Thursday, October 20, 2011


Photo courtesy of wakii

"A Japanese-style room is a comfortable space where people can relax on tatamis that are laid on the floor, and among the Japanese traditions, is the most relaxing and relieving environment. ... I drew the plan for the Suntory Museum of Art hoping to become the quiet Japanese-style room in a clamorous urban environment.... I felt the Japanese-style room building should not be a pretentious bluff but constructed using human-friendly materials cherished in our daily lives... "
From "A Japanese-style room in the city" by Kengo Kuma

Photo courtesy of barbera

The Suntory Museum of Art, designed by architect Kengo Kuma, is known for its elegance, simplicity and subtlety, taking up elements and materials from Japanese culture, but in a distinctly modern language. Despite its apparent simplicity the architect manages to convey, both in the facade and the interior, the richness of the lattice as a texture and element of design as well as an effective means to control the insolation of the building.


While it is common for architects to change their style according to fashion, in few cases the change has been as drastic as that of Kengo Kuma. The architect has made ​​a radical shift from his early work, the M2 Mazda, one dominated by a grotesque postmodern Ionic column that consists of a chaotic collage of superimposed awkward shapes.

M2 Mazda Showroom, Tokyo, Japan. Kengo Kuma, 1989-91.

It is unrecognizable that the same author of such monstrosity would be today the creator of calm, humble, highly sensitive works that transmit a warm and affable atmosphere, rooted in tradition and the landscape, but with a distinctly modern language.

Glass wood house. New Canaan. Connecticut, USA Kengo Kuma, 2010.

Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum. Kengo Kuma, 2010.

That was precisely the attitude of the architect while designing the Suntory Museum of Art (2004-2007), which houses an important collection of ancient art, porcelain and objects from thee seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of great historical and cultural value.


Suntory Museum of Art is absorbed within the Tokyo Midtown mixed-use complex in Roppongi, one of the largest commercial complexes recently completed in the Japanese capital and a direct competition to Roppongi Hills.

Tokyo Midtown complex replaced a group of residential blocks in the area of Roppongi.
Tokyo Midtown was built between 2002 and 2008, and in addition to shops, restaurants and offices, it houses two museums: the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT , designed by Tadao Ando and the Suntory Museum by Kengo Kuma.

The scale and proportions of the Suntory Museum contrast with the massive Tokyo Midtown building where is located, and the formalism of the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, ​​a sculptural but insubstantial building that sits in front, on the other side an elongated park.


"My approach is that the museum's facade should have some iconic quality, but not iconic shape. I believe they should have iconic textures and that is not only for the Suntory. Most of my projects have iconic textures."

The building itself is an orthogonal prism that transmits a solid image, but whose applied texture gives a certain character of fragility.

The facade is composed of a lattice made of fine white pottery, related to the material of the collection that the museum houses, which is arranged perpendicularly to the wall of glass. Since the ceramic is too fragile to be used in these long strips and to mix it with concrete would have thickened it too much, they opted for a system of aluminum reinforcement, while achieving durability and slenderness, reaching a thickness of only 6 mm.

"The secret is to combine ceramics with aluminum.The ceramic panels have holes and they are joined to the aluminum with pins and some grooves to give flexibility."

These louvers are not only aesthetic, but also offer climate control.

"A light adjusting device hinted from the design of the traditional Japanese window “Muso-Koshi” has been placed on the frontage facing the greenery of the park. This device softens the scenery and light falling into the Japanese-style room. Japanese people have used these kinds of devices to appreciate the four seasons and the passing of time."

One aspect I found interesting is that despite having the most appealing facade of the whole complex , the building lacks a direct entry. In fact it can be accessed only from within the commercial area, as detailed below. The connection to the street is made through a bridge leading to an entrance to the shops.

Entrance to the complex, next to the museum.

The museum consists of 6 floors with a total area of ​​4.663 m2, although the exhibition area is carried out only in the 3rd and 4th floors. There is also a conference room on the 6th floor, a shop and a small cafe.

View from the terrace. Photo courtesy of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

This small tea room Geonchan style was brought especially from Akasaka Mitsuke, which housed the museum since 1975.

As noted previously, the entrance to museum is not very clear, the visitor must access first the commercial area and, near the central stairs, some ladies will try to indicate him/her its location on the 3rd floor. It is therefore interesting to see how the architect manages to attract visitors and also to isolate this select cultural activity from the mundane commercial bustle that surrounds it: a lattice is used again, this time made from wood, a favorite element in traditional Japanese architecture.

Photo courtesy of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka
The lattice is an intermediate stage between transparency and opacity, between exposure and intimacy, while it forms a warm a simple and elegant texture.

You can be found below the distribution plants of the museum, but I would like to share with you the route of the visitor, which is a bit unusual.

Third level, second gallery.Fourth level, first gallery

After entering the museum and going through the ticketing office, visitors should take the elevator to the fourth floor where the First Gallery is located. You will visit a series of exhibition areas and then descend a stair that takes you back to the third floor, where some more exhibition spaces are included in the Second Gallery. This tour has been designed to give the visitor a series of sensations of intimacy, openness and surprise.

Photo courtesy of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

After visiting the first rooms, mostly dark, the visitor is exposed to the spectacle of the stairthat descends in an impressive 9 m height space, from where they can see the park and where Kuma achieves a dramatic effect of light, sifted through the louvers of the facade.

Photo courtesy of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka
Photos courtesy of dazzle kazzle

Photo courtesy of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

The use of light in various degrees is also a direct reference to the traditional Japanese architecture. In addition to natural indirect light coming from the ceiling, the main space is divided by a series of curtains (at least it was in the exhibition that I visited) that divide the space freely and subtly, affording a translucent and temporary character.

Photo courtesy of Asian Aurelio


No doubt that the chosen materials contribute to convey a traditional atmosphere and warm the space of the museum. Besides the choice of ceramics in the facade, the architect includes divisions made ​​of rice paper, slatted screens made of Paulownia (a type of wood that, because of its softness and anti-mold properties is not traditionally used in construction but in chests to store the kimonos) and floors made of white oak taken from recycled whiskey barrels (Suntory is a beverage, beer and liquor company).

Ceramic exterior louvers.
Pawlonia interior wooden shutters

But it is worth noting that the materials, although embedded with a traditional Japanese character, are arranged in a modern language and assume no historicist role .

"Surrounded by beautiful art, gentle materials and soft light, time passes slowly"



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