A modern front to traditional art

Kengo Kuma's Nezu Museum: a city haven

by Danielle Demetriou

‘This is the maximum number of people that should ever come in here,” says Kengo Kuma, glancing toward a small group of people murmuring quietly in front of a nearby Buddha statue. “It’s much nicer when it’s empty.”

The presence of people may have been a blot on the landscape for one of Japan’s most celebrated — and perfectionist — architects as he unveiled the gleaming new Nezu Museum in the Aoyama district of Tokyo this week.

However, his concerns were undoubtedly eclipsed by the curiosity of visitors attending the museum’s long-awaited re-opening following a closure lasting more than three years.

And it seems the wait was worthwhile: In place of the original 1950s buildings, the museum has been transformed into a serene minimalist space with walls of glass, lines of bamboo thickets and pebble-lined paths crowned by a sloping gray tiled roof reminiscent of a traditional Japanese house.

Center stage, however, remains a feature that is as long standing as it is enchanting: the gardens. The invisible boundaries of the glass-walled museum give way to a tumbling urban oasis of green foliage, winding pathways, a hidden pond and teahouses.

“The current construction project started as a renewal of the institute’s storage facilities for its collection and became a massive 3 1/2-year effort,” says Koichi Nezu, the museum director.

“The new museum is the result of various ingenious plans to resolve the display, preservation and environmental issues inherent in museums today.”

The Nezu Museum, located among the genteel fashion boutiques of Aoyama, has been home to one of Japan’s most important private collections of Asian pre-modern arts for nearly seven decades. Set up in 1941 following the death of Kaichiro Nezu, the industrialist who founded Tobu Railway, at the site of his private Aoyama residence, the collection today contains more than 7,000 objects of calligraphy, paintings, sculptures, bamboo crafts and textiles.

However, it was in 2006 that the establishment dropped off the city’s art map as the founder’s grandson Koichi Nezu closed it down to facilitate a major makeover in terms of architecture, design and re-branding.

Step forward Kuma, master of modern interpretations of traditional Japanese structures, whose epic repertoire of works ranges from the “Great (Bamboo) Wall” house in Beijing to the vertical facade of Tokyo’s Suntory Museum of Art.

The starting point for its design is its location at the end of Shibuya’s Omotesando — a 21st-century shrine to consumerism — and the pilgrimage its visitors will invariably undertake from city to retreat.

Visitors arrive by walking along a dimly lit pathway lined with vertical bamboo thickets that runs parallel with the pavement outside before entering the main hall of the new museum.

” ‘Omotesando’ literally means the front approach to a shrine, and here it refers to Meiji Shrine,” says Kuma. “The Nezu Museum is located in the end of this main approach, with a rich, forestlike Japanese garden that makes you forget you are in the center of Tokyo.

“With a bamboo thicket, the museum opens itself up gently to the city rather than being confined. Walking along the bustling shopping street, visitors are invited into the forest of art through the bamboo and deep eaves, concluding the flow of the city starting from the shrine.”

Describing the walkway, he adds: “To usher people into this quiet space, it is necessary to make them cool down on the way. For this, we devised an approach about 50 meters long under the roof and by the bamboo. This is a modern version of the roji technique, a pathway to a ceremonial tearoom.”

Once inside the museum, the sense of space, amplified by walls of glass beneath a double-height vaulted ceiling, is not a mere illusion: the new interior stretches to double its former size, covering 4,000 sq. meters.

A subdued palette of gray tiled floors, thin black mesh screen walls and 80,000 LED lights provide an elegantly low-key backdrop to the art that is showcased in six gallery spaces — compared to two in the previous building — each devoted to different disciplines.

“I wanted to recreate an atmosphere of ‘stillness’ as opposed to ‘motion’ as found in Omotesando,” says Kuma. “A light atmosphere of Tokyo dating back 150 years, when architecture was still in wood.”

The first of eight commemorative exhibitions to be staged in the coming year, the opening show includes an eclectic array of works, from 12th-century Japanese scrolls and jewel-encrusted clocks to tea-ceremony utensils used by the museum’s founder.

A highlight is a National Treasure hanging scroll depicting the Nachi Waterfall in the form of a sheer white vertical ribbon against the backdrop of a rising moon.

“The new museum showcases a beautiful collaboration between traditional art and contemporary building,” says Yukiko Shirahara, chief curator at the Nezu Museum. “The combination fits in well with its location in Aoyama. The new building aims to create beautiful conditions for looking at artworks. The artworks look quite different in the new space and with new lighting.”

But vying for attention with the artworks are undoubtedly the gardens, which tumble luxuriously across 17,000 sq. meters, complete with newly cleared pathways for visitors to enjoy.

Stepping outside, through near- invisible glass doors and wandering through the trees, stone sculptures and teahouses is as relaxing as it is unexpected in the heart of the city — the only reminder of its location being the odd skyscraper peeking over the treetops.

Making the most of the garden setting is the new NEZUCAFE, a modern take on a traditional tea room. Its interior walls echo traditional washi paper with atmospheric underlighting that brings to mind sunrise, while the windows invariably frame perfect garden views.

Describing his feeling upon completion of the project, Kuma says: “By lightening and softening the architecture, I got the impression that the nature in the garden was freshened even more vividly than I had imagined.”

He added: “These gardens are very important for Tokyo. We have the Imperial Palace gardens, but they are not open to everyone. Anyone can visit this secret garden.”

T he Nezu makeover, however, was not confined to bricks and mortar (or, in this case, bamboo and glass). As well as changing the English name from the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts to the more succinct Nezu Museum, the German design agency Peter Schmidt was also brought on board to create a new logo.

Armin Angerer, managing partner at Peter Schmidt — whose glamorous roll call of clients range from Gucci to Hugo Boss — says: “I was immediately drawn by Kengo Kuma’s drawings of the new museum, his way of bringing together the outside and the inside just like a traditional Japanese house.

“In the new logo, we focused on ‘N’ for the Nezu family and its passion over generations for art, while the ‘M’ shape symbolizes the continuity and eternity of that art.”

Whether it is for its architecture, artworks or gardens, the Nezu Museum is this week firmly back on the Tokyo cultural map — with or without the presence of other people occasionally spoiling the view.

The first of eight Nezu Museum Commemorative special exhibitions runs till Nov. 8; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.nezu-muse.or.jp or call (03) 3400 2536.