Yoshio Taniguchi's seemingly simple designs breathe life into the stuffy world of museums. He reveals the sources of his inspiration to C.B. Liddell
YOSHIO TANIGUCHI is the kind of architect who calls a spade a bloody shovel. Forget mystic notions of Zen, Tao, yin and yang. Asked if the perfectly balanced inverse relationship of the circle and the square in the museum he designed for Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido was inspired by an attempt to balance the masculine and feminine, his reply is simple.
'I didn't have anything like that in mind,' he says. 'The museum consists of two parts, one side for the art gallery and one side to exhibit cosmetics and advertising posters. For the art gallery, I wanted to have gentler light, whereas for the other, where they exhibit cosmetics, I wanted light from outside.'
The cosmetics gallery, wrapped around a square courtyard, faces outwards in a circle with large windows admitting bright light. The art gallery, a square structure, is wrapped around a small circular courtyard that admits more subdued light appropriate for paintings.
Despite such practical factors, the aesthetic merits of the design won Taniguchi the 1980 Architectural Institute of Japan Award. Now, his works - which include New York's recently reopened Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) - are celebrated in an exhibition at Tokyo's Opera City Art Gallery.
The show, which uses photographs and architectural models to present 12 Taniguchi designs, includes the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures completed in 1999 to display Buddhist artworks in the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum, and the Centennial Hall, a major expansion of the Kyoto National Museum, due to open in 2007. The main focus, however, is on his 1997 MoMA design, completed last year.
Now that his career has reached a pinnacle with MoMA, it's natural to see Taniguchi as first and foremost a museum designer and to assume this is what he always wanted to do. The truth is more prosaic. 'It was a matter of chance that I got into designing galleries and museums. I was asked to design two museums when I was young, and they were quite successful, so people started asking me to design more.'
The other museum that set Taniguchi on his destined path was the Ken Domon Museum of Photography, built to display the work and commemorate the life of one of Japan's most famous photographers. This museum reveals some of the key elements of Taniguchi's subsequent style, most noticeably the use of water and the internalisation of external space.
'I can give three different reasons why I use water,' he says. 'One is it gives a base to the architecture. Two, you can control the movement of people to change their view towards different scenery. Three, the colour of the water always changes, depending on the weather, season and time. That reflects on architecture. So, water makes my architecture more interesting.'
For the Ken Domon Museum, he had a large lake constructed as an integral part of the design. The primary facade of the museum is an apparently freestanding wall with a rectangular void through which the lake penetrates into an inner courtyard. A perfectly edited view of the lake enters the courtyard, rather as an expertly framed view would enter the aperture of a camera.
Because of the unadorned, geometric elements of his style, Taniguchi is often referred to as a Modernist, a style often associated with coldness and a lack of humanity. But his buildings avoid such pitfalls. In MoMA, for example, vast windows bring the New York cityscape into the design.
Taniguchi's plan, which was chosen over those of nine, more famous, architects, was also praised for the way it preserved and referenced MoMA's complex architectural legacy.
For Taniguchi, going to MoMA is an unmistakably New York experience in a way that going to the famous spiralling form of its main rival, the Guggenheim, isn't. The contrast between the two premier modern art venues is also an exposition of Taniguchi's architectural approach.
'The Guggenheim is very interesting architecture,' he says. 'But I don't think it's a good museum. Why? Because it doesn't fit there. That building can be anywhere. It has nothing to do with the pattern of the city.
'It's some kind of prototypical circulation museum, and in order to express this prototypical quality all the floors are slanted so, when you're watching paintings, you feel you're standing on a slope.'
The important point for Taniguchi is not flash and showiness, but beautiful forms arising out of function and a relation to the wider environment. Much of this comes from his training in urban design, which was much in vogue when he studied architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in the 1960s.
This aspect of his training found an echo in his appreciation of traditional Japanese architecture, where temples and teahouses are designed in conjunction with their surroundings to present carefully edited views of nature. 'If you go to an old Japanese temple, you sit on the tatami mats and look out at the garden. You see the garden framed by long projecting eaves, so eaves are a kind of architectural element that captures external space.'
Another way in which he gives warmth to his architecture is by peopling his larger spaces at different levels, using mutually visible balconies and walkways. 'If you see my big spaces, such as at MoMA, you see the movement of people on different levels, so people watch each other, just like in a city plaza.'
Taniguchi has also designed other buildings, including an incineration plant in Hiroshima and a striking design for the Tokyo Sea Life Park aquarium.
Although museums are often thought of as latter-day temples of the mind and spirit, Taniguchi says there's no real difference from everyday buildings such as supermarkets. 'In a supermarket, you see what you want, then you bring it back and pay. In a museum you see what you want, but you can't bring it back. That's the only difference, maybe. A building is an expression of the relationship between people and goods, people and information, people and people.'
Museums by Yoshio Taniguchi, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery (www.operacity.jp/en/exhi). Ends June 26