Yoshio Taniguchi: thriving in the shadow of greatness

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Architect Yoshio Taniguchi generally doesn’t like having his photograph taken for use in the media. In a way, it’s a logical extension of his approach to his work, which could be described as architecture by subtraction. Having painstakingly removed everything extraneous from a design, and having overseen the creation of a building whose every element has been interrogated and found to be absolutely essential, why would he then allow it to be tainted through association with a face, a personality, an architect brand?

And yet, inevitably, the face is coming into view. Now in his seventh decade, Taniguchi is in the midst of what a more jocular man might call a “roll.” His modest but masterful building for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which opened in 2004, won him not only accolades but two other major international commissions in quick succession — the Novartis WSJ-155 Laboratory in Basel (completed in 2010) and Asia House in Houston (2011).

On Sept. 13, Taniguchi welcomes the opening of one of his most significant domestic commissions to date: a new building within the Kyoto National Museum complex.

Japan has four national museums, and they evolve at what might be called a museological pace. For architects, national museum commissions are prized, legacy-assuring achievements. This one, which Taniguchi first began working on 16 years ago, presented a particular challenge because of the nature of the original building with which his would have to converse.

Completed in 1895, the Meiji Kotokan (as it is now called) is sumptuously decorated in the French Renaissance style, with arches and six domical vaults, each capped with lookouts. It’s an imposing piece of architecture — and one about as antithetical to Taniguchi’s work as can be imagined. Fate had contrived the unlikely marriage of Dame Ostentation and Mr. Anonymous. How did it possibly play out?

Yoshio Taniguchi was perhaps better equipped than most Japanese architects to deal sympathetically with an existing architectural icon. Since childhood, such icons have been a part of his life; his architect father, Yoshiro, even built some.

Much of the legacy of Taniguchi Sr., who died in 1979, still exists to this day: the Crown Prince’s Togu Palace residence within the Imperial Akasaka Estate (from 1960), the lobby of the Imperial Theatre (1966), the lobby of the Hotel Okura Tokyo (1962), the Toyokan wing of the Tokyo National Museum (1968) and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (1969).

In fact, Taniguchi’s father was held in such wide esteem during his career that a year after Yoshio was born, in 1938, he was sent to Nazi-controlled Berlin to design a garden for the Japanese Embassy there. It was one of many cultural exchanges that followed the signing of treaties between the two countries. (Yoshiro even rated a mention in the memoirs of “Hitler’s architect,” Albert Speer.) As war broke out in Europe, he managed to find his way back to Japan via the U.S., narrowly missing the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941.

Taniguchi’s first memory of his highly successful father dates from the day of his return to Yokohama Port. It’s not entirely pleasant. “I remember we were standing there at Yokohama, waiting for him to come off the boat. My mother was holding me and I was burnt by someone’s cigarette. Then, later on the same day, we all went to eat sushi and I had wasabi for the first time. It was so hot,” he says dryly.

Taniguchi’s first memories of his father are thus: Yokohama, cigarettes and wasabi.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, he recalls never really talking much about architecture with the man. Uninterested in engaging in father-son rivalry, Taniguchi initially avoided architecture entirely, opting instead to study mechanical engineering at Tokyo’s Keio University.

And yet, even while the young Taniguchi steered clear of his father’s shadow, Yoshiro apparently never lost sight of his son.

As Taniguchi’s undergraduate study came to an end, he was approached by one of Yoshiro’s proteges, Kiyoshi Seike, in 1960.

Seike had recently returned from working with German emigre Walter Gropius at Harvard, and his tales of that school proved sufficient to pique Taniguchi’s curiosity. Taniguchi enrolled in the same school within months.

“It was only after my father died that Seike told me that my father had actually asked him to talk to me — and so the conspiracy to turn me into an architect was revealed,” Taniguchi says. “Every time I spoke to Seike about this he always laughed about it, but I didn’t understand why. I think my father was clever to use him.”

Asked what he gained from Harvard that he couldn’t have found in Japan, Taniguchi didn’t hesitate in saying that “everything changed” for him in the United States.

Not only was the four years in Boston sufficient to make him fluent in English, but it cured him of his asthma and, he says, ultimately convinced him to pursue architecture as a career. The focus on design seems to have been the clincher.

“In Japan, most architects come out of the engineering faculty,” he says. “In the U.S., however, the architecture school is within the design faculty.”

“Take, for instance, structure. There are all sorts of details about structure that you learn — and they are taught in Japan,” he says. “However, the structure we studied at Harvard was always for the sake of design. The study of structural details was always for the sake of achieving something visual.”

After graduating, Taniguchi returned to Japan in 1965, and began working with the hottest architect in the country, Kenzo Tange, whose Yoyogi National Gymnasium had just been showcased by the Tokyo Olympics the previous year.

Tange, who had been heavily influenced by modernist legend Le Corbusier, was one of the key figures of Japanese 20th-century architecture. Known for combining Western modernism with elegant dashes of traditional Japanese architecture — on display not only in the Yoyogi gymnasium but also in his Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, too — he was also a key educator, having done much to launch the careers of Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki, a trio slightly older than Taniguchi who eventually played roles in the Metabolism movement and then dominated the local architectural landscape for several decades.

Taniguchi’s career path was less theory-driven and more solitary. To an extent it was his name that made that possible.

His breakthrough work was completed in 1983, just four years after he established his own practice, Taniguchi and Associates.

A few years earlier, photographer Ken Domon had donated much of his archive to his local town — Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture — and when asked who he thought should design the museum where the collection would be housed, he suggested “Taniguchi.”

By then, Taniguchi Sr. had designed multiple works for the national government and this put the Sakata officials in a bind: Could a lowly local government be so bold as to ask such a man to work for them? Domon stepped in with the answer: “The son will do.”

And that was that.

Still in his early 40s, Taniguchi was charged with building what would become Japan’s first dedicated photography museum.

“The museum won quite a few awards,” Taniguchi says matter-of-factly of the low-lying series of rectangular concrete forms that line the shore of a lake. “So I just started getting more and more commissions.”

Many of those new commissions were for other museums, and gradually Taniguchi became something of a museum specialist.

He completed the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991, the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art in 1995 and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at Tokyo National Museum in 1999, with smaller commissions in between.

Museum work appears to suit Taniguchi’s egoless approach to architecture.

“The most important thing about museum architecture is that the artwork must complete the museum,” he says of the genre.

Without naming any names, he says that “the worst type of museum architecture is the one that is complete even without the artwork.”

While Taniguchi is now responsible for an impressive list of buildings, he is by no means prolific. To this day he focuses on only one or two major projects at a time, keeping his staff to around just 15 people.

“I want to be able to involve myself directly,” he says.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, commission, which was announced in 1997, was by far his most prominent job. To win it, he beat nine other finalists, including big names such as Dutchman Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron. Despite his Harvard education, he had never completed a major job outside his native Japan.

Although Taniguchi was an outsider in New York, his solution for the Museum of Modern Art building provides perhaps the clearest example of the philosophy he says informs all of his work, and that is ensuring that his buildings are born out of the environment in which they will exist.

When that environment is a lakeside setting, as with his Ken Domon Museum of Photography, or even a sparsely populated regional center, as with his Marugame project, the building’s roots in its location can be a little difficult to read.

The Museum of Modern Art building is very different. Crowded into a Manhattan block, alongside other museum facilities such as the Sculpture Garden, designed by Philip Johnson, and a tower by Caesar Pelli, Taniguchi’s building is nothing if not a product of its surrounds.

A series of light-weight rectangular forms fronted on some sides by glass and others by steel cladding, the building is subtle enough to disappear, chameleonlike, into its surroundings, and yet beautiful enough to repay close inspection.

So concerned with the surrounds was Taniguchi, in fact, that he actually took it upon himself to give some of them a brush-up, restoring some of Johnson’s sculpture garden to how it was originally intended. Inevitably, some New Yorkers wished for a bolder statement.

“Critics will always say the architecture is boring or invisible, or that it can’t be photographed,” Taniguchi says. “Ultimately, I am designing spaces, an atmosphere, an air.”

One of Taniguchi’s few “trademarks,” is to encase that “air” in giant porticoes that extend outward from his buildings’ facades, and he has done the same at the Museum of Modern Art, where the portico partly juts out over the Sculpture Garden, thereby creating a kind of intermediate zone between the building’s interior and exterior.

“The best thing is to return to the museum and see people enjoying those spaces,” he says.

During the planning stages of the new Museum of Modern Art building, Taniguchi is reported to have told the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry: “If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of amount of money, I will make the architecture disappear.”

While it might appear to some that he has achieved that goal, to Taniguchi’s perfectionist eye, there is always room for improvement.

“To make architecture disappear what I really need is to be able to knock it down and do it again, three times,” he says.

“Once I build something I always notice small things that I wish I had done differently. I think if I could build it and then rebuild it three times, it would be perfect. But what client is going to allow that?” he asks, offering a rare smile.

Certainly not the national government of Japan. In stark contrast to the Museum of Modern Art’s approach to its project, by which Taniguchi was roped into appearing at fundraising events so that they could even realize the design he’d been commissioned to make, work on the new wing for the Kyoto National Museum was carried out strictly by the book.

“In Japan, they always have the budget first,” he says, “and then get you to build.”

The first step in designing the new building, which is now known as the Heisei Chishinkan, was to work out how it would relate to the Renaissance-styled incumbent.

Taniguchi’s solution was to set his building perpendicular to the existing one, so that a broad plaza would be maintained between them. He also buried much of his building, thereby keeping it to around 15 meters in height — the same as the older building’s domical vaults.

He adopted a neat stone-clad rectangular form, with a deep steel awning jutting out from above a glass lobby to break up the volume. With these elements, he laid the groundwork for the same kind of semi-deferential pose he had achieved at the Museum of Modern Art: If people wanted to enjoy the adjacent Meiji Kobunkan, then his building was not going to impede them.

However, the resulting building is also beautiful in its own right. And much of that beauty lies in Taniguchi’s response to what he says is a long-standing problem for Japan’s architects: How to imbue elements of traditional Japanese architecture into very large buildings.

“Japanese buildings were traditionally made of wood, so there was a limit on how large they could be,” he says. “Our architectural aesthetic is based on that small scale, which is why it is not so difficult to incorporate Japanese elements into small buildings.”

What to do about the Heisei Chishinkan, which would have a total floor area of more than 17,000 sq. meters?

“The first thing I did was to make it very obviously asymmetrical,” he says. “Japanese-style architecture is always asymmetrical, so I was very conscious of this. Standing adjacent to it is the main building, which is Western Renaissance and thus very symmetrical, so there is a nice contrast.”

Taniguchi thus placed the entrance to the new building at its right-hand extremity, choosing to line it up with an existing road that continues down to Minamidaimon, the entrance to the famous Rengeo-in Temple, also known as Sanjusangendo — home of 1,000 life-sized statues of armed Kannon gods.

Another Japanese element is the use of opaque glass on the facade.

“Like paper shoji screens in Japanese houses, the opaque glass serves to diffuse the light,” he says. “It is not direct, but it is a very Japanese style of architecture.”

A more local reference is a low stone wall in front of the museum, which is intended to recreate elements of a temple, the remains of which were discovered at the site during pre-construction research.

Taniguchi is also adamant that a garden must eventually be added to the complex, in accordance with his original plan — an addition that would further enhance its Japanese identity.

But even without a garden, he has managed to create a building that is simultaneously very large, beautiful and, unmistakably, Japanese. He’s understandably proud of that particular point.

Indeed, it’s something he comes back to it when asked to comment further on his father’s architecture.

“I think my father wrestled with the task of creating Japanese-style buildings at a large scale,” he says. “If you look at his Toyokan or the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, you can see how he has tried to include elements of Japaneseness in the details, but I think he struggled with it.”

If competition with his father was ever really a concern, it seems he may very well have taken the upper hand.