Are we arriving at the destination of art galleries?

30, Nov. 2001



I have had, by chance, two opportunities to design a museum in the last ten years. One is the "Art Tower Mito" completed in 1991, for which I worked as a chief designer at Arata Isozaki's office. The other one is the "Aomori Museum of Art", which I am designing now as an independent architect towards completion in 2006.
These two museums are very different and I think this difference comes not only from the change of my situation but also because of the further development of museums in Japan and because of the change of my own opinion about museums in general.
The "Art Tower Mito" is a cultural complex building consisting out of a theatre, a concert hall, an organ hall and a gallery of contemporary art.
The complex is situated right in the middle of town and was expected to be a "Palace of Cultures".
The basic design of this building reflects clearly this expectation. It represents a return to a classical Western style, except for the composition of the interior space, which is not that classic.
Four facilities are as independent spaces so that they can function satisfactorily by themselves. On the other hand they are all connected with each other. Common spaces and foyers are reduced as much as possible. The "Art Tower Mito" doesn't have a ceremonial entrance hall like similar cultural facilities in Japan used to have.
That is the reason why the interior composition can not be regarded as a classical building typology and this is one of the merits "Art Tower Mito" has.
A question which I am very interested in is:
"Why do Japanese museums usually have a ceremonial entrance hall?"
One reason is -of course- caused by the architects. Architects naturally desire to create interesting space. But in designing galleries they often feel under stress because design decisions regarding galleries are very often not made by architects but curators. The role of the architects is limited. Sometimes they feel that they can not create space, which they think is interesting.
So, they might abandon to design galleries and throw them away as black boxes. And at the expense of this, they might dash to a realm of freedom, which is: the entrance hall! On the other hand, the administrations -usually government officials- also wish to have magnificent vestibules. Here, architects share common interests with officials.
This tendency is without question a disaster for a museum. The important space in the museum is not the entrance hall but the gallery!
Anyway, Isozaki was sincere enough to concentrate on the gallery.
We designed the galleries as a series of "white cubes". The idea of the "white cube gallery" was not very common in Japan at the end of 80's.
Instead ornamentation and introduction of the architect's capricious forms were quite common during this time.
Looking back to the 90's, I think that it was a period when the idea of the "white cube" became very popular. I suppose that the "Art Tower Mito" was one of the pioneers in the field of "white cube galleries" in Japan.
The exhibit rooms of the "Art Tower Mito" are arranged to constitute a continuous experience. They were designed as rooms of different sizes, proportions and light conditions. While going through the sequence of rooms with natural and artificial lighting, and with different atmospheres, visitors will physically sense a spatial rhythm.
The distinctive feature of the gallery is the amount of natural light.
Our goal was to make the floor, wall and ceiling details as unobstructive as possible, so that it will not interfere with the art works. There are no picture rails. Instead, works are to be hung on walls with nails and screws. In short terms, we tried to have rooms abstracted and reduced just to the space with its size, proportion and light condition, and this was the meaning of the "white cube".
After the completion of the "Art Tower Mito" I became independent.
I have not had another opportunity to design an art museum until the "Aomori Museum of Art", for which I got the first prize at the open competition last year.
But during these 10 years, I have kept my interest in architecture of art museums. Even in designing residential projects, I sometimes felt some similarity between the subject of them and that of a museum. This similarity lies in the contradiction between space and activity. We create space to fit requirements. This means that the space will anticipate
activity which will be done there. But nobody wants his or her activity to be bound by space.
So, how can we design space?
For example, there is a school of design called ergonomics which aims the perfect fit of objects to the human body. And I really dislike this approach. At times, I find it quite ridiculous. Certainly, it is a problem when a driver who spends long hours at the wheel tires quickly because of a poor fitting seat. That's why suitable seats are developed by trying out various designs to see which one is less tiring for the majority of people.
I don't mean to belittle those efforts, but most things are not that simple. Life does not consist only of clear-cut goals like continual driving or typing at a keyboard. Nor would I want it to be. In fact, just the opposite.
Finding something interesting in the process of doing something. Not having anything predetermined. If not, what's the point of doing anything? There is nothing more monotonous than doing something that has already been decided in a given order as required by a given scenario. Ergonomics is effective in settings where people act along mechanical lines. But in any other situation, it corresponds to putting the cart before the horse. By acting in concert with what is available, we discover our own lifestyles.
Our lifestyles are not predetermined. And that is the type of house I would like to create.
When I designed a house for my younger brother, the zelkova tree was the centrepiece. It is a delight simply to gaze up at the spreading branches. With a tree this size, the roots are probably well spread out, so the house will have to stand a considerable distance off. As a result, the tree and the building will be juxtaposed. Moreover, the house next door is single storied. If we build a two-stories house it will dominate too much. A single-story height would fit best. In this way, the space the building can occupy is virtually determined by the surrounding conditions. In my head, I switch the remaining three dimensional domain for a concrete box. I nonchalantly tossed it across the site. And I use the box for a dwelling.
It's not to be determined by the contents at all. That's one point that won't be compromised.
This was the procedure followed for designing this house.
After the completion of this house, I have inclined to start designing by finding some generative and geographical rule which would make the building fit requirements and then try to watch the growth proceeded from this rule.
I feel this method can result in a space which would not anticipate activity and the strength of space and that of activity would be even.
I believe that an art museum is a facility which is devoted to the human ability to make physically something happen, if we go upstream along the raison-d'etre of the museum. So, balance between the strength of space and that of activity is the essential issue.
I visited an exhibition held in a disused elementary school and there I found this balance perfect. Artists responded to the given space and also acted freely. This school is not a museum. But the school was a better museum than most of the museums designed as a museum.
This school is based on a simple and functional design to get as much sunlight in as possible and to reduce building costs as much as possible.
The parameters which determine the building are so simple that everybody can follow the process and reach the same result. The building was designed by rigid discipline. I felt a kind of "rationality" in this space, which didn't anticipate activities.
I think this is the reason why the strength of space can be even to that of activity. If the space is catering to every little request and demand, the activity would shrink. If the space is too neutral, it would be hard to start making something happen.
That is why I came to suspect that a "white cube" isn't necessarily the best space for a gallery. The ultimate object of a "white cube" may be a neutral and flat space. We can find some galleries which almost reach this goal, like Beyeler Foundation Museum in Reihen by Renzo Piano, Bregenz Art Museum by Peter Zumthor and etc.
The question for me is:
"Are we arriving at the destination of art galleries or not?"
I think we have to go back to a very basic question: "What is a museum?"
My opinion is -as I already said- that it is a facility, which is devoted to the human ability to make physically something happen. We have to respond to people who make physically something happen, which means to respond to artists and not to curators.
Some artists think their work can make space. For them, the work is autonomous. And some artists think space makes their work. For them, the work is site-specific. This is a problem whether work is prior to space or space is prior to work. And there can be no conclusion.
White cube galleries can fit autonomous works well. But it can not fit site-specific works as well. It manages to fit site-specific works because a "white cube gallery" remains to be a room. It remains to be a space with its size, proportion and light condition. And it is bound by a floor, walls and a ceiling.
The space is limited. A "White cube" is a space, which has a neutral character and at the same time it remains to be a room, which means that the "white cube" is a compromise.
While designing the "Aomori Museum of Art", I had the idea to provide two absolutely different gallery types. One is for autonomous art works and the other is for site-specific art works. The first may be created as a "white cube" and the second may be provided by some characteristic space.
In that way the museum may constitute of a series of "white cube galleries" and some "characteristic galleries".
The question is what kind of character this site-specific gallery should have... I think it shouldn't be created arbitrarily. Architects can easily create a characteristic space through their concept, interest or sense.
But if I were an artist, I couldn't stand making something in such a space. Architects' intentions certainly obstruct artists in making something freely. So the character should not be provided by somebody's personal image but by more logical procedure.
The site for the "Aomori Museum of Art" adjoins an archeological spot, which is regarded to be one of the symbols of Aomori. When I visited this archeological spot for the first time I was totally overwhelmed by this fascinating landscape. All I saw was earth and unearthed areas everywhere.
Trenches which are dug out of soil are geographically very impressive.
That's why I decided to use the heritage as a character for the "site-specific gallery".
First I formed this kind of space at the site. Trenches are inscribed along the soil as the earth gets dug out. Grids of the trenches make the surface of the earth going up and down. They are covered with a structure whose top is flat and whose bottom is also going up and down. Interstices emerge between these two rugged surfaces.
I proposed this generative and geographical rule to create a museum of art at the competition.
This rule generates automatically two different spaces; one is the space inside the structure, the other one is the space of the interstices. The spaces inside the structure will be designed as "white cube galleries" for autonomous art works and the interstices will be designed as non-personal but characteristic galleries for site-specific art works. The interstices are earth-floored, while its walls are also earth-walled. Floor and walls will be made out of the local soil.
I think if every museum will has not only international "white cube galleries" but also its own characteristic galleries, it would encourage artists to go there and make something physically happen.
And it also makes visitors to go there.
And for curators, whether they feel a burden or not depends on if they are creative enough or not.