© 2017 by john barr ARCHITECTS

Want to receive notification of new Blog Posts on Japanese architecture and culture?

Yoshio Taniguchi : The Man in the White Suit

August 21, 2018

 

In the 1951 film, The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a chemist who invents the ultimate fabric, a fabric that never creases or gets dirty or worn out, a perfect fabric that will remain perfect forever, even when fashioned into the white suit that Stratton wears continuously to demonstrate its qualities.

 

Yoshio Taniguchi is a Japanese architect who creates perfect buildings, buildings that look as though they will never crease or get dirty or worn out, buildings that will remain perfect forever…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Background

It would be ridiculous to say that Yoshio Taniguchi is not well known; he has designed several major museums, including his 2004 addition to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) New York, and has an international reputation. It’s just that he’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries such as Arata Isozaki and Kisho Kurokawa, who are a few years older, or Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, who are a few years younger. This is partly because Taniguchi has tended to shun publicity, where the others named above have embraced it and in some cases actively pursued it, and partly because he has been less prolific in the number of buildings he has designed.

 

Born in 1937, Taniguchi is the son of the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, himself a significant figure in early Japanese modernism who, perhaps even more than the son, is not as well known as some of his contemporaries and for reasons similar to those noted above. Taniguchi junior did not initially pursue architecture as a career, graduating in Mechanical Engineering from Keio University in Tokyo before studying Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The combination of his engineer training and his period of study under European modernists in the USA has had significant influence on his architecture.

 

Taniguchi’s Architecture

Taniguchi and Ando are the two Japanese architects with the most overtly consistent approaches to design, which each has followed throughout his career, ignoring changes in fashion or theory. But where Ando has taken the path that I have described in previous posts as the general trajectory of Japanese modernism by following Corbusier and Brutalism into increasingly heavy, monolithic buildings, Taniguchi clearly takes his influences from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German architect who moved to the USA and who, along with Corbusier, is one of the giants of the Modern Movement. The presence of Mies, and Taniguchi’s own engineering background, are apparent in the way that his buildings are put together and in his attention to the detail. But Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki sees the influence of Mies also in Taniguchi’s fundamental approach to planning, arguing that, in the Barcelona Pavilion for example, Mies creates a centripetal space within a centrifugal arrangement of walls and that Taniguchi’s buildings constantly juxtapose and try to resolve the tension between these two competing forces or, to put it another way, between the Pavilion and the Court.2

 

Maki further reports conversations where Taniguchi has indicated that, having started with the conviction that modern architecture had to achieve solidarity with the city, he later concluded that this is impossible whilst the Japanese city is being constructed as a temple to consumption. Taniguchi has said that he could not engage with that city and had no choice but to create his own ideal microcosms in which to set his buildings. Sidney Stratton’s perfect white suit could only succeed in the idealised microcosm of Stratton’s mind rather than in the real world, where his invention was far from welcomed, neither by the fabric manufacturers and fashion industry, who saw it as a threat to the never-ending requirement for new clothing, nor by the unions and workers, who saw it as a threat to their jobs. Stratton had no choice but to engage with the world of consumerism and it destroyed him; Taniguchi creates a boundary around his buildings in an attempt to insulate them from the consumerist society in which they are set and to place them in their own, self-sufficient worlds.

 

Nobody Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM

Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM was an axiom amongst purchasing departments of large companies in the mid to late 20th century, reflecting the fact that IBM not only dominated the market but also was seen as a safe pair of hands for the provision of automated office equipment. It could be said that Taniguchi has positioned himself as the IBM of Museum Design. There are certainly similarities between his buildings and IBM machines: efficient; restrained; subordinating themselves to the main functions that they are designed to support, they run counter to the current trend in design, where the story is all about the machine rather than the activities that it supports. This is equally true for buildings and electronic devices.

 

Two Museums

Taniguchi has designed a number of major museums and the two examples illustrated here are the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, which is part of the Tokyo National Museum complex, and the Heisei Chishinkan Wing, which is part of the Kyoto National Museum complex. Both are similar in that they are set within gardens and are additions to existing museum complexes, and Taniguchi adopts the same parti for both.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Set in the gardens of the original museum. Original museum building on the right of shot.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

View from entrance out to gardens and original museum building.

 

In both museums the exhibits are housed within a blank box, where plan and artificial lighting are designed to foreground the exhibits whilst relegating the surrounding structure to a supporting role. The box is surrounded by circulation and support functions, with public spaces: entrance; foyer; lobby, located at the front of the building where they enjoy an abundance of natural light and views out to the gardens and the original museum buildings. Both buildings are approached head on and by crossing water to an extremely modest entrance pod that penetrates the glass façade, passing the existing buildings on the way. The entrance is set at the right hand end of the front elevation and, immediately on entering, the visitor turns left and moves through the main lobby that runs the full length of the frontage (moving between the glazed wall and views to the left and the blank wall of the exhibition space to the right) before turning right and entering at the corner of the exhibition box. After more right-angled turns to negotiate an ante-chamber to the main exhibition space the visitor moves through the ground floor exhibition and ascends to the upper level before emerging from the box and back into daylight and a mezzanine that overlooks the entrance and main foyer and provides framed views back out to the gardens and original museum buildings that were seen on the way in. This last move, at one stroke, reveals the parti: the visitor is immediately orientated and a route that might have seemed opaque when meandering round the enclosed exhibition space suddenly becomes clear.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Approach to modest entrance set at right hand end of main facade. Lobby running off to the left, sandwiched between the glass wall of the facade and the blank wall of the exhibition space

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Approach over water to entrance, with same arrangement of entrance and lobby as previous image.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Entrance pod penetrates glass facade.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Lobby viewed from entrance. Glass wall and views to left, blank wall of exhibition space to right, upper level mezzanine straight ahead, entrance to exhibition space under mezzanine.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Lobby running entire length of building. View back towards entrance with blank wall of exhibition space on left, illuminated by glazed facade on right. Mezzanine at far end, overlooking entrance and lobby.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Emerging onto the upper level mezzanine to view the entire length of the lobby.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Upper level mezzanine with framed views to gardens and original museum building.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Lobby.  Framed views out to gardens and original museum building.

 

Although both buildings are set within existing gardens and are well insulated from the surrounding city*, Taniguchi has chosen to further separate them by placing them behind water. The almost ceremonial act of crossing water plays into Taniguchi’s desire to create an idealised microcosm for his buildings, immune to the outside pressures of consumerism. It has to be said that the use of water also creates reflecting pools that make the buildings extremely photogenic.

 

*In the case of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures the museum complex and gardens are themselves set within the larger Ueno Park and so are even further insulated from the city.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Reflecting pool adjacent to entrance.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Reflecting pool in front of main facade.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Reflecting pool in front of main facade with original museum building in background.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Reflecting pool adjacent to entrance.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Reflecting pool in front of main facade.

 

The elements of building: exhibition space; public space; entrance, are all separated and clearly articulated, with different materials used for each of them. This pulling apart and articulation of the major spaces, along with an equal concentration on crisp, articulated detailing, is a major feature of Taniguchi’s work and is very Miesian, reinforcing the pertinence of Maki’s reference to the Barcelona Pavilion cited earlier.

 

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 1999. 

Elements of building separated and articulated, with different materials used for each.

 

Heisei Chishinkan Wing, Kyoto National Museum, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2014.

Lobby. Wall of exhibition space with benches in front. Crisp detailing throughout.

 

So What’s Wrong with the Perfect White Suit?

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with Stratton’s invention of the perfect fabric, but it failed when it ran into the reality of a capitalist consumer society. Taniguchi has sought to counter that issue by removing his buildings from that world and placing them in their own idealised microcosms. It could be argued that, in itself, this is a flaw and that architecture is nothing if it doesn’t engage with the society it serves. But let’s leave that aside and imagine that we have crossed the water and entered the ideal world of Taniguchi’s museum. What will we find there? We will find a museum that is designed to enhance and not compete with the exhibits. We will find a building that is supremely well planned, with an immensely satisfying parti. We will find well-chosen materials and immaculate detail. In the Japanese context we will find all the things that we (certainly in the West) have come to expect from Japanese architecture: a building that makes use of asymmetry; a humble entrance; an indirect approach and a route that constantly turns through 90 degrees whilst, as Maki has noted, anticipating and signalling the next space; light and shade; degrees of transparency/translucency/opacity; the use of screens to create depth and a layered façade; framed views and borrowed landscape; restraint and serenity… Everything we could want. A perfect building.

 

And yet…

 

That word: serenity. The problem for me is that, when I visit these buildings and walk around them I don’t feel serene. I don’t feel much of anything although I admire the skill of the architect at an intellectual level. These buildings are perfect but perhaps perfection is too much, and in order to achieve it the architect has been too calculating, too clinical. It feels as if the architect has made all the right moves, but that they’ve been made in a calculated and self-conscious way (like following a recipe for the perfect building) and so the perfection doesn’t feel natural or relaxed and doesn't produce a serene experience.

 

Maybe perfection isn’t natural and cannot be relaxed. I’m reminded of Takamitsu Azuma’s comments about the importance of imperfection and the presence of the human hand in providing warmth and flavour in the long run.3  Buildings are first experienced emotionally and only later, if we choose, intellectually. For me there is no emotional charge in Taniguchi’s buildings and they can only be appreciated on later, intellectual analysis.

 

Maybe the perfect white suit needs to become a little creased before we can feel that it fits.

 

 

1.  The Man in the White Suit, Ealing Studios, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, 1951.

2.  Stillness and Plentitude, Fumihiko Maki, Introductory Essay to The Architecture of Yoshio  

     Taniguchi, Yoshio Taniguchi, published by Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

3.  See previous post: Two Houses : Part 2 (Azuma House).

 

 

 

 

Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload

Search By Tags