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From the archive: children's museum, Hyogo, Japan by Tadao Ando

Responding to its splendid site, elements of the landscape are drawn into the building and parts of the built work are stretched out into wild nature – from AR August 1991

Tadao Ando’s grave and austere architecture is not normally one that is associated with children, but in his children’s museum at Himeji in the Hyogo prefecture, his wonderful poetry of light and shade, and his thoughtful handling of the interpenetration of internal and external space, are exercised to heighten the user’s understanding of the magnificent natural surroundings. The building lies on the flank of a mountain which falls at this point to become the gently sloping wooded shores of a lake. It is divided into three parts. To the south is the main block which contains a variety of functions; this is connected to an intermediate square defined by a grid of columns. A linear path then continues on to the workshop block at the other end of the site. 

Tadao ando drawing 1

Tadao ando drawing 1

The main building is fundamentally divided into two rectangles, separated by a slot of space. The westernmost rectangle terminates in a fan-shaped piece that celebrates a gentle promontory which offers superb views over the lake. In the fan, a circular indoor theatre is topped by an outdoor one from which spectators can catch glimpses of the mountain and the lake while watching the play. The two rectangles are each further divided into a shorter rectangle and a square by a cross axis. The parts are connected only by a deck, and the whole composition offers many different framings and perceptions of the landscape; the complexity of these is compounded by vistas of the multi-level spaces of the library, multi-purpose hall and galleries within the enclosed parts. The whole is surrounded by a pool, partly formed as cascades. Platforms open on to the water to give the children direct contact with the element. 

Tadao ando drawing 3

Tadao ando drawing 3

The long path to the play square is cut into the slope, with a retaining wall in Ando’s usual immaculate poured concrete (which is the basic construction material of the rest of the complex). The square itself articulates a slight bulge in the shores of a long thin bay of the lake, and the 25 six-metre high columns continuously re-define views of the landscape. Their austerity may seem a little frightening to a European child, but they seem to work in Japanese culture: and little children play around their bases. 

Tomio ohashi pic 7

Tomio ohashi pic 7

The columned play area in the middle of the composition

From this platform, the path continues its course downwards (but still well above the road that rather sadly cuts off the lake shore from the forested bank). The pedestrian route terminates in a place that is dominated by the 16 m square of the lowest block. Here, there is an enclosed workshop topped by an open-air one that is approached by a ramp. 

This rural site is quite different from the tight urban ones that Ando often works on. By taking account of the quality and the topography of the place, Ando has created a work that is as impressive in human terms as it is formally.

Architect Tadao Ando

Photographer Tomio Ohashi