As previously noted, I spent most of last December in Japan, leading a group of students and professors (from Ohio State University) on a tour from Tokyo down to Hiroshima and back. I’ve already posted my general day-by-day travelogue, and now as I continue editing my photos, I’ll be selecting a few buildings for somewhat deeper analysis. In recent months, I posted some thoughts on Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, and on the famous Ise Shrine. Today, I bring you the Okayama Orient Museum, designed by Okada Associates and constructed from 1979 to 1980.
Okayama is probably best known as the home of the Korakuen garden (one of “Japan’s top three landscape gardens” if one believes the hype), but has a handful of significant works of architecture, and is definitely worth a visit if one is in the area. We were a little rushed during our half-day in the city; I would recommend a full day at least. The architecture of Okayama is not very well documented, and the Orient Museum was a big mystery for us, added to our itinerary at the last minute, based on vague assertions that it was an award-winning design with an excellent collection of antiquities. I’m glad we stopped, because this is a little gem of a museum, an architecturally ambitious design with excellent natural light, an intriguing internal circulation system, and a keen attention to detail that supports and enhances appreciation of the museum collection – in short, it does everything you’d expect top-tier museum architecture to do, and it’s a shame it’s so rarely published and poorly documented, at least in English journals and websites.
The museum collection here consists primarily of middle-eastern antiquities, artifacts from the ancient civilizations of the fertile crescent, with the occasional object from ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. The contents of the permanent collection surely influenced the design: one way to justify the hideous exterior is to cast it as a modern-day ziggurat, the blocky forms approximating those ancient monuments. The exterior is almost purposefully hideous, clad in what appear to be dirty bathroom tiles, with few apparent windows, and little to offer the pedestrian or the city, though I suppose the lack of connection here could be explained as part of a method to control light and thus keep the antiquities well-preserved.
Thankfully, on entering the building, the Ziggurat metaphor falls away, and one is surprised and delighted by an interior space bathed in natural light, with a central atrium criss-crossed by bridges that give visitors the opportunity to view the many collected objects (and other visitors!) from various vantage points. It’s an internalized late-Brutalist world on par with Portman’s Bonaventure lobby, but at a more comfortable scale and without the relentless, dehumanizing symmetry of that project. In fact, the internal layout here is intuitively legible. The planning is clearly based on a nine-square grid with a void in the center, your typical courtyard typology. Gallery spaces pinwheel around the central hall, which is divided by an elevated walkway, clearly marking one end of the atrium as central, the other as a peripheral entrance (at the corner).
While there is no predefined path through the museum, I found myself immediately drawn up the grand staircase, towards a second-floor space bathed in natural light, which served as a kind of internalized forecourt to the upper-level galleries. From here, one could trace a figure-eight path through the upper level galleries and return without backtracking. Below, variably-scaled gallery spaces seem to expand and contract to accommodate artifacts of differing size, and one wonders if the museum design was planned with specific objects in mind.
The spatial qualities of the museum alone make this worth an extended stop, but the attention to detail is worth mentioning. Across Japan, nearly every piece of architecture is exquisitely detailed, but here the material treatment of the gallery walls are especially notable, as the rough concrete work gives way, in specific locations only, to finely-patterned reliefs that seem to echo the patterns of the objects in the permanent collection (see the first image in this post). This attention to detail reveals how deeply committed the architects were to creating an appropriate space for viewing the collection, and I expect that with further research we’d find that the curatorial team had worked hand-in-hand with the designers.
Unfortunately, details on the design process are spotty. Friend and former classmate Addison managed to find a set of drawings in a 1981 edition of Japan Architect, and the museum was well-known enough to garner awards as late as 1988 (according to the Okada Assoc. website). However, there’s precious little material in English about the design, or even about the architect, Shinichi Okada (& Assoc), who remains somewhat overlooked by canonical histories of Japanese modernism. The architect’s eclectic body of work (perhaps best seen here on the excellent but generically-named Japan Photo site) does little to help us situate the firm in an overarching meta-narrative of Japanese modernism, and without knowledge of the Japanese language and access to contemporary journals, it’s hard to know how this work was perceived in its time, and so it remains, for me, an interesting and mysterious tangent from the mainstream of Japanese architecture.
Kita-ku, Tenjin-cho 9-31
View Larger Map