The Talented Mr. Taniguchi

Yoshio Taniguchi, whose spare, light-filled spaces have made him one of Japan's most celebrated architects, is finally coming to America. Arthur Lubow pays a visit.

In late 1997, when Yoshio Taniguchi won the coveted commission for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, few American architecture critics had seen his work up close. At the time, Taniguchi was not part of the globetrotting set of celebrity architects who redefine skylines around the world; indeed he had never even built outside his native Japan. In advance of the announcement, New York magazine reviewed the short list of finalists and predicted his chance of winning as zero; the more prudent Joseph Giovannini, covering his bets in The New Yorker, quoted an observer who said that the fact that "few American architects knew anything firsthand about Taniguchi's serene, textbook modernism" might well "work to his advantage."

In fact, being judged from afar would be a burden for any architect, and for Taniguchi this was particularly true. Unlike the work of flashier practitioners, his architecture cannot be appreciated from plans and photographs. It relies on careful manipulation of spatial volumes and changing light. It requires your presence. Fortunately for Taniguchi, members of MoMA's architect-selection committee traveled to Japan during an around-the-world design tour before making their decision. According to MoMA director Glenn Lowry, they were immediately impressed by the feel of Taniguchi's work. "We wanted a building that would seem ethereal," Lowry says. "His buildings are incredibly light. They let art breathe."

Most of Taniguchi's creations are located outside of Japan's major cities (another reason he's not a household name), so aficionados who want to experience his aesthetic must be prepared to travel. A good place to begin an inspection tour is the Ken Domon Museum of Photography in the provincial city of Sakata, located 250 miles north of Tokyo. Built 20 years ago to house the work of one of Japan's first documentary photographers, the structure illustrates Taniguchi's early fascination with subtly changing, spare space—a theme that continues to preoccupy the architect to this day. The museum, which is built on a former rice paddy on the banks of the Mogami River, is beautifully sited next to a pond that did not exist before the architect arrived on the scene. "I try to exploit the context of a site," says Taniguchi, 66, a dapper man who favors Armani suits and sports long sideburns and an imposing mane of combed-back silver hair. "If it's not ideal, I try to make something by landscape design. If a site is good, it's very easy to place any objects on it."

Along with an aesthetic contribution, the pond serves to orient visitors as they walk through two very different parts of the museum. Because sunlight causes photographs to fade, the permanent photographic gallery is illuminated solely by overhead fluorescents hidden behind a ceiling grille. Upon leaving the gallery to move to the research, audiovisual, and memorial rooms, however, a visitor proceeds toward the pond on a ramp that, thanks to a wall of increasingly wide windows, becomes progressively flooded with daylight. "Movement is a very important element of my architecture," Taniguchi says. "As you go through the corridor, you feel the space."

One of the more satisfying design features in the Ken Domon museum is a window-framed vista of a Zen-like cascade of smooth pebbles, punctuated by a few large sculptural stones and bordered in bamboo. The effect is calming, but also, on second view, thrilling. From inside the building, the garden (created by distinguished Japanese filmmaker and landscape designer Hiroshi Teshigahara) seems vast. When I went outside to investigate, however, I found that the garden is actually tiny; it only seems big because Taniguchi has artfully placed the window so the arrangement of stones is perfectly framed.

These manipulations of size and space to create harmony feel very Japanese. But then, so much of Taniguchi's design vocabulary draws upon his Japanese heritage. At both the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, in Toyota City, and the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, in Marugame, low-ceilinged vestibules open into galleries with soaring, double-height ceilings. It is a device often used by designers of traditional teahouses. "In order for you to feel large, you go through a small gate," Taniguchi explains. (That trick was brilliantly exploited time and again by the Japan-besotted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.) Also very Japanese are the vertical panels, similar to those in a shoji screen, that Taniguchi favors to clad his buildings. "Perfect symmetry is of Chinese origin, not Japanese," he says. "When square proportions become popular, then I use a rectangle."

Even the way in which Taniguchi juxtaposes rough and smooth concrete, as he does in the Ken Domon museum, suggests Japanese artistry—say, that of the 17th-century tea-ceremony master Oribe, who, when making his unconventionally beautiful pots, placed glazes of contrasting textures in startling proximity to one another. There is a definite affinity between the underfurnished, functional, rectilinear spaces of Modernism and the Japanese tradition. Each style feeds the other, in a vitalizing symbiosis. "Yoshio's work is in the classic High Modernist tradition, but inflected with an Asian sensibility," Lowry says. "So it doesn't seem historicizing. It seems fresh and new."

I first met Taniguchi in the lobby of the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, which was designed in the early sixties by his father, Yoshiro, who was also an architect. It is a harmonious, handsome room with overhead wooden beams, shoji screens, hanging light fixtures in the shape of Japanese lanterns, and wall panels decorated with painted butterflies. Though the space felt different from those designed by the younger Taniguchi, it was interesting to note how this work was also both quintessentially Japanese and classically midcentury Modernist.

Like Taniguchi, many of today's most devoted proponents of Modernism—Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki—are Japanese. "The big Japanese talents have not only been aware of European Modernism, but they have filtered it through their own sensibilities," says critic Ada Louise Huxtable. "Their work is beautiful and carries Modernism in a new direction. Nothing is lost in the translation." Seeing the mushrooming visual chaos of contemporary Tokyo, you might wonder whether the cool rationality of Modernism functions as a kind of analgesic for architects whose heads are throbbing and whose souls are anxious. "In Tokyo, there's nothing old," Taniguchi says. "Our city is different from European cities. It is not built of stones that stay forever. For natural reasons—earthquake, typhoon, fire—it is always being rebuilt."

But that process of constant renewal has stopped. "We're not building a house with bamboo and paper anymore," he continues. "You have to be careful. It's the first time in history, over the last twenty or thirty years, that we are designing for history. If you go to see some of the new developments, they don't appear to have any site context. In some parts of Tokyo, it doesn't look like Japan at all." Yet Taniguchi also recognizes that an assimilation of other cultures is itself a salient characteristic of Japanese culture. "If you visit a Japanese family, they have chopsticks, knives, and forks together," he says. "We have steak on one side and miso soup on the other. At a Japanese wedding, they drink sake and wine. The bride is supposed to wear a white wedding dress and then, when people are eating, she changes into a kimono."

His own life history exemplifies the complex relationship between Japan and the West. At his father's urging, Taniguchi studied mechanical engineering and Japanese culture, but afterwards, he did something very unusual in Japan at the time: He left the country to pursue architecture at Harvard University. He arrived in 1960, when urban planning was new and fashionable; and he attributes his sensitivity to sites and his desire "to design the whole environment" to his Harvard days. Indeed, his background in urban planning helped him win the MoMA commission. "When I first looked at the MoMA project, I thought it was like a city to design," he explains. "And not a beautiful city at all. Many different parts that do not relate to each other. I tried to add a very strong structure that would unify the architecture. At the same time, I thought MoMA was a microcosm of Manhattan—a building with a park. The MoMA garden should be as important as Central Park."

His scheme ingeniously slips an austerely elegant framework into a hodgepodge that was created over the years by three different architecture firms. By breaking down some of the existing walls, Taniguchi's plan allows for a more expansive horizontal flow, and maximizes the visibility of the sculpture garden from many points in the museum. But while it powerfully reorganizes the space, Taniguchi's design also enhances the impact of the art. "I try to create an atmosphere where people will meet a work of art," he says. "I do not try to create a physical object. I have to be very humble to make works of art outstanding, but at the same time, as an architect I have to create something new. That is the dilemma or the subject of my whole work."

This respect for what is displayed has made Taniguchi a much-in-demand designer of museums and exhibition halls in Japan. In his Tokyo Sea Life Park, he fought to keep the wall labels as inconspicuous as possible, so that visitors could focus on the fish. For the exquisite pavilion that he designed on the campus of the Tokyo National Museum to exhibit the Horyuji Treasures of ancient art, he needed to install state-of-the-art controls for humidity, light, and temperature. There is even a system to elevate the air pressure in the galleries slightly to keep out dust. Very high-tech, but all of the technology remains invisible, in dimly lit galleries that remind you of a temple's serenity without the faintest hint of kitschy allusion. "He does particularly exquisite work," Huxtable says, praising the Horyuji Treasures building specifically. "The attention to proportion and detail is remarkable." Only the careful observer recognizes the difficulty in achieving this simplicity. "The less ostentatious it becomes, the more expensive to build," Taniguchi says. "The Seagram Building is a good example. My type of architecture has to be perfect. It's cheaper to make something flamboyant."

The purity of Taniguchi's architecture contrasts quietly but distinctly with much contemporary design. That implied rebuke of razzle-dazzle architecture comes through clearly in the two buildings he has constructed in the Kasai Rinkai district of Tokyo, a bayside zone of reclaimed land: the Tokyo Sea Life Park, finished in 1989, and the Kasai Rinkai Visitors Center, completed six years later. The aquarium is built mostly below-grade. Its most conspicuous component is a large glass dome—Taniguchi calls it "an abstract object"—that seems to rest on a watery plinth, which from a distance merges with the bay beyond. The visitors center is an asymmetrical, rectilinear pavilion of mullioned glass (the mullions are structural), which draws visitors inside, then down a stone-block path toward the aquarium. Restrained and formal, the visitors center frames the view; it seems peacefully to contemplate the crowds of exuberant families passing through it.

In their understated calm and their embrace of the site, the Taniguchi buildings could not be more different from the bayside colossus that is visible on the other bank of the river—Tokyo Disneyland. Disney's fairy-tale castles poke above plantings that have been carefully placed to insulate the theme park from its surroundings. "Usually, I spend a long time at the site before designing," Taniguchi says. "I stood there looking at Disneyland across the water. I saw it was completely surrounded by a row of trees. People were not shown the environment at all, so they have a fantasy world inside. Either Los Angeles or Florida or Tokyo, it has to be all the same. They don't want a sushi sign to come through the fantasy. I did the complete opposite to Disneyland. I tried to work with the site, and connect the aquarium to Tokyo Bay." Even his decision to erect a large, abstract geometric dome was intended as a contrast to Disneyland. "It gives a freedom to think, whereas Disneyland—I'm not saying good or bad, only different—in Disneyland, a castle is a castle, a mountain is a mountain." The paradoxical quality of Taniguchi's architecture is that it is forceful yet recessive, directive yet liberating. Perhaps that is the most significant similarity between the High International and the traditional Japanese styles: Without calling attention to themselves, but with a principled aversion to muddle and compromise, they create a framework for an enlightened, mindful way of life. When MoMA reopens in November, Americans will be able to judge for themselves how well this Japanese heir to the European Modernist architectural tradition has displayed an unparalleled collection of the masterpieces of modern art.

Arthur Lubow wrote about Renzo Piano for the January/February issue.