If you don’t get them with art, give them architecture

by Edan Corkill

Struggling to maintain visitor numbers, often in the face of drastic cuts to their budgets, many of Japan’s museums have been turning to an unlikely source of respite: architecture.

That’s not to say they are pursuing the so-called Bilbao Effect, whereby the museum constructs a new building so quirky that it becomes a more effective people-magnet than the art it houses. No, the trend in Japan is for existing museums to hold exhibitions of architecture. And they’re proving as popular as Bilbao-like buildings.

“When we had an exhibition of (French architect) Jean Nouvel back in 2003, it was received so well that we decided to make architecture shows a regular fixture on our calendar,” explains Shino Nomura, of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery in Shinjuku.

Next month, her institution opens its fifth annual architecture exhibition, focusing on the work of contemporary Swiss firm Diener and Diener.

The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi had a similar epiphany back in 2005. Its “Archilab” show attracted good enough numbers for it to follow up with a show of French pioneer Le Corbusier in 2007. That exhibition ended up attracting almost 600,000 people, becoming its second most popular show ever.

The allure of architecture-as-art has not been lost on other institutions, either. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, and the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, have all recently opened or are soon to open their galleries to architecture.

So, what is it about such shows that make them so popular? And aren’t museums losing sight of their original missions as they go in search of visitors?

“Well, I think (the popularity) has to do with the quality of the show itself, rather than the simple fact that it is architecture,” says a matter-of-fact Nomura.

She explained that the Nouvel show they did in 2003 was an eye-opener for both visitors and curators in that it avoided the conventional focus on drawings and models.

“We used a lot of videos and large-scale prints in that show,” she said. “I think it showed the general public that architecture was not just the domain of professionals, that it could be presented in a fun and interesting way.”

Still, it seems there are aspects to architecture that make it inherently popular. One is that it is so fundamental to urbanites’ everyday lives.

“At the gallery talks, you can tell people are listening and thinking at the same time about maybe renovating their own home or something like that,” Nomura said.

With architecture, as with art exhibitions, winning over the general public is the key to real success. But with architecture the public is a prize that comes in addition to the “default audience” of architecture students and professionals.

“The architecture world has very efficient means of getting information out,” Nomura says. “You just have to say you’re doing a show, and it goes in all the magazines.”

The other advantage is that architecture professionals have a tendency to buy exhibition catalogs, thus further adding to the museum’s coffers. The catalogs for architecture shows at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery sell, on average, about 150 percent better than normal art shows.

“I think architects can buy the catalogs on their companies’ accounts,” guessed Nomura.

Tokyo-based architect Florian Busch, who worked with Toyo Ito for four years before going independent earlier this year, said that he didn’t necessarily buy catalogs. But the young German thinks the recent rash of architecture shows has been a good thing.

“It takes the museum’s condensed reduction to get to the essence” of an architect’s work, he said.

Nomura echoed that sentiment, although she said architects often fear having their thoughts and theories being put under the microscope.

“With buildings, there is always a function, or the client’s input, or a set of environmental constraints that limit their work,” Nomura explained. “In an exhibition format, there are no such limitations. A lot of architects find the experience unnerving.”

Straight artists, of course, are most comfortable with the freedom that museums provide. Which begs the question, shouldn’t art galleries such as Tokyo Opera City be focusing on the artists for whom they were built?

“That’s a question that we always talk about,” said Nomura, evincing the frustration of someone who is not in a position to formulate policy on her own. “It motivates us to make the architecture shows so good that they are worth sacrificing an art show for.”

One group that was deeply involved in the decision for Opera City to do regular architecture shows was NTT Urban Development Corporation, one of the museum’s primary sponsors. Nomura said the fact that it is involved in property development predisposed it to architecture shows at the museum it was sponsoring.

Come to think of it, the Mori Art Museum is owned by a property developer. Hence the recent prevalence of architecture exhibitions in Japan might be proof of another, more structural change in the domestic art world: that of property developers’ growing role.

This is the 12th and final installment of Edan Corkill’s Inside Art column.