Style & Design

Kengo Kuma: Seeing the forest for the trees in Eskisehir

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Kengo Kuma & Associates’ design for the new Odunpazari Modern Museum (OMM) in Eskisehir, Turkey, is undoubtedly an arresting sight.

To see the 4,500-square-meter three-story contemporary building of wooden stacked structures nestled between the traditional vernacular architecture of Odunpazari, Eskisehir’s oldest settlement area, makes it all the more striking — but this, it seems, is by design.

Having a Japanese architect design a museum in a setting so intrinsically linked with Turkey’s national identity and culture may seem odd to some, but art aficionado Erol Tabanca — construction tycoon, founder of the OMM and owner of its over 1,000 collection of artworks — offers one economically sound objective. At the press conference of the museum’s opening on Sept. 8, he mentions how Frank Gehry’s iconic design of the Guggenheim in Bilbao significantly boosted international attention and tourism. Kuma’s vision, Tabanca believes, has the star quality that could do the same for Eskisehir.

“I am an architect myself, so I was, of course, familiar with Kengo Kuma’s work,” he says. “I believed meeting (and working with) Kengo would add another dimension to the project, in part because he is an internationally famous ‘star architect.'”

But it’s also Kuma’s philosophy that resonates with Odunpazari, whose history dates back to the Seljuk Empire (1060-c. 1307). His approach to architecture not only famously advocates sustainability and local resources, but also reveres regional heritage, environment and community.

The distinctive features of the OMM all pay diligent homage to Odunpazari’s Seljuk, Ottoman and Turkish architecture. Its aggregation of stacked boxes evoke the cantilevered structures of traditional konak residences, while its wooden plank cladding recalls the district’s historical timber buildings. Even the gently fanned staircases leading to its vast stone plaza echo the area’s characteristic meandering streets.

It is also coupled with authentic Ottoman-era (1299-1924) architecture in the form of the OMM Inn, a hotel and eatery housed within a former Odunpazari home just steps away from the museum. Created to help financially support the museum, the traditional building has been renovated with interiors designed by Polimeks Holding, the major construction and architectural firm of which Tabanca is chairman.

OMM founder Erol Tabanca (center) with Kengo Kuma (left) and Yuki Ikeguchi of Kengo Kuma & Associates | MIO YAMADA
OMM founder Erol Tabanca (center) with Kengo Kuma (left) and Yuki Ikeguchi of Kengo Kuma & Associates | MIO YAMADA

“Odunpazari actually means ‘wood market’ and it was important for us to keep that historical memory — how the area used to trade timber,” says Yuki Ikeguchi, the Kengo Kuma partner leading the museum project. “We didn’t choose to use wood as simply (decorative) cladding, it’s more like a structural expression related to the idea of the timber yard. There are also areas of specialization (in Turkey) of stacking and interlocking planks, which, for the OMM, we designed in a similar way.”

“Another aspect of Odunpazari is that it’s very intimate,” adds Kuma. “Also the topography of the district is not straight. It has a kind of random geometry, which we liked and wanted to translate into the geometry of our building. So it’s not only about the timber, it’s about the geometry of how that timber is used.”

This is reflected in the irregularly stacked boxes, which become smaller each floor up to offer more intimate exhibiting spaces. Designed to be multidirectional and bring together visitors from all sides, there is also no specific front or back facade to the OMM, while its plaza can be accessed from four entry points.

“We designed the ground floor of the building to be a continuation of that, too,” says Ikeguchi. “So the Turkish stone used for the plaza extends to the ground floor of the museum, and the fanning configuration of its steps continues all the way to the stairs within the building. It naturally leads people directly inside — like a continuous link from the city to the museum.”

The atrium and core of the Odunpazari Modern Museum (OMM) allows natural light to filter into exhibition spaces. | © BATUHAN KESKINER
The atrium and core of the Odunpazari Modern Museum (OMM) allows natural light to filter into exhibition spaces. | © BATUHAN KESKINER

Critical of what he calls “big box” buildings — “large concrete boxes that destroy the harmony of a place and its daily life” — Kuma explains that they wanted to give the OMM’s relatively large space the sense of intimacy they experienced in Eskisehir, “to articulate the (museum’s) big space by using that rotation method.”

He adds, “By doing that we also created a symbolic ‘void’ (of the atrium) a kind of echo of Islamic courtyard architecture.”

“An inspiration also came from the quality of light that Islamic architecture has mastered,” says Ikeguchi. “The ‘light well’ that we created with the atrium lets soft sunlight (filtered through the gaps between its wooden planks) into the installation spaces. It’s something we think is very special.”

With its inaugural exhibition of 94 works, most highlighting artists from Turkey, and a museum shop filled with Turkish designs, the OMM complex is an ambitious $15 million project with aspirations to support both international and local artists, promote regional culture and aid Turkish businesses. And Kengo Kuma as the big name to help propel it all into the international limelight appears to be working. As anticipated, the museum has attracted the attention of design publications, international newspapers and glossy magazines.

For Kuma and Ikeguchi, however, locale and community are the prime inspirations — together they have made Eskisehir and Odunpazari the real stars of the show.

For more information about the Odunpazari Modern Museum, visit omm.art/en. The author received assistance from the Odunpazari Modern Museum while researching this article.

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV | KEMAL SECKIN
Tanabe Chikuunsai IV | KEMAL SECKIN

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV: The art of bamboo crafting in Japan

Born into one of Japan’s revered bamboo craft families, Tanabe Chikuunsai IV studied sculpture at Tokyo University of Arts in the late 1990s and graduated the Bamboo Arts Craft Center in Beppu in 2001. He creates both traditional and art pieces, but it’s his monumental installations that have recently garnered much acclaim.

“Traditional arts and crafts in Japan should develop ‘new crafts’ to fit this age,” he says. “But they still need traditional roots.”

For the Odunpazari Modern Museum (OMM), he constructed his largest work yet, standing at 6 by 8 meters. Its twisting configuration of intricately woven tubes reach out from a wall to connect to the floor like a cluster of giant aerial roots. An advocate of sustainability and nature, Tanabe explains that the Tiger Bamboo strips he used are recycled from a previous piece. In fact, he dismantles all his installations to recycle 95 percent of the bamboo for his next ones.

In an interview at the opening of the OMM, he spoke about the intersection of craft and art and how it can aid Japan’s craft industry.

What is the underlying concept of your piece for the OMM?

I considered the four elements of nature: water, fire, air and earth. Then I added a fifth element: “space” (or universe or cosmos), represented by the city of Eskisehir, the people I met there and my interactions. I hope the energy of nature and energy of people will be released into the universe (though this artistic expression).

Has your radical use of a traditional craft triggered any debate on crafts in Japan?

It’s quite a departure, so it surprised some people in a positive way, but it was also criticized (for breaking rules).

I use traditional bamboo weaving in a modern manner to help people around the world understand its roots better. I’ve been doing this for seven years now, and most of the installations were for international exhibitions, so now it’s receiving a great response overseas.

How different it is to create an artwork a opposed to a traditional piece?

I studied art bamboo crafting at school, but I also learned it at home. This is actually a little unusual. Most artisans either apprentice the traditional way or learn in school. But I did both. Since I’ve always made both art and traditional objects, it’s natural for me to not consciously determine which I am working on.

Of course, there are differences: Traditional works have rules and limitations, while installations have no limits. But when I’m actually constructing an art piece, I use the same techniques, even if I can alter them. So it doesn’t feel different. The only difference are those rules.

Do you think using crafts this way is a way to revitalize old industries?

Yes, I think so. An installation, for example, can be appreciated by everyone, from children to adults. It surprises them that a traditional craft can be so different and so beautiful. It’s one way to help others become acquainted with bamboo art. It’s also a way to advertise Japanese craft in a monumental way.