In September 2014, the Kyoto National Museum opened its new wing after twenty long years of planning and construction. The building, which was designed by architect Taniguchi Yoshio to hold changing exhibitions of the museum’s collections, was christened the Heisei Chishinkan, meaning “Heisei-Era Hall of Discovering the New.” This name is drawn from an ancient aphorism, “learn from the old to discover the new” (onko chishin), epitomizing the spirit with which the building was conceived to fit into its historical geographic location in Japan’s ancient capital.
That same year, the Heisei Chishinkan was awarded the 2014 Mayoral Prize in the Architectural Division of the Kyoto Landscape Prize. This award describes itself as follows:The Kyoto Landscape Prize was established [to recognize projects that] use imagination and ingenuity to harmonize traditional culture with new innovation in order to create urban landscapes in Kyoto that will still be appreciated fifty or one hundred years in the future, thereby deepening the consciousness of citizens and tradespeople about landscape and promoting the creation of scenery that adds value to the worth and appeal of the city. Kyoto National Museum’s new wing has a highly contemporary, streamlined design, but it also relates to the traditional urban scenery of Kyoto. Despite the cutting-edge contemporary feel of its limestone façade, the Heisei Chishinkan retains a distinctly Japanese sensibility.
A broad, steel-framed white glass curtain wall extending across the front evokes the wooden latticework and shoji-papered doors and windows of traditional Kyoto buildings; the column-to-beam constructionand the wide overhanging eave across the front also refer to Japanese architecture. Even the building’s layout alludes to the past: the front entrance hall is located directly over the underground archaeological remains—discovered during pre-construction excavations—of the South Gate of Hokoji, a temple that once housed the enormous, nineteen-meter-high Great Buddha seen in paintings of early seventeenth century Kyoto. Metal rings in the pavement and reflecting pools around the front entrance mark the locations of underground foundation stones for the original temple gate and temple wall. Museum visitors approach the entrance of the Heisei Chishinkan from the south, following an ancient pilgrimage path between the Great South Gate of Sanjusangendo—the temple across the street containing 1001 life-size gilded Buddhist statues from the twelfth and thirteenth century—and this ancient South Gate of Hokoji.
The new wing was built to replace an earlier collections hall and to complement the Kyoto National Museum’s original architectural masterpiece, dating from the museum’s establishment in 1897. The French Renaissance style Meiji Kotokan, nestled perfectly into the geographic landscape, was designed by Katayama Tokuma (1854–1917), the leading Western-style architect of Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). A designated Important Cultural Property, this historic building has traditionally been used for temporary special exhibitions in the spring and autumn. In preparation for upcoming structural upgrades, the Meiji Kotokan has been closed since autumn 2015, and special exhibitions have been held inside the Heisei Chishinkan. Originally, however, the new wing was designed to hold changing exhibitions of the museum’s collection. The Kyoto National Museum is home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces of Japanese art, mostly from the millennium during which Kyoto was the capital of Japan (794–1868). It also has outstanding antiquities from China and, to a lesser extent, Korea, Ryukyu, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Its storage rooms house not only museum-owned objects but also masterworks from temples and shrines entrusted to the museum for long-term care and safekeeping, including numerous National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Nearly all the exhibited works in the building are rotated out monthly for their preservation, so the ancient artworks in the galleries are in a constant state of renewal.
Gasps of amazement inevitably escape from the lips of first time visitors to the Heisei Chishinkan Wing’s ground floor galleries. Having passed through a light-filled entrance lobby, they now find themselves in a dim, tranquil space with small-scale galleries for decorative arts and calligraphy on one side and a grand hall for sculpture before them, with a soaring, two-story ceiling. Imposing, sometimes massive, Buddhist statues sit on long platforms, lit to dramatic effect before a stunning bronzed backdrop; other works rest in sleek, custom-designed glass cases. Moving upstairs to the museum’s painting galleries, visitors may continue to glimpse the gilded sculptures below through brass grills imitating traditional blinds of bamboo or reed.
A sense of openness permeates the Heisei Chishinkan, giving a sense of place within the greater architectural space; and yet the scale of each gallery takes into consideration the original viewing context for different kinds of artworks. While Buddhist sculptures are exhibited within a high-ceilinged gallery evoking a capacious temple hall, decorative arts are shown in more intimate galleries suggestive of the limited confines of tatami-mat rooms. Outside of the galleries are vast, airy spaces, such as the expansive Grand Lobby overlooking the central garden, and smaller hideaways such as the floating second floor lounge or the hidden back patio overlooking the greenery of Hokoji temple to the north. A glass-walled restaurant opens onto the wide lawn of the west garden and an ancient pagoda.
Because of its historic location within the city and its location across from an existing Important Cultural Property structure, the height, underground depth, and building footprint of the new wing were all subject to rigid building restrictions. Nevertheless, architect Taniguchi—known for the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York—managed to design not only a building beautifully suited to the space but also one of the most technologically sophisticated museum facilities in the world. The Heisei Chishinkan Wing incorporates the latest seismic isolation technology to provide maximum protection to its cultural properties in the event of a major earthquake; its cases and galleries are illuminated exclusively with LED lighting, providing high-quality color rendering while reducing the harmful wavelengths of conventional light sources; it produces energy through a solar generation system installed on the roof of the museum offices; and its Lecture Theater screens 4K and VR films about the collection.
In my comments about our award-winning new wing in the 2014 Kyoto Landscape Prize brochure, I wrote, “Taniguchi’s Japanese-inspired contemporary architecture is juxtaposed with the original Meiji Kotokan to create a harmony in contrasts.” Architect Taniguchi Yoshio himself acknowledges, “I think I found my own answer to the mandate I received to forge a structure appropriate to Kyoto. Even ten years after producing the original architectural design, I hardly wanted to change a thing, suggesting that the building can withstand the test of time—that my architecture is neither new nor old.” Most visitors agree: by honoring the past, this building for the future feels timeless. We hope that when the ICOM General Conference is held in Kyoto in 2019, museum professionals from around the world will see this elegant new wing as a model for seamlessly connecting past and future.
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