Style & Design

Keith Haring's urban art finds apt lodgings in Japan's countryside

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

If someone were to tell you that the largest private collection of New York street and pop artist Keith Haring’s work is stashed in some of Japan’s lushest mountainous countryside, and if you went to visit it, you could stay in a Keith Haring-inspired boutique hotel, you would probably think they were joking.

But it’s true — and there’s an interesting conceptual and architectural tale behind it all.

The Nakamura Keith Haring Collection museum opened in Kobuchizawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 2007 and its contemporary design by architect Atsushi Kitagawara stands out in its rural surroundings, making it a landmark for the area. Founded by local landowner and businessman Kazuo Nakamura, the museum is now a highlight of Art Village Kobuchizawa, a resort area that opened in December 2004. It houses nearly 200 items, all collected by Nakamura, whose love for Haring’s works began in 1987 when he saw “People’s Ladder” for the first time during a trip to the United States.

According to Kitagawara, however, the Nakamura Keith Haring Collection is much more than a convenient space to house a private collection — and its location in Kobuchizawa is less random than it may at first seem.

“Primitive is the keyword that connects Keith Haring and Kobuchizawa,” says Kitagawara who, sitting in his Atsushi Kitagawara Architects Tokyo office for a recent interview, explains that he was the one to suggest that Nakamura build a museum in the rural city. “Kobuchizawa is historically known for having an enormous Jomon Period (around 12,000 B.C.) settlement, which is why many ancient pottery pieces have been excavated from the area,” he continues. “Haring is also known for his pottery work, and, coincidentally, the reliefs (of his work and Jomon pieces) look quite similar.”

Kitagawara, who also designed the Villa Keyforest building (once Nakamura’s private residence, now lodgings), graduated Tokyo University of the Arts with a masters in architecture in 1977 and is influenced by modern architects, including Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). But his work also reflects a deep respect for traditional Japanese architecture and nature.

The wooden blocks of his outer wall design for the Expo Milano 2015 Japan Pavilion, for example, were held together by traditional Japanese joinery, without any nails or metal fittings. According to Kitagawara, the technique is the same as that used to build the original Buddhist Horyuji Temple in Nara Prefecture in 607.

“Since the Expo only lasts for half a year, I didn’t prepare a roof for it,” he says, going on to explain that the pavilion will later get a glass ceiling and be reused as a church. “So it will last for 10 years, and with maintenance maybe 100 years,” he says before chuckling, “Or it could last for 1,500 years, just like Horyuji.”

The Nakamura Keith Haring Collection — which Kitagawara describes as like a hiraya (a bungalow) — may not have such a direct reference to traditional architecture, but its mindfulness of its natural surroundings and parabolic curved roof that matches the area’s undulating landscape has helped it win the Architectural Culture Award of Yamanashi Prefecture, the Togo Murano Award, AIA Japan Professional Honor Award, Top Prize of the JIA Grand Prix and The Japan Art Academy Prize, which particularly values the preservation of traditional architecture.

Though some may mistake the museum as purely modern in shape and design, Kitagawara asserts it not only echoes the Kobuchizawa landscape but also references the region’s primitive culture that both he and Nakamura admire.

“Nakamura Keith Haring Collection is not necessarily a museum that you visit for a day trip,” he says. “Nakamura has always wanted the visitors to not just see the exhibits but also experience the atmosphere. That would require them to visit the museum several times in a day, so the plan for a (new accompanying) hotel was there for a long time.”

The Hotel Keyforest Hokuto, which opens Sept. 1 is not the first hotel to be built in Kobuchizawa Art Village, which already has the Yatsugatake Lodge Atelier and Villa Keyforest, but it is the only one designed to match the concept of the museum.

Like the Nakamura Keith Haring Collection, it bears Kitagawara’s striking use of plain concrete and unusual shapes. Its asymmetrical trapezoid windows set in a gray angular building that seems void of right angles are again a nod to primitive shapes in art, as well as Haring’s work, much of which involved impulsive primitive expression. Kitagawara jokingly says that at least the floor is flat and the walls are straight, even if the whole structure appears crooked.

“The unembellished, plain surfaces (of the walls) give the architecture its primitive appearance,” explains Kitagawara. While the odd-shaped windows, he says reflect that: “In nature, there are no right angles or straight lines.”

Even the hotel’s six rooms were named by Kitagawara’s building plan team to show an appreciation of tradition and nature: Mitsu (Water), Ime (Star), Hani (Plant), Uose (Sun), Utsuho (Sky) and Kase (Wind).

“Since the area is surrounded by nature, we decided to name the rooms after natural elements,” explains Tomohiro Kitaguchi, associate architect at Atsushi Kitagawara Architects. “The names are taken from Woshite bunken, an ancient symbolic language, and the interior of each room is different, each based on its (name) concept.”

Despite its connection to the Nakamura Keith Haring collection, the references to Haring’s actual artwork are subtle — monotone Haring-style motifs on the interior of the lifts and small designs on some of the doors. The minimalist white interiors are instead decorated with simple primitive artworks, but what may initially seem at odds with Keith Haring’s brightly colored and bold imagery still makes sense.

“It took me a long time to design the museum, since Haring had his own vivid concepts. … There were a lot of conflicts to trying to overcome Haring’s style, and for the museum to become how it is now,” says Kitagawara, who explains that at first he tried to use motifs that matched the artist’s work.

“The hotel, on the other hand, doesn’t house Haring’s works but is designed to match his aesthetics more indirectly by having primitiveness in its base concept.”