New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL)
The main concept for the design of MOA Museum of Art is to create an optimal environment to maximize the viewing experience by leveraging traditional materials and techniques enhanced with modern architectural technology.
Born in 1948 in Tokyo, Sugimoto graduated from Rikkyo University in 1970 and moved to the United States to study photography at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, then relocated to New York in 1974, where he is currently based.
Sugimoto’s exquisite photographs, taken with a large-format camera, are highly acclaimed internationally for his clear conceptual and thematic perspectives. He has received numerous awards, including Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2001) and Premium Imperiale (2009), and was accorded the Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (The Order of Arts and Letters) by French Government in 2013.
In recent years, he also works on writing and designing. In 2008, he founded New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL), an architectural design company, with architect Sakakida Tomoyuki. NMRL has undertaken many projects, including the interior design of the Izu Photo Museum (2009, Shizuoka) and London Gallery (2009, 2011, Tokyo).
A perfect space with supreme light
I wanted to see the Japanese cultural treasures at MOA Museum of Art displayed in the best possible space with the best possible lighting.
For me, that meant the same light that Ashikaga Yoshimasa saw in the Togudo at Jishō-ji Temple or that Sen no Rikyū, the tea master, saw in his Taian tea house. To achieve this kind of premodern lighting in the museum interior, I insisted on the use of premodern materials: Yakusugi cypress, black plaster and tatami. The mission I set to myself was to showcase the premodern world inside a museum, which is itself a modern invention. After considerable experimentation, I overcame all the challenges and was able to include the latest optical technology in a very discreet, behind-the-scenes manner. I transformed what is oldest inside of me into something new.
The lacquer front door by Murose Kazumi
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the origin of civilizations. Since the dawn of civilization, humankind has used its hands to craft the most marvellous treasures. But can we still create masterpieces like the old days? I'm not sure. Will the art of today be awarded National Treasure status one thousand years hence? When it comes to art, no one really knows if it advances or decays with time.
Still, I saw a glimmer of hope. Lacquering is a technique that embodied the aesthetics of the Muromachi period. This medieval tradition lives on in the hands of Living National Treasure Murose and I asked him to make the front doors for the museum. His door, while resembling the paintings of Mark Rothko and the Negoro trays of the Tōdai-ji Temple, is different from both. It glows with a sheen and color well suited to a portal that will take people away from the present and back into premodern times. The door compels visitors to focus on what awaits them.
Implementing the Design
When I started planning the renovation, I visited the sister museum Hakone Museum of Art to get to know the works of art on display and the spaces surrounding them. I tried to absorb founder Mokichi Okada’s philosophy of beauty and his words about “contributing to the elevation of culture and giving pleasure to people everywhere through beauty.” I decided that the best approach was to respect and preserve the way MOA Museum of Art presented itself. As such, the challenge I faced was to seek out an aesthetic element that was uniquely Japanese and could add a contemporary feel to the older, attractively aged parts of the museum by using Japanese materials and techniques. The idea of making display cases that resemble tokonoma (an alcove) in a traditional Japanese tatami room was inspired by the Hakone Museum of Art.
The MOA Museum of Art was constructed in 1982 and uses Indian sandstone and Japanese marble extensively. With the passage of time, the building has developed a rich texture and settled into its natural environment. We never wanted to simply replace something old with something new. Our aim was to get the museum’s new elements and existing elements to coexist symbiotically, so that the museum could be reborn and yet retain the history it has built up. We kept the Indian sandstone of the exterior walls which extends from the outdoor plaza to the indoor entrance hall, while adding contemporary elements such as the entrance door and slope, and the background of the white walls and ceiling, to create highly visible contrasts of the new versus old. To make the view over the sea off Atami from the main lobby even more attractive, we made the ceiling slope down as you get closer to the windows so that the plain white walls and ceiling form a neat frame around the sea. I planned all the important public areas—the entrance hall, the lobby, the galleries—in an integrated manner; extending to the museum shop and café area.
I configured the galleries so that the wonderful artworks in the collection could be shown to even greater advantage. I inserted black plaster walls in the middle of the gallery spaces and used low-reflection glass for the display cases. The Tea-leaf Jar with Design of Wisteria (National Treasure) is placed in a special encased area surrounded by black plaster walls to make it the focus of the visit. The addition of low-reflection walls and the dedicated room for this masterpiece breaks up the space, creating a variety of different settings and giving a sense of sequentiality to the exhibition space. With their antique cypress frames, low-reflection glass and tatami floors, the display cases we installed are designed to evoke traditional toko alcoves. Another highlight is the display cases with Yakusugi cypress boards incorporated into the seismic isolation bases. In another exhibition gallery, we created a new space for contemporary art, enabling the museum to accommodate a broad range of content, from traditional Japanese art to contemporary art.
The New Material Research Laboratory which Sugimoto and I set up is founded on the idea that traditional methods and materials are actually the most innovative ones. We believe that traditional Japanese techniques, building methods, and materials should not be treated as a relic of the past but as a resource to be handed down to future generations. For the MOA Museum of Art renovation project, our main materials were Japanese conifers (Yakusugi, Gyōjasugi, Yoshino Hinoki etc.), low-fired floor tiles, plaster, mud walls and metal fittings with the patina of age—all of which play a key role in composing the space. The materials used in most contemporary buildings are focused on rational criteria so much that one loses just as much as one gains with them. Japanese conifer woods, plaster, and tiles which retain the trace of the craftsman’s hand, possess an actuality which the standardized contemporary materials do no have. Our method is to combine these old materials with contemporary touches so that the old and the present-day coexist.
Adding something new to an existing structure is always a trial-and-error experience. Our approach is to respect and to learn from the existing building and only then to design new elements for it. The ideals of the museum’s founder and the museum itself both served as valuable signposts for our redesign.
Sakakida was born in 1976 in Shiga prefecture. In 2001, he completed the master’s program at the Kyoto Institute of Technology Graduate School of Science and Technology. Following his graduation, he joined Nihon Sekkei, Inc. In 2003, he established Sakaida Tomoyuki Design Office, and in 2008, founded an architect firm, New Materials Research Laboratory, with contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi. As a partner architect of Sugimoto, he has designed many projects, including the Izu Photo Museum (2009, Shizuoka); London Gallery (2009, 2011, Tokyo); Christie’s Tokyo Office (2012, Tokyo); OAK Omotesando, Sahsya Kanetanaka (2013, Tokyo); Glass Tea House (2014, Venice); and Isetan Salone (2015, Tokyo). A class-1 registered architect, he is a director of NMRL. He so teaches at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.