Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Photo courtesy of Purple Cloud .

The National Museum of Western Art, NMWA, in Tokyo, is the only work by Le Corbusier in the Far East. It is also the best example of his theory of "unlimited growth museums." Due to its conceptual innovation, quality of space and valuable collection, the museum has been included as one of the 100 most important public buildings in Japan. It is also in the tentative list of World Heritage by UNESCO, at a request made by the French government.


In 1929 Le Corbusier designed a model of Unlimited Growth Museum (Musée à croissance illimitée) for the Mundaneum in Geneva. It was a square spiral that would eventually develop and grow according to the needs of the project. Since this project was widely discussed and often criticized as utopian, it was never realized in the West.

There are only three versions of this type of Corbusian museum in the world : Sanskar Kendra in Ahmedabbad (1957), the Governmental Museum and Art Gallery in Chadigarh (1965) in India and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Japan (1959). Of these, the latter is the one closest to the original concept as the ones made in India had to adapt to the climatic conditions of the site.

Government Art Gallery in Chadigarh


Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950) was a Japanese industrialist who amassed a remarkable collection of Western art between 1916 and 1923, particularly paintings and sculptures of the French impressionist Auguste Rodin (in fact outside the museum one of several replicas of " The Thinker " is displayed, a replica of which I have also seen at the Kyoto National Museum).

After the Second World War the collection was transferred to the French government. In 1956 Japan requested to France the return of these works, so the French government agreed on the condition that it was a French architect who developed the project of the building to house such works.

The museum for the Matsukata collection was commissioned to the French Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (known as Le Corbusier), and the project was completed by three Japanese apprentices of his studio in Paris: Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Takamasa Yoshizaka.

Later, in addition to the Matsukata collection, the museum (the only national institution dedicated to Japanese Western art) acquired other works, from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Miro's painting displayed at the museum.


The National Museum of Western Art is located on the east side of Ueno Imperial Park, perhaps the most important public space in Tokyo, and the Tokyo equivalent of the Central Park in New York. Nearby, is the National Children's Literature Library , renovated by Tadao Ando.

It called my attention the modest proportions of the museum, compared to the much more imposing scale of its neighbor, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (Culture Hall of Tokyo). Both museums are linked by a square.


The building has 3 levels and a basement.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuelle Mastrangioli

Following the concept of unlimited museum, the proposed square stands on pilotis. The facade, almost blind with no windows, emphasizes the horizontality of the composition, covered by greenish pebbles on top of exposed concrete.

At one end of the main facade lies a large screen that leads to a balcony. Similar detail is observed on the lateral side as well.

The organization of the building is based into two parts: the main building based on a square layout and the new administration wing that is located to the north. Both buildings are organized around their own courtyards; in the case of the main building is a covered space, while the new wing encloses a garden.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuelle Mastrangioli

The first level, is organized on a 6.35 x 6.35 m. grid of columns supporting the galleries.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuelle Mastrangioli

Here we are welcomed by an impressive double-height space (the Hall of the nineteenth century), illuminated by a skylight.

Le Corbusier, a master of light, achieved a dramatic effect when composing this overhead window, defined by cross beams at the center of the triangular skylights and supported by a central column.

From here we ascended through a ramp, one of the architect's favorite resources, as used in Curutchet House or the Secretary of Chandigarh . The ascent allows a three-dimensional perception of the double-height space.

The upper level galleries are built around a concentric pattern from this central space.

Originally the building was illuminated from the top, a resource that somehow reminds me of that used in the Renzo Piano expansion of the High Museum in Atlanta . Today, these openings have been closed, and the works of art are artificially illuminated.

Le Corbusier achieved spatial richness, despite the apparent simplicity of the concept. The structural elements (columns of circular cross section) are released from the enclosure walls, while the use of double-height spaces and low walls offer a varied repertoire of scale and proportion in the space, which, however, is arranged under a consistent and orderly logic. This type of columns, typical of the work by Le Corbusier, has been applied by several architects who admire him, particularly by Richard Meier .

Of course, all the proportions of the building have been developed based on the modulor system created by Le Corbusier.


In 1979 a new wing was added to the museum, developed by Maekawa, creating a second court, this time around an open garden. In 1997 he added a new hall for special exhibitions, while the entire building was reinforced with new seismic techniques. The curious thing is that none of these additions followed the pattern of "unlimited growth museum" proposed by Le Corbusier, which suggested to increase the exhibition area by adding more turns to the spiral. Instead it was chosen (and wisely I think) to leave the original building intact and to attach a group of separated buildings that complement it.


- Other works of Le Corbusier.

In front of "the Gates of Hell", a work by Auguste Rodin, located at the plaza outside the museum.


  1. Your photo of the Government Art Gallery in Chandigarh does not depict the square-spiral museum in Chandigarh. The building you should reference is here:,_Chandigarh#/media/File:Arch_Museum_46.JPG

    You have shown the Architectural Museum -- that is by Corbusier, but it is not a square-spiral. Cheers!

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