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  • John Barr

MOMA Kamakura : The Last Japanese Building

The Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura was designed by Junzo Sakakura in 1951 and whilst it is one of the early examples of modernist architecture in Japan it is perhaps also the last Japanese building…


Sakakura worked in Corbusier’s office in Paris from 1931 to 1939 before returning to Japan to establish his own office, and Corbusier’s influence can be seen in the buildings Sakakura designed throughout his subsequent career. It is present in the design of MOMA Kamakura but not necessarily in the way most often cited: the use of pilotis. MOMA Kamakura is raised on columns but this could as easily be in reference to Japanese precedents such as Katsura Imperial Villa. Indeed, the skinny, exposed steel columns at Kamakura resemble the slim timber posts of Japanese precedent far more than they resemble the rather chunky concrete columns favoured by European modernists.

MOMA Kamakura: original axonometric. The skinny steel columns on which the building is perched resemble the slim timber posts of Japanese precedent more than the chunky concrete of Corbusier's pilotis.

MOMA Kamakura as Modernist Building

The indisputable modernist influence at Kamakura is Corbusier and the parti for his 1931 proposal for a Museum of Unlimited Growth. The same parti drove Corbusier's own design for the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, completed eight years after MOMA Kamakura.

The National Museum of Western Art, Ueno Park, Tokyo (see earlier post : in Search of Japan-ness: Part 1). Designed by Corbusier, assisted by his former employees Sakakura, Kunio Maekawa and Takamasa Yoshizaka, it was completed in 1959.

Corbusier’s concept for a Museum of Unlimited Growth first appeared in his 1929 proposal Mundaneum, the World Museum, but it was in his 1931 proposal for The Contemporary Art Museum, Paris that he manifested it in the form that he continued to pursue in a number of museum projects thereafter: a square spiral raised on pilotis in which a square central space is surrounded by exhibition galleries that grow in a continuous spiral as the number of exhibits increases.

Design parti for Corbusier's Museum of Unlimited Growth: a square central space surrounded by top-lit galleries that grow in a continuous spiral.

Both MOMA Kamakura and the National Museum of Western Art establish the initial geometry required by the parti for the Museum of Unlimited Growth. The Museum of Western Art has a central atrium surrounded by exhibition spaces and MOMA Kamakura has a central courtyard surrounded by exhibition spaces. Interestingly, both designs anticipate future growth under the continuous spiral model but when they actually came to be expanded this idea was abandoned in favour of a linked but separate extension. Both extensions place some distance (both physically and architecturally) between themselves and the original buildings in order not to compete with them. It’s as if, once built, the perfection of the jewel-like originals became too precious to disturb and they themselves became museum pieces to be preserved.

MOMA Kamakura : Plan (redrawn) : Main Gallery Floor.

This unwillingness to tamper with the original buildings was not that of new architects who were reticent about interfering with the works of modern masters; The National Museum of Western Art was extended by Maekawa (who worked on the original building and well understood Corbusier’s intention) and MOMA Kamakura was extended by Sakakura himself.1 There may have been practical obstacles to extending these buildings in the manner originally envisaged, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the concept was more appealing than the reality, especially in the face of so many examples of ‘infinitely-extendable’ or ‘incrementally-renewable’ buildings that were never once extended or renewed as envisaged by the original designs. Any built Metabolist project will serve as an example.

Left: Nagakin Capsule Tower, Kishi Kurokawa, 1972. Right: New Sky Building No.3, Yoji Watanabe, 1972.

Built examples where the idea of incremental renewal and growth proved more attractive than the reality.

MOMA Kamakura as Japanese Building

Sakakura was undoubtedly influenced by Corbusier, and the plan of MOMA Kamakura was undoubtedly influenced by Corbusier’s concept for a Museum of Unlimited Growth. That said, there is another way to read MOMA Kamakura and that is as an essentially Japanese building.

The first point of reference might be the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, covered in my previous post: The Golden Temple (Zen and the Theory of Everything). Like the Golden Pavilion, MOMA Kamakura sits within a wider compound (in this case a shrine rather than a temple) and is conceived as an integral component, along with a significant pond, in the overall design of a garden. Like the Golden Pavilion, MOMA Kamakura sits right on the edge of the pond, in which it is reflected and, as in the historic precedent, the relationship between building and pond is vital to the success of both. In recent years the pond has become choked with water lotus such that, for much of the year, the water is invisible and the diminishing effect on the building of losing its reflection and symbiotic relationship with the pond is clearly demonstrated.

Left: MOMA Kamakura. Right: The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto.

MOMA Kamakura. The importance of the pond is clearly demonstrated when it, and the reflection of the building in it, are no longer visible. A sense of deep space is lost, to be replaced by a feeling of claustrophobia.

Other similarities between the two buildings include the exposed, slender supports that appear to rise out of the water and the creation of an opening at mid-level in the façade overlooking the pond, which allows the pond to be viewed from the building and the internal activity of the building to be glimpsed from the pond, reinforcing the reciprocal relationship between the two.

Like the Golden Pavilion, MOMA Kamakura subordinates itself to the greater narrative of context and culture. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, MOMA Kamakura is not showy; indeed it is extremely self-effacing as a building but is a powerful piece of architecture.

Analysis of a number of Japanese precedents can reveal other potential historic references in the design of MOMA Kamakura, but it is not so much the design outcomes that lead me to describe MOMA Kamakura as a truly Japanese building, it is more the approach to construction.

One of the qualities of traditional Japanese architecture rarely acknowledged is that, for the most part, it was built cheaply, not in the sense that it was shoddy but in the sense that it used readily available materials in the most efficient manner. One consequence of this efficiency was a desire to minimise the amount of material used and this led to the development of thinness. And so one definition of Japanese buildings would be cheap and thin. This is certainly a description that could be attached to MOMA Kamakura, which utilises a bare steel frame engineered to maximum efficiency and clad in asbestos cement panels. It is worth mentioning in passing that those panels have further resonance with traditional Japanese construction beyond their cheapness and thinness; they also provide a regulating module for the building (asbestos cement panel as substitute for tatami mat). It should come as no surprise that a building conceived with this approach to construction should have much in common with historic precedents conceived in the same way and it is on this basis that I have no hesitation in describing MOMA Kamakura as a truly Japanese building.

MOMA Kamakura: Main Entrance with stair leading directly to main gallery floor. Note cladding of asbestos cement panels that provide a regulating module similar to the traditional use of tatami mats.

MOMA Kamakura: Central Courtyard.

MOMA Kamakura: View from Central Courtyard towards outdoor Sculpture Gallery and Pond.

MOMA Kamakura: Outdoor Sculpture Gallery in the undercroft of the Main Gallery. Note thin steel columns.

MOMA Kamakura: Stair connecting Ground Floor Courtyard and Sculpture Gallery with main galleries on First Floor.

MOMA Kamakura as the Last Japanese Building

Why do I describe MOMA Kamakura as the Last Japanese Building? Well, clearly it is not, literally, the last Japanese building ever built or even the last cheap and thin building to be built in Japan. But it marks a watershed, a point where there was a choice of direction for modern architecture in Japan. There was a moment, following the completion of MOMA Kamakura, when Japanese architects could have seized upon its example and carved out for themselves a specifically Japanese modernism, based on an approach to context and construction. Instead they continued to adopt stylistic trends imported from Europe and, in particular, to follow where Corbusier led. And Corbusier soon led to Brutalism and an increasingly heavy and ponderous architectural style, the very antithesis of Japanese cheap and thin. This can be seen in the work of all the ‘fathers of modernism’ in Japan, of whom Sakakura can stand as an example. Following MOMA Kamakura Sakakura's work became increasingly heavy, increasingly western.

The International House of Japan, designed by Sakakura in collaboration with Maekawa and Junzo Yoshimura and completed in 1955 begins to show the tendency towards a heavier architecture, a tendency that increases as we follow Sakakura’s work through Hashima Town Hall (1959), Ashiya Citizens Hall (1963) and Hiraoka City Hall (1964).

International House of Japan, Junzo Sakakura, Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Yoshimura, 1955.

Hashima Town Hall, Junzo Sakakura, 1959.

Ashiya Citizens Hall, Junzo Sakakura, 1963.

The above sequence of images illustrates how, through time, Sakakura moved away from cheap and thin construction towards increasingly heavy buildings, a direction that was followed by his contemporaries in Japan. Every move towards heavier buildings was a move away from the greater narrative of context and culture and towards Western architecture. In this sense MOMA Kamakura, if not literally the last Japanese building, stands as an icon for 'The Last Japanese Building'.

MOMA Kamakura and American Modernism

Ironically the tradition explored in MOMA Kamakura of a lightweight, efficient architecture that utilised inexpensive, readily-available materials, whilst not taken up by Japanese architects, was being actively developed in the USA.

The architect Richard Neutra moved from his native Vienna to the USA in 1923 and settled in Los Angeles. He had admired the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and worked for him very briefly before leaving, disenchanted with Wright’s use of masonry, which Neutra found gratuitously heavy.2 In 1930 he visited Japan and was greatly taken with its tradition of ‘light, thin’ architecture. Amongst the buildings he experienced was Katsura Imperial Villa. I mention Katsura because of the political significance it came to have in the Japanese debate about modernism following Bruno Taut’s intervention (see previous post: In Search of Japan-ness: Part 1). Much has been written about Taut’s ‘discovery’ of Katsura in 1933, but Neutra had already been there three years earlier. Whilst Taut wrote about Katsura and called it the archetype of all Japaneseness, Neutra was more pragmatic; he absorbed the lessons of Katsura and the other buildings he visited in Japan and carried that knowledge back to the USA, specifically to California. A number of different strands of modernism developed in America, of which the California Modernism of Neutra and other west coast architects is only one. But, in that strand we get a glimpse of the route that Japanese modernism might have taken had it followed the direction set by MOMA Kamakura.

In 1945 the American magazine Arts and Architecture announced its launch of The Case Study House Program, which sought to respond to the post-war requirement for rapid development of housing that was easily constructed and affordable for the average American family. The program proposed the design and construction of a number of case-study houses in Southern California and Neutra was one of the architects selected for the task. The criteria for the Case Study House Program included: using, as far as practicable, many war-born techniques and materials best suited to the expression of man’s life in the modern world.3

1945 also saw the post-war American occupation of Japan, which was to last until 1952. During this period many items of so-called Japonica* were taken back to the USA, including tatami mats, shoji, fusuma, etc. Although this marked a primarily stylistic interest in Japanese design, the tradition of standardised, lightweight, panel-form building components surely fed into the U.S. government's drive to use new, lightweight, industrially produced materials that would provide on-going work for factories that had rapidly geared themselves to service the war effort.

* Japonica : items exhibiting 'Japanese style' that became popular overseas and that were often produced specifically for that market.

The Case Study Houses draw on the mix of influences outlined above, as exemplified by Case Study House #8, better known as the Eames House, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, in which a light steel frame is clad entirely in industrial, prefabricated components including steel, glass and asbestos cement panels set within a controlling modular system. All of which could equally describe MOMA Kamakura.

These ideas, where an efficiently designed structural frame is clad in thin, lightweight industrial components, were to find their way to Europe, in particular the UK, in the 1970’s, where they emerged in the work of Hi-tech architects like Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Rogers, in turn, carried this architecture back to Japan when he was invited to design a number of buildings there in the 1990’s. His design for the National Graduate School for Policy Studies in Tokyo, completed in 2001, can be seen as exemplifying the same approach to construction as MOMA Kamakura. And so, fifty years after completion of MOMA Kamakura, cheap and thin was back. Okay, maybe not so cheap; but at least thin, light, efficient construction, directly expressed, was back. Once again ideas were being imported from the West, even if they were Japanese ideas being recycled back to Japan.

National Graduate School of Policy Studies, Tokyo, Richard Rogers, 2001.

Thinness is certainly back in Japanese architecture, notably in the works of architects such as Toyo Ito, SANAA and, in the case of Junya Ishigami, ultra-thinness. But it is not clear that these architects are pursuing thinness as a means of achieving efficient use of readily available materials rather than thinness as an end in itself and so it is not yet clear whether this marks the return of Japanese thinness or merely fashion thinness or, as in the case of Ishigami for example, compulsive, anorexic thinness. Only time and the future direction of Japanese architecture will tell.

1. Initial expansion of MOMA Kamakura consisted of another smaller building designed by Sakakura and located on site, placed close to the original building and with a linking corridor. Further expansion was achieved through buildings on other, remote sites: first the Kamakura Annexe, completed in 1984 and designed by Masato Otaka; then MOMA Hayama, completed in 2003 and designed by AXS Satow Inc. The original MOMA Kamakura building closed its doors to the public in January 2016 and its contents have been moved over to MOMA Hayama. The building reverts to the Trurugaoka Hachimangu shrine in whose precincts it is located and it is unclear at the time of writing whether a use will be found for it or whether it will be demolished.

2. Richard Neutra : Survival through Design, Barbara Lamprecht, published by Taschen.

3. Case Study Houses : The California Impetus, Elizabeth A. T. Smith, published by


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