrality being not only singular in form but also in material, here glass.  The glass perimeter has within it many rectangular volumes and one circular volume, varying in size and materiality, as some are voids and some solids.  Within these volumes are exhibition spaces, again either closed (opaque volumes) or open (as courtyards).  The building is roughly split in two, with the public free to enter the northern part of the building, the southern half is paid special exhibition.  The line between the two seems ambiguous and wandering in a way that leads to the belief that it's not a serious demarkation, just as one might understand the glass perimeter to be but a formality of separation between inside and outside, as you can see from the picture above.  With no line between free public and paid, one has the sense that the space is a free one to wander, until you come upon a rope barrier where it's made clear whether you paid or not.

Site Plan

Floor Plan
The notion of breaking down the barrier between inside and out is an ancient one with a strong presence in traditional Japanese architecture.  Exterior walls were often sliding screens (shoji) that when opened loosened the barrier between house and garden, just as the gate or opening in a wall one would often find between garden and the wilder landscape beyond.  The idea was not to dissolve the differences between the two, but that the differences be celebrated as a matter of design.  One was always understood as a rooted version of the other, not its replacement.  Similarly, in the SANAA plan, one understands the interior as a version of the larger city, minus all the warts and condensers and utility wires of the modern Japanese city beyond.  Present too is the Japanese characteristic of absent center, here playfully missing from the most insistent of forms, a circle. In an earlier post, we talked about that characteristic of the Japanese city and how the train station pretended as such but did so as center that expelled as much as it gathered, acting as a kind of anti-center.  This museum, with it's open stance with regard to access, does much the same, as people move about freely, coming and going, paying and not paying, 

Public corridor on north side cuts all the way through
As abstract as a red circle is for a nation of many islands, so the 21st Century Museum is as a building for the arts.  The entrance is a poke in the glass with a small canopy overhead, and the public entrance on the west side equally ambivalent about its role as portal to the glass circle.  The building does nothing to acknowledge the powerful sun that burns one side or another, and the shades that have been installed to mitigate that sun are an insult to the purity of the initial gesture; they're thin and must be pulled down one by one, and each is pulled differently, creating a chaotic appearance in a building with no tolerance for such.  It's also an affront to the ingenuity of traditional Japanese architecture, which was so attuned to the seasons and light. 

Late day sun can be blinding
The glass is often mirror
We architects like to assume that glass is transparent, but know that it often acts like a mirror.  The 21st Century Museum, like Japanese culture in general, moves as effortlessly from blinding light to shadow as it does transparent glass to mirror, and so the museum exists almost as much as it doesn't exist.  It's an enigma that plays with it's position between the precious Kenroku-en garden and Kanazawa Castle, where a wood house sits on a stone in a relationship equal to that of the garden and the landscape that preceded it.  At times it blurs as much the boundary between the sacred and profane as it does the boundary between inside and out.  At other times of the day, or the other "side" of the museum at the same time of day, it insists on this boundary by mirroring the city you're arriving from, making it's presence known from without.  In a similar "knowing from without", the island nation came to know itself as the Land of the Rising Sun, a reference to its perception from afar.

Permanent art installation Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich
The light and the dark


Japan Musings 7: Fuji Center

Hokusai, Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji
A co-worker talked to me about his long term interest in Shotokan, a form of Karate, talking about how it was as much about thinking as about the body.  He invited me to attend a session, and sure enough i found it interesting on many levels, like much from Japan.

Each session began with a sit, in which you put your feet beneath your body and hold that posture in silence until the sensei says to end it (seiza).  i found this to be incredibly painful.  If you haven't spend your life sitting the way the Japanese sit, and decide to go at when you're in your late 50's, you're going to hurt.  But sitting there one morning, a thought came..

i felt my body planted and one with the earth.  How could i not, with all the pain it was sending to me head?  And me head seemed apart from all this, as the collector of messages but the generator of none.  The body was earth, the mind the sky; one planted in the realities of planet and life and aging, the other floating in thoughts of candy bars and pipe dreams.  The image that came into me head in that instant was Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji is many things.  It is the earth solid and sure of itself as any mountain, yet its top is covered in snow and often de-materializes into cloud.  It's perfect symmetry and isolation objectifies this aspect of its nature.  It is and it isn't.  It was just this i felt sitting in seiza, with body of the earth and mind of the sky, and in the many depictions of Fuji in art, where its identity shifts from earth to flower to sky to wave; it can be what you imagine it to be.  What appears on the one hand to be so insistent and clear about its identity can on another day become vague and indifferent about the same.  And so another example of the Japanese sense of de-centered being discussed in earlier posts.

Fuji is about which Japan revolves, a single, insistent point of reference.  Hokusai created his series of views of Mt. Fuji in a way that described just such a centeredness, as he moved around the mountain as all revolves around the mountain, describing it in all seasons and weather.  The paradox is that Japan revolves around a center that at times doesn't exist, it focuses attention on something there as much as not there, and the fact that Fuji is a volcano can't be dismissed.  As mentioned previously (Japan Musings 2) about the train station as empty center, so Fuji, the assumed symbol of stability and gravity, is little more than a valve of the earth core, expelling when the time comes, emptying itself and revealing the true center, that of the earth itself.

And so The Land of the Rising Sun, de-centered, in flux and fluid, and prepared to reset the calendar any moment, Mt. Fuji or not.


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