I always feel a little inadequate arriving at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, shambling up its gravel drive in my slovenly journalist garb and running one hand over my face to check if I’ve shaved that day. It’s such an elegant venue that I feel I really should be arriving in more style, possibly driven in a classic Rolls Royce or done up in a rented tuxedo.
Yes, the Teien is haunted by ghosts of its past — it was originally built as an Art Deco palace for members of the Imperial family in the 1930s, before becoming an art museum in 1981. Over the years, this royal legacy, rather than weakening, has strengthened and is more in evidence than ever with the reopening of the building after a three-year hiatus.
This was necessary to carry out much needed repairs and to restore the building to its original condition, while also adding a new annex building that greatly increases the museum’s capacity to host exhibitions.
The new structure houses an atrium, two white cube galleries, a restaurant and a shop. It should take some of the pressures of wear-and-tear off the main building, behind which it is discretely tucked away and connected to by a glass-walled corridor. The overall design was by the photographic artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who was involved in the project in an advisory capacity. Sugimoto is perhaps best known to the wider public for his “Boden Sea” image, which became the cover of rock group U2’s 2009 album, “No Line on the Horizon.”
Keeping the two buildings separate was important to retain the pristine charm of the palace, but also because of building restrictions stemming from that building’s official status as a designated tangible cultural property of Tokyo. The resulting design is effective, despite the obvious differences between the Art Deco original and the modernist addition. There are subtle harmonies of proportion, material and even decorative motif between the two.
The strong geometric elements of the original palace lend themselves well to this process, and the architects have responded by keeping the new annex relatively simple. It’s left unadorned, emphasizing its simple straight lines and materials, such as the travertine marble of the walls with its delicate pink-tinged cream hue that responds well to changing light and also harmonizes with the painted walls of the older building.
But straight lines can be stern. The palace managed to soften and offset this effect by the judicious use of arches and occasional curves. The annex building strives for a similar result by using a generous amount of glass to seductively open up the building’s depths, bringing the gardens and greenery deep into the atrium.
This also plays another key role, helping to link the new building to its surroundings in a way that is equivalent to the rootedness of the old building. The palace still dominates the site, but the annex seems to commune more with the surrounding foliage.
Through these various characteristics, what the architects have achieved is a subtle balance between the two buildings, avoiding crude symmetry but instead going for the architectural equivalent of musical counterpoint.
Perhaps the best example of this resonance between the two is the entrances. These present two different but also very similar solutions. The palace building is famous for its ceremonial glass relief doors, with their angel motif, designed by the great glass artist Rene Lalique. These doors are almost never used, but can be appreciated by visitors as they enter. The annex also has a glass entrance feature, designed by Sugimoto — a kind of transparent screen.
“We used wavy glass in a reference to the glass door panels by Rene Lalique at the entrance to the main building, which are virtually synonymous with it,” Sugimoto said. “When thinking about the design, I anticipated that something special would happen, but the heart-shaped marks and butterfly-shaped shadows that appear, depending on the angle at which the sunlight is striking the glass, are beyond what I expected.”
Butterflies and heart marks also seem symbolic of the frailty and love that underlies the story of the Teien, which can be said to have begun with a car accident in Paris in 1923. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, who was in France to study military tactics in the aftermath of World War I, was so badly injured that his wife, Princess Nobuko, hurried to Paris to nurse him.
During the Prince’s gradual recovery, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts and Crafts was held, becoming the watershed event that popularized the Art Deco style. The Prince and his wife visited the exhibition and were enthralled by the work of Lalique and Henry Rapin. On their return to Japan at the end of 1925, the couple found that their existing palace, which had been damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, wasn’t up to scratch and they decided to build a new one in the Art Deco style they both so loved.
With the help of Yokichi Gondo, an architect in the Imperial Household Ministry Construction Bureau, and designs sent over by Rapin, the main architect, and Lalique, the main decorative artist, their dream home was finally completed in May, 1933. But, alas, Princess Nobuko was unable to enjoy it for long. Her delicate health gave way and she died a few months later.
One of the things often said about the Teien was that it was an “exhibition in itself” because of its decoration, fittings and furnishings. This naturally presented challenges as to what art could be comfortably displayed within it. With the more neutral spaces of the annex building now available, this should be less of a problem. But we will have to wait for a later exhibition to find out — the first show is an extremely minimalist display by Rei Naito, and features tiny figures in the palace as well as nearly blank canvases in the annex.
Perhaps the message here is: Whisper it, don’t shout — the Teien has reopened.
“Rei Naito: the emotion of belief” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum annex runs till Dec. 25; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. till 8 p.m.). ¥700. Closed on second and fourth Wed. of the month. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp A Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum app for iOS and Android, offering a voice guide of the museum in Japanese and English, is available as a free download.