Tsuyoshi Tane says one particular piece of praise has stayed with him throughout the year.
“The director of the Estonian National Museum told me his country might really be able to overcome the dark era of postwar Soviet occupation thanks to our work on the museum,” says Tane, recalling words that were said to him at an event celebrating the Baltic country’s 100th anniversary in February.
“I was deeply moved to know the museum’s new building had been welcomed by Estonians and was delighted, as an architect, to take part in such a historical event that recognized the power of our work and its potential to affect society.”
The 39-year-old is one of the three co-founders of Dorell Ghotmeh Tane Architects (DGT), the international team that designed the museum after winning a competition to do so in 2006. The building opened its doors to the public in October 2016 and, two years after its opening, has firmly established itself as an Estonian landmark, located just kilometers from the heart of Tartu.
Its size is impressive. The single-story museum sits on the south-east of Lake Raadi at 72 meters wide and 335 meters long, situated in the middle of a desolate patch of land that cuts through a forest. The structure appears to emerge from an old Soviet military runway, causing the onlooker’s gaze to take off into the sky, a nod to the optimism of a new era.
Although many people on the streets of Tartu or the capital, Tallinn, say that they love and frequently visit the museum, its design concept initially caused a stir. Local media didn’t respond well to the idea of incorporating the Soviet runway, a relic from the country’s dark past, into the structure.
Tane insists, however, that his firm wasn’t oblivious to the feelings the runway conjured up in the national psyche. Quite the opposite, he says: DGT wanted to reclaim history by turning the runway into something that symbolized the upward direction the country was headed in.
“I believe that architecture can transform even negative memories into positive ones to help enhance the future,” Tane says. “Estonia is a small country with a population of only 1.3 million, and it took guts to get on board with our vision of the museum.”
DGT Architects disbanded after the completion of the Estonian National Museum, leading Tane to start his own office, Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects, in Paris in 2017.
The architect was in his 20s when he won the bid for the Estonian museum with DGT and says he learned a lot in his decade at the firm.
“I always had to make quick decisions when I was running the project,” Tane says. “It was really tough, but I managed to keep up with it as I’d done the same sort of thing running around as a football player in my childhood.”
Tane says he now runs his office like a sports team, albeit one with nearly 30 players of several nationalities. And the most beneficial play in his playbook? A methodology he developed working on the Estonian museum that he calls “archeological research.”
“There are always memories, deeply embedded beneath the ground,” he says. “As a first step, we need to travel back in time to excavate them, digging deep like archaeologists.
“That archaeology, the process of thinking in depth from the past to the future, slowly becomes architecture.”
Tane strongly believes that memories need not belong to the past or simply act as fuel for nostalgia. They should be universal: “Memories can be a driving force in creating the architecture of the future.”
Tane’s Paris office is almost empty in mid-October. Most of the staff has left for Japan to prepare two exhibitions in Tokyo. Still, the memory of them remains.
The office’s location has the charm of New York’s East Village. It was a metal-forging factory in the 19th century, producing bells and aircraft parts. In the basement, there is a large room dedicated to researching various projects. The walls are covered with ideas for designs and the shelves and tables are covered in small models of those ideas. It looks a lot like the storage room of a museum.
The firm’s approach to research involves gathering photos, other kinds of images and objects that can help inspire the staff to get even closer to the essence of each project, a crucial step in Tane’s archaeological research process.
The Tokyo exhibitions, at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Toto Gallery-Ma, hope to offer a comprehensive look into Tane and his process. His work is presented under the title of “Archaeology of the Future,” celebrating his creative achievements and the challenges he has faced in developing conceptional approach.
The exhibition at Toto Gallery-Ma is titled “Search & Research” and aims to emphasize the process behind Tane’s thinking and speculation, while the Opera City exhibition, “Digging & Building,” introduces the architect’s archaeological design method and how he uses it to take creative leaps.
The two exhibitions complement each other, but Toto’s offers an enchanting and intimate show despite the small space. It’s almost like visiting the Parisian office; the gallery is packed with shelves filled with Tane’s research materials: keyholes, dried plants, samples of tiles and pieces of wood, and models that correspond to images displayed on the gallery walls.
One such model is that of Kofun Stadium, a project from Tane’s DGT days that made it to the finals stage in the selection process of a new national stadium ahead of the Tokyo Olympics (it ultimately lost out to Zaha Hadid’s controversial design). Kofun Stadium is so appealing that seeing it causes a slight tinge of regret as to what could have been in store for the capital.
On a broader scale, Tane’s philosophy of archaeological memories may be a good one in Japan, where a construction bubble fostered a scrap-and-build mentality that has seen the demolition of many interesting buildings.
“I would like to create architecture for a more meaningful future,” Tane reiterates, “excavating the memories of a place, so that its story can be passed on to future generations, rather than be tossed aside in the spirit of thoughtless renewal.”
“Archaeology of the Future — Search & Research” runs through Dec. 23 at Toto Gallery-Ma in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For details, visit jp.toto.com/gallerma. “Archaeology of the Future — Digging & Building” runs through Dec. 24 at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. For details, visit www.operacity.jp/en/ag/index.php.