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Nezu Museum by Kengo Kuma & Associates, Tokyo, Japan

In an elegant twist on vernacular building types Kengo Kuma creates a huge roof for the Nezu Museum. Photography by Fujitsuka Mitsumasa

‘I wanted to create a huge roof’, says Kengo Kuma of the new Nezu Museum, designed to house the collection of wealthy Japanese industrialist Kaichiro Nezu on a lusciously pastoral site in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. The big, minimally articulated roof is a Kuma signature. His Hiroshige Ando Museum (AR October 2001) was just a huge shed clad in cedar slats, but it had a powerful lyricism. Kuma’s roofs are abstractions of traditional Japanese architecture, in which overhanging eaves shelter and shade, subtly blurring the boundary between inside and out.

Of this latest project, Kuma says: ‘I wanted the new museum to be linked naturally with its surroundings by the shade from the gentle slope of the roof. Shadows link buildings to the ground and give comfort to the architecture and warmth to the city.’

Founded in 1941 following Nezu’s death, the museum boasts one of Japan’s most culturally significant private collections of Asian art from the pre-modern period. Nezu was a particularly avid collector of hanging scrolls and utensils for tea ceremonies, and today the museum has over 7,000 objects, including calligraphy, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, bamboo crafts and textiles. The collection was originally displayed in Nezu’s Aoyama residence, which stood in extensive traditional gardens studded with ponds, bridges and teahouses. In 2006 his grandson Koichi Nezu commissioned Kuma to remodel and rationalise the existing facilities and design a new building on the garden site. The revitalised complex reopened in October 2009.

Intimately relating both to its site and the wider city, the new museum is conceived as a piece of urbanism rather than a single object building. It structures and defines routes from the nearby Omotesando, Tokyo’s famous ‘Parisian’ boulevard thronged with shoppers and flâneurs. To disengage from the distractions of the street and prepare for the contemplative serenity of the museum, visitors are steered on a trajectory around the gardens.

This takes you through a thicket of bamboo (characteristic of ceremonial approaches to tea houses) and along the building’s deep eaves to the main entrance. En route, the blare of the city dissolves in the verdant, calming embrace of nature. Kuma likens this decompression to a journey from town to forest, or the transition from profane to sacred space, where a traditional torii gate marks the entrance to a shrine.

The museum is essentially an elegant two-storey pavilion capped by a voluminous, grey tiled roof.

Appearing to float on walls of glass, but actually supported by a steel frame, the roof gathers visitors into the building. Scale, form and the post-and-beam structure all allude to Tokyo’s lost heritage of vernacular timber buildings, but Kuma reinterprets this in an authentically contemporary way. The low edge of the roof sharpens to a blade, made from exquisitely thin planes of steel, treated with phosphoric acid for maximum slimness and refinement.

Beyond the entrance, visitors encounter a double-height space shaped by the angular pitch of the great roof, its underside clad in lightweight panels of neritsuke (thinly shaved bamboo on a plywood base). Around the edges are rows of theatrically illuminated Buddhist sculptures. The grey Chinese stone of the gallery floor spreads outside, softening the distinction between internal and external. In turn, the landscape almost becomes part of the exhibition as greenery presses in through the glazed walls. Public gardens are rare in Tokyo, so this lush enclave has a special resonance.

The new museum provides six gallery spaces, four more than the previous building. Each gallery is devoted to a different artistic or craft discipline and works are displayed in simple glass cabinets.

Kuma’s sober new galleries provide an ascetically neutral backdrop so the collection can shine.

Among the museum’s holdings are seven national treasures, including Korin Ogata’s Irises, an 18th-century depiction of flowers on a pair of gold foil screens. It’s one of Kuma’s favourite works. ‘As an architect, I have been greatly influenced by the technique of showing depth of space with limited elements,’ he told the Tokyo Reporter, ‘and this is reflected in the construction of space at Nezu’.

Architect Kengo Kuma & Associates, Tokyo
Structural engineer Shimuzu Corporation
Exhibition cases Kokuyo Furniture
Landscape consultant Seifuen

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