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Essay

Inventing New Hierarchies
By Eve Blau

The approach is carefully choreographed. As always, there are many options. The building has glass walls and many points of entry. Pathways woven among carefully preserved memorial trees (their twisted trunks braced by bamboo poles), curve in intersecting arcs across the grass and around the circumference of the perfectly cylindrical building, and toward the four entrances that make the building accessible from multiple directions. The glass outer walls are both reflective and transparent depending on the time of day, angle of the sun, and weather. At times they allow one to see deep into the center of the building and, in places, through to the opposite side. At other times they become reflective, bouncing back refracted images of trees, houses, and bodies moving among them; their glass surfaces layering glimpses of nature with self-reflection as they project images of the mind’s eye through the spaces of the building and into the imagination.

Inside, the options multiply. Each space is shaped into an independent volume with its own distinctive proportions, visual access, and scale in relation to the spaces around it. Yet, each particularized space is also intricately interwoven with those around it through a carefully calibrated network of transparent, interstitial spaces. It is a non-hierarchical structure—a field configuration—that operates in terms of two orders of transparency. The first is a functional transparency that articulates the programmatic logic of the plan and clarifies patterns of movement through it. The second is a visual transparency, which cuts across the logic of the plan and introduces a contradictory optical pattern of connections and disconnections that adds layer upon layer of visual information to the abstract information figured in the plan. Because of the many layers of glass, the walls not only reflect and refract the spaces they enclose, they also visually project those spaces onto, through, and beyond one another. The effect creates visual complexity and spatial layering. But, the multilayered transparencies also articulate the architecture and reveal its social agenda; they show the potential of each space to be open and closed, to be connected and separate from the others, to offer solitude and society, and to create places of rest and activity. The transparencies allow users of the architecture to orient themselves while heightening their awareness of their own relationships to things and spaces around them. All of this can be read from the architecture itself.

The building is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, which was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the architectural firm, SANAA. Completed in 2004, the museum was SANAA’s first major public building. The museum itself is a hub of activity at all times of the day. It is a place where visitors, mostly urban citizens of all ages—preschoolers transported in lightweight wagons, mothers with infants, well-behaved groups of school children in uniforms, 20-something art students, office workers stopping for lunch, shoppers meeting between errands for tea, old age pensioners observing the scene—come to spend a part of their day. The building contains exhibition galleries, a small permanent collection (including commissioned works by James Turrell, Patrick Blanc, Olafur Eliasson, and Mathieu Briand), a restaurant-cafe, shop, and other museum amenities, but also a nursery, day care facility, public library, lecture hall, theatre, and meeting rooms. The museum-specific functions are clustered in the center of the building, the communal functions around the periphery. When it rains, which it often does in Kanazawa, the museum building comes alive as the outer public zones fill with people and organized activities. At dusk, one can see deep into the central core, and along the grid of glazed corridors and passageways that penetrate the exhibition zone.

When it opened, the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum was celebrated as a new kind of cultural institution in Japan in which high art and daily life mix. In fact, that synthesis has deep roots in traditional Japanese culture. The involvement of art in daily life is ritually enfolded in the Japanese Tea Ceremony in which aesthetic forms shape social and cultural practices into a mode of being in which art and life are inextricably intertwined. As it developed in the 17th century, the Japanese “Way of Tea” was understood as bringing the aesthetic and lived worlds together into a unified, if ritualized, practice. At Kanazawa, that synthesis is never ritualized. Instead, it “permeates the consciousness, influencing it subtly.” (1) The originality of the Kanazawa Museum is not a function of the program, but of the architecture.

Sejima and Nishizawa are concerned with exploring the cognitive possibilities of architecture, how the built work can impact the way in which we know our world and ourselves and the processes by which knowledge and understanding are acquired through experience. Analysis goes far beyond the functional considerations of program; it is based on intimate engagement with the details and dynamics of lived experience in all its multiscalar contemporary complexity. The capacity to make the strange seem familiar makes the architecture itself at once accessible and remote. No matter how abstract the forms, there is always something familiar about the spaces they create. In referencing SANAA’s buildings, Koji Taki has said, “One’s body slips into, without any resistance, the abnormality of contemporary society (2)...”

(1) Quotation from Yuko Hasegawa, “Polyphony,” in Kanazawa Nijūisseiki Bijutsukan, Encounters in the 21st Century: Polyphony—Emerging Resonances, (Kanazawa: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and Tankosha Publishing Co., 2005), p. 34.

(2) Koli Taki quoted in Yuko Hasegawa, “New Flexibility,” Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, ed. Meruro Washida (Kanazawa: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), p. 100.

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