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Towada Art Centre by Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Towada, Aomori, Japan

Office of Ryue Nishizawa connect 16 bespoke pavilions with a glass coridor to form a dynamic art gallery. Photography by Edmund Sumner

Comprising 16 freestanding pavilions, set in a loose and apparently haphazard arrangement, Towada Art Centre brings a new micro-urbanism to this small Japanese town in the north of Honshū island. Situated on a crossroads of the town’s central avenue, the centre forms part of Arts Towada Project, a programme of events and installations aimed at regenerating a neglected part of town.

The project also extends Ryue Nishizawa’s ambitions to pursue an architecture that considers visual layering and physical permeability, and as such echoes a number of his other works like Moriyama House (AR August 2007) and projects completed under the studio guise of SANAA (of which he is a partner with Kazuyo Sejima) such as the galleries at Kanazawa in Japan and Almere in the Netherlands (AR October 2007).

‘While these designs had more regular and balanced geometries, here Nishizawa appears completely liberated from tyranny of the plan. Nothing about this ungainly arrangement can be described as aesthetic’

Instead, by mapping out the orientation of white masses, he has produced a decidedly unbalanced plan with no rhythm, order or axis. This, of course, is of little consequence to the architect, who describes the buildings as ‘a study in how we can create density, in a good way’, focusing as much on the space between the pavilions as on the structures themselves.

The site ‘is not super-big’, he adds. Despite this, 2,000m² of accommodation is distributed across the 100 x 45m site. Nishizawa’s interpretation of density, therefore, is more accurately understood as a three-dimensional reality, as the volumes (built in a corrugated steel plate) create a close-knit cityscape-like assemblage that builds up around the tallest pavilion, housing the central stair core, which assumes the securalised role of the church steeple (a curiously non-Japanese tradition).

Winning the commission through an invited competition five years ago - beating contemporaries that included friends and fellow Tokyo-based architects Sou Fujimoto and Atelier Bow-Wow - Nishizawa recalls how the design had to be reconfigured when the centre’s artists were finally chosen. At the competition stage only an outline list existed, but eventually art consultancy Nanjo and Associates selected the 21 featured artists, including Australian Ron Mueck, Korean Do-Ho Suh and Britons Paul Morrison and Jim Lambie. With every pavilion or patio re-scaled for each work, much of the architect’s original concept endures, namely ‘different pavilions connected by the open glass corridor’.

This glass corridor is the principal means of controlled circulation, connecting chains of pavilions in three circuits and defining four inner courtyards. The irregular-shaped gardens create spaces for sensitive works of art, such as Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree and Shin Morikita’s Flying Man and Hunter. This is in contrast to the residual spaces around the site’s perimeter, more accessible to passers-by, where larger, more robust public works are arranged, such as Noboru Tsubaki’s giant red ant, aTTa. Internally, the glazed circuit allows curators to control and divide visitor access between the permanent works, three exhibition galleries and the community spaces, which include a café, shop, and activity space.

‘Despite creating a bespoke fit for the first collection of artworks, when asked how flexible the arrangement would be for future adaptation, Nishizawa is optimistic. ‘I hope the building will attract interpretation,’ he says, before going on to describe how ‘each pavilion appears as a kind of independent building, like a showroom from the street side’

Of course the inverse is also true, when visitors inside view the art against Towada’s new and old townscapes. As such, Nishizawa’s first major public building is a great success, translating the tense relationship between inside and out, thereby giving visitors the best of both worlds: ‘experiencing art and city at the same time’.

Architect Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Tokyo, Japan

Design team Ippei Takahashi, Yusuke Ohi, Taeko Nakatsubo, Kenichi Fujisawa

Structural engineer Sasaki Structural Consultants/Mutsuro Sasaki, Tatsumi Terado, Motoshi Inukai

Mechanical engineer Kankyo Engineering

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