When the expectations of an experience are high, the absence of drama can sometimes almost bring on a sense of delusion. The approach to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art was lacking in drama to the point that I find it difficult to remember the exact moment I entered the building for the first time. An unimposing 5m or so in height, the museum’s actual facade materialises at the last minute, a little too late to leave a lasting impression. Then one melts through the glass curtain delineating the museum’s perimeter, barely noticing the transition between exterior and interior. We dive straight into a complex, labyrinthine world populated by artists like Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson and Pippilotti Rist.
It’s not until one climbs up onto the roof of the municipal building, an unsightly brown sixties office block overlooking the museum from the south, that one understands why. This isn’t a single building at all, but a piece of a city, a scaled-down patchwork of high-rise offices and single-family dwellings, back-roads and public squares, shopping malls and green parks - a sample taken straight from the sprawling surroundings of Kanazawa’s urban fabric. An image comes to mind: the dozens of circular sketch models produced by the SANAA office carefully laid out in rows on a table to explore the museum’s interior arrangement.
It was as though a giant cake-mould had been applied to random parts of the city, cutting out, replicating and testing each spatial configuration until reaching the perfect equilibrium. The exhibition spaces are the tower blocks; the corridors that run between them are the streets and alleyways, converging onto piazza-like open spaces; courtyards open to the elements take the place of small parks. It suddenly becomes clear that this deceptive sense of continuity between interior and exterior has been carefully crafted. The glass curtain that demarcates the point of transition is more of a convention than a boundary: a line in a diagram, the moment where the real city ends and SANAA’s imaginary city begins. And although the office’s work is renowned for being schematic in nature, the purity of the translation from diagram into architecture is undoubtedly the secret of its forceful simplicity.
Located in the centre of a large public square in downtown Kanazawa, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is built on what was previously the site of an elementary school. Roads running along the north and south sides impede the surrounding buildings from encroaching on the site, giving it a sense of space and openness. The museum unimposingly settles into this urban void, with the slender, low-slung disc of the roof (suspended a mere 4m from the ground) granting it a human scale. Its relationship with the passer-by is closer, perhaps, to that of a pavilion one might find in a park than to the stubbornly introverted features of the typical museum.
One cannot help being surprised by the building’s visual permeability. From more than one point it is possible to gaze through between the galleries, down the corridors, across the courtyards and out the other side – no mean feat for a building with a 112m diameter footprint. Looking down at the museum from the municipal offices, it is easy to discern the relationship set up by the architect between the building and its surroundings: every possible route of approach and line of sight is greeted by the facade face-on. After all, there is only one facade - a strategy that permits the museum to turn its back on no one, to fully engage its surroundings. In plan, the museum is an exercise in rhizomatic thinking: drama and monumentality are sacrificed for the sake of a faultlessly non-hierarchical relationship with downtown Kanazawa’s urban context.
It is no surprise to find elementary geometric solids such as cubes, cylinders and blocks protruding from the disc that marks out the museum’s footprint. These are often the basic building blocks that trace out delicate geometries in SANAA’s work. But the building’s profile, reminiscent of an urban skyline, is more than merely sculptural. The hyper-fragmentation of the museum’s galleries into an array of spaces of all sizes and proportions, each allowed to protrude skyward from the disc, is a precise strategy agreed with the chief curator, Yuko Hasegawa. Rather than following convention, which would have prescribed a configuration based around a couple of large exhibition halls (each of which would then be subdivided through the use of temporary partitions), the architects opted for a multitude of smaller spaces, individually proportioned in relation to their programme.
Thus the galleries intermingle with the library, the bookshop, the children’s workshop and the lecture hall without hierarchy - but neither ambiguity - of function. There is a sense of generosity in this abundance of large and small spaces in which each carefully selected artwork is free to express its full potential, exonerated from competition with its companions by the “buffer-zones” of the corridors. Liberated from the constraints of a predefined itinerary running through the collection, one wanders from gallery to gallery allowing the voids in-between to refresh the mind after each artwork, in much the same way that lemon sorbet is served between courses to cleanse the palate of lingering flavours.
This typology of spatial organisation, in which the programmatic elements are treated as objects distributed in a field (the comparison with a Malevich painting is inevitable) is fundamentally different from that experimented in another of SANAA’s more recent projects. In the Almere Stadstheater complex, the negation of hierarchy is driven even further. Any form of traditional differentiation in proportions is discarded, even between programmatic spaces and areas of circulation, giving rise to a Mondriaanesque plan in which it is impossible to distinguish a priori an office from a corridor or a studio from a hallway. In the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, on the other hand, the spatial experience is defined by a clear interplay of solids and voids, an alternation of intimately proportioned corridors and agoraphobia-inducing gallery spaces. But there are also organisational aspects tied to the way this capillary network of corridors is articulated.
The museum is comprised of two parts: a range of public facilities, freely accessible to all, and the main collection, which requires the purchase of a ticket. Public facilities such as the bookshop, library, lecture hall and café are arranged around the disc’s perimeter, while the main exhibits – permanent or temporary – occupy the building’s core; large acrylic door-panels can be drawn across the extremities of the corridors, subdividing the space to restrict access or modulate the flow around the central nucleus. The numerous permutations that can be achieved in this way allow the museum to adapt to a multitude of spatial configurations without having to resort to temporary partitions. And above all, the crystal-clear panels achieve their purpose without compromising the building’s visual permeability, the all-important relationship between interior and exterior that defines its identity.
SANAA, jointly headed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is often considered as belonging to the fourth generation of post-war Japanese modernism, a generation driven by the desire to embrace its technological context and develop an individual position through ongoing personal research. As in numerous previous projects, such as the Park Café in Koga, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art creatively appropriates many of Modernism’s architectural and spatial devices and takes them to their technical limits: paper-thin structural steel walls, disproportionately slender piloti, a girdle of laminated glass panels of the largest possible dimensions without resorting to frames or bracing.
At the same time it succeeds in appearing humane and light-hearted, playfully poised somewhere between abstract and figurative representation. Infinitely more perfect than its sprawling urban surroundings, the museum nevertheless belongs – down to the last detail – to the complex, fragmentary context of the Japanese city.
Three chairs by SANAA
The chairs, benches and stools punctuating the museum’s architecture are a tangible sign of the invitation to stop and linger. In the case of the SANAA Chair, conceived for the Park Café project in Furukawa in 1998, the elegant profile of its form is constructed with solid thin steel discs and iron rods, reflecting an image of formal clarity. Faced with the “traditional” look of an ordinary four-legged chair, the designer’s hand seems to have stopped to copy the design of its soul. Other seats were also designed for the occasion. In Rocking Chair, the comparison is with an icon of modernity and organic thinking: the bent plywood chair. The design of the objects tries almost to incorporate Michael Lin’s work, which comes out of the wall to continue onto the surface of the chair itself, searching for an environmental harmony. The rocking movement then introduces an unusual form of dynamic perception, a departure from the normal act of walking through rooms. A row of seats is arranged outside like silvered atolls suspended on slender steel rod legs. The sky is reflected on the seat’s concave surface, confirming perhaps the invitation to stop and sit in the sun as the museum opposite is animated by people’s movements.