Museum to Remember
Out, Kyoto Style
and September Eleventh
Out, Tokyo Style
FROM THE FIELD --
JAPAN : 2001
MUSEUM TO REMEMBER
the last decade or so Japan has seen the construction of a considerable
number of smaller first rate museum buildings scattered across the entire
country. My impressions of the Miho Museum in Shiga Prefecture have already
been recorded in earlier versions of these reports; yesterday we visited
yet another of these striking additions to the national cultural scene
at Byodoin outside Kyoto in nearby Uji.
At the heart of the Byodoin complex is a Buddhist image hall dating to
the eleventh century built by the Fujiwara family of court nobles as part
of an enormous aristocratic compound located in Uji on what was then the
rural outskirts of the capital city. Known since the seventeenth century
as the Phoenix Hall, perhaps because of its overall resemblance to a bird
in flight landing on a nearby pond, Byodoin remains even today one of
Japan's premier tourist sites.
Besides the Hall itself as an architectural example of early aristocratic
sophistication, Byodoin also houses an impressive image of the Buddha
by Jocho (one of the culture's most important sculptors) and, high above
on the surrounding white washed walls, a superb set of heavenly angels
depicted as musicians and dancers accompanying the Buddha on journeys
to retrieve the souls of the dead from their earthly existences.
The problem in the past has always been that these wonderful, lively wooden
images floated on clouds so high above and obscured by the gloom of the
unlit hall that they could barely be seen. Now, however, some of them
have become the centerpiece of a beautifully-realized new museum skillfully
designed not only to show off these images but also to blend into the
larger temple complex as unobtrusefully as possible. The result is absolutely
One of the basic assumptions of modern Japanese architecture has long
been that concrete should be regarded as a "natural" material
and, therefore, allowed to show its basic character unadorned. The impression
of the grain of the wooden sheets used to mold the concrete was essentially
the only "decoration" allowed in many of the modern buildings
constructed in Japan during the 1930s through the 1950s. I have always
regarded the results in all too many cases as uninteresting because of
the grey dullness of the material itself. Concrete just didn't seem all
that inherently interesting.
The new glass and concrete museum at Byodoin, however, encased the poured
concrete in forms of narrow wooden strips placed at different depths,
resulting in textured walls of great beauty and sublime orderliness. Natural
light is allowed into the structure indirectly, and the interiors seem
subtly lit so as purposefully to allow the objects contained therein to
dominate against the architectural background provided by the building
The entire structure is anchored in a hillside so as to intrude as little
as possible on the original temple site. Even an outdoor seating area
is very carefully placed so as to maximize its tranquility without overwhelming
its natural and historical surroundings.
As I told seminar participants at the time, this unexpected pleasure made
the entire trip so far worthwhile -- and here it's only been two days
since we began!
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