Designing Mito, Part 2
Introduction to the Contemporary Art Gallery -- by Arata Isozaki
Quarterly Mito Geijutsu-kan No. 2, Winter 1989

1-6-8 Goken-cho, Mito-shi, Ibaraki-ken, 310-0063 Japan
Mail to:
Phone: (029)227-8111 / Fax: (029)227-8110

This [installment of my essay series] will explain the organization and layout of the space in the art gallery at Art Tower Mito. I will give a personal tour of the complex, as it were, describing the studies made and specific work carried out in the process of producing each architectural detail.

From the Entrance Hall to the Basement

As you enter Art Tower Mito, the first room you pass through is the lobby that is shared by the separate parts of the complex (Fig. 1, left of G). While this room is called the "entrance hall" or "entrance lobby," indicating its basic function as a lobby, it also contains a pipe organ, which allows it to be used occasionally for organ performances and other concerts. It also contains the reception desk, information center, and other similar functions. Adjoining the entrance hall is the museum shop, and on the other side (a little ways back) is a coffee shop.

Anyway, it is a good idea to get one's bearings after entering the entrance hall. To reach the art gallery, first walk in the direction of the concert hall, then climb a small set of stairs, which brings you to the concert hall lobby. There you will see ATM's permanent collection on display. The same space is meant to serve both as an exhibition space and as a lobby into the concert hall, giving it a double role. The shared use of a single space can be found frequently throughout the ATM complex, and in the case of the art gallery, this was done with the concert hall lobby.

After passing through that space, you climb up to the second floor to reach the art gallery proper. The main section is divided into four independent galleries, each connected by a low-ceilinged gallery that is a bit narrower. That means that there are two types of gallery rooms, resulting in a series of rooms shown as A through G in Fig. 1 (for want of a better name). Room G corresponds with the lobby. From there the normal course taken by visitors through the galleries is the reverse alphabetical order - i.e., Galleries E, D, C, B, A - after which they pass through Gallery I back to Gallery F, winding up in Gallery H.

Since I thought that gallery visitors would have a boring spatial experience if all the rooms were designed the same way, I gave each gallery different lighting conditions, size, and height-width ratio. I wanted to give the visitors a worthwhile spatial experience - separate from their impressions of the art objects - as they walked through each room.

Not counting Gallery G, the total wall length available for exhibiting works in the Contemporary Art Gallery is some 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet), allowing for fairly large-scale projects to be organized. Moreover, I believe that it is suitable for developing unique exhibitions that take advantage of the different room types and/or the mutual interaction between rooms.

Meanwhile, Gallery H lies along part of the second floor of the entrance hall, and is just the right size for holding small-scale independent or private exhibitions, just like a small art gallery in town. That means that it is possible to have an exhibition always going on somewhere within the Art Tower Mito complex, be it a small exhibition or a permanent one.

Besides the exhibition area, the art gallery offers two other functions on the same floor. The first is a workshop, letting Mito citizens participate in actual training in arts and crafts classes - sort of a studio where artists can actually produce works of art. For that reason, I have given this room outside access independent of the gallery entrance.

The second additional function of the art museum on the second floor is the sculpture terrace lying outside. The nature of the terrace does not permit the placement of a large number of sculptures, but it should be strong enough to enable exhibitions of a certain scale, such as a private exhibition of an individual sculptor's works. In the longer run I would like to convert half of the terrace into a lawn, and make it possible to put on open-air sculpture exhibitions when the need calls.

The main feature of the art gallery at Art Tower Mito, then, is its capability to hold various exhibitions simultaneously - a modestly scaled exhibition, a sculpture show, a one-person exhibition, and so forth. Besides the areas described above, there is also an assortment of rooms on the first floor of the complex that serve in a supporting function: the general office, the art committee office, the curator's office, and the loading ramp off Omachi Street. Objects transported by trucks to Art Tower Mito are unloaded through the ramp, then brought to the basement by a cargo elevator, where they are unpacked and sorted; finally, they are carried up to the exhibition room or into storage.

The basement also contains a reading/materials room with books and other materials, intended as a workroom for art committee members. The storage room, which lies opposite the cargo elevator door, has intentionally been made quite large for the purpose of future [expansion] of the museum's holdings.

The layout of Art Tower Mito's gallery-related facilities, then, include three different types of rooms (Figs. 2, 3): the gallery proper on the second floor, the supporting offices on the first floor, and the workroom, reading/materials room, and storage room in the basement.

Floor, Walls, Ceiling, Light

Before discussing the distinctive characteristics of Art Tower Mito, let me cite what I feel have been some of the problems with Japanese museums so far. First, the size of most exhibition rooms seems relatively vague - the idea being that they can just be partitioned off as necessary - making one wonder exactly what sort of exhibitions were intended to be held there in the first place. Second, most art museums have been designed in a way that completely shuts out natural light, out of the fear that the UV rays in light would cause old art works to fade.

But when people from abroad - particularly art specialists - visit Japanese museums, they are united in their opinion that while the museums themselves may be beautiful, the rooms are gloomy and depressing. The first reason cited is that they are dim, owing to the lack of natural light. The second reason for the gloominess is the low ceiling height, making it impossible to get a sense of the space. Low ceilings would not necessarily bestow a cramped sense if only the proportions of the rooms were well thought out, but that is not the case in Japan. In other words, the main criticism concerning the gloominess of Japanese museums is the fact that the galleries have not been designed as comfortable architectural spaces.

Another criticism leveled at Japanese art museums is the fact that too many architectural ornaments or decorations have been allowed to infiltrate into the gallery space itself. That includes fancy floor patterns and strangely-shaped windows in the wall, as well as the use of unusual colors. Many museums have dressed stone walls, too - which I believe to be the result of a strenuous, misguided effort to turn art museums into art objects themselves - but most of the time they end up looking too "busy." In other words, not only are Japanese museums gloomy, but in their eagerness to become art objects themselves, their "busyness" diverts attention away from the appreciation of the paintings or sculptures at hand. Japanese museum design is distracting, and disturbs [the art-viewing process].

When designing the art gallery at Art Tower Mito, in contrast, we believed that it ought to serve as the backdrop to the display of art objects, and not make its own statement of shape or color (on the inside, at least - seen from the outside, the building complex as a whole makes a very strong [architectural] statement). If anything, we have played down such forms of expression, instead giving people an architectural experience from the light, proportion and size of the rooms - namely, the feeling of height, verticality or horizontality. By restricting the architectural experience to those elements, our goal was to keep the specific [architectural] details from coming into people's attention.

We decided to install wooden floors in the art gallery at Art Tower Mito, using hardwood so the floors would be able to support any object, including heavy sculptures. In addition, we decided not to put patterns in the floors, choosing instead a kind of wood whose color was more or less similar, without any unusual grain, thus presenting a single uniform surface.

As for the walls, the surfaces are all painted completely white, making them what is architecturally known as "dry walls" (or commonly known as plasterboard). The walls have a double layer - behind the thick plasterboard is manmade wood, allowing nails to be pounded in. The holes left by the nails are filled back later, necessitating a bit of maintenance.

The wall material was selected after extensive studies were made of what kind of wall galleries and art museums around the world thought was the best over many years of use. Since most of the projects exhibited by the Contemporary Art Gallery at Art Tower Mito probably require a total reassembly of the installations each time, the gallery space will become an extremely active one, producing an awful lot of nail holes that need filling in and repainting. To realize that, this method has been found to be the best in the world - both in terms of maintenance and appearance - having taken root in the past ten or 15 years. Also, if certain exhibitions call for darker walls, that can by done by painting the wall over in dark paint. I hope that the walls will be viewed as freely repaintable - even in pink, if a certain exhibition calls for it. I chose this material for the wall because I want the space to be able to display new, freshly minted art.

The next question - which lighting is most suitable for such a space - becomes quite problematic. As I said at the beginning, lighting is the most important factor in determining the mood of a room, so I wanted to enable visitors to experience a kind of rhythm in their bodies just by passing through naturally lit and artificially lit rooms in progression. What I call Gallery C is shaped like a pyramid, with dimensions of 9.5 meters (31 ft. 2 in.) long and 5.4 meters (17 ft. 9 in.) high. Since a building two stories tall would have about the same height, Gallery C can be used to hang giant works. At the tip of the slanted, pyramid-shaped ceiling is an opening through which natural light is allowed to pass. Of course, the width is longer than the length when viewed in cross-section, with the pyramid standing at a little less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. That gives visitors to the room the sudden impression of being in a tall vertical tower, with light streaming in overhead. This is the first of the room types used in the gallery.

The second type of room, then, is used in Galleries A and E. Employed here is the typical rectangular hip roof [sloping edges and sides], with natural light again allowed through the top (Photo 1). The skylights in both rooms can be closed using blinds or rolling screens. The size of the two galleries is 9.0 meters (29 ft. 6 in.) wide and 19.0 meters (62 ft. 4 in.) long, with the walls measuring 3.6 meters (11 ft. 10 in.) high. Thanks to the height, the rooms are imparted with a spacious feeling, and the ratio of the length and width [slightly more than 2:1] is balanced well, lending them a sense of stability. Basically, the plans of Galleries A and E are doubled squares.

Between Galleries A and E lie Galleries B, D and I. Each of these rooms features a slightly low ceiling, with 3.0 meters (9 ft. 8 in.) of wall space available for display. The ceilings are not designed to let in natural light, as the rooms are intended for exhibiting works of art that are affected poorly by light, such as prints and sketches on paper. Those kinds of works are best seen in lower-ceilinged rooms anyway, with the level of sight set lower. The wall space should be sufficient for showing most works of art.

At any rate, the different designs utilized in the gallery rooms offer variation. For example, linked together are such different types of rooms as Gallery I, which is extremely long, Gallery C with its stress on verticality, and Gallery E, which is quite regular in shape.

The next problem that arises is how to handle the natural light that is let in. Here I made different models to simulate how light would enter the rooms [at different angles] throughout the day, testing the differences in the distribution of light within each of the galleries. We have sandwiched the glass with a UV-blocking plastic fiber sheet made by a company in Germany, allowing us to adjust the amount of light let in the rooms. The different thicknesses allow us to control the amount of light as necessary. This is the first time such a material has been used in an art museum in Japan - actually, I had looked for it when designing MOCA in Los Angeles, and found it to be extremely effective, so decided to use it here in Japan for the first time.

The quality of the light coming from artificial lighting is another problem that always pops up. While various types of fluorescent lights have been developed that claim to be no different from natural light, I always find them all to be bluish and greenish, a fact that is borne out by photographs taken under such lighting, which all have a greenish tinge to them. That means that the colors of paintings and pictures under artificial lighting obviously fail to look lifelike, so I decided not to use it.

For ambient lighting - that is, the lighting used for the entire room as opposed to the spotlight used to illuminate specific works - I used a level of 150 lux. Any more than that and prints and the like would suffer, while there are instances when a weaker level is desirable. In cases where more light is needed, then, I have arranged silica-based spot lighting. That, along with my [ambient lighting] base of 150 lux, provides sufficient lighting for the art gallery at Art Tower Mito.

Art Museums and Myself

I'd like to add a little comment about my involvement with art museum architecture so far. In Japan, I have designed two medium-scale museums, one prefectural and the other municipal. The first one is the Gunma Prefecture Modern Art Museum, and the second is the Kitakyushu City Art Museum. I also handled two smaller-scale projects: the Okanoyama Art Museum, which displays the works of Tadanori Yokoo, and the recently opened [1988] Hara Museum ARC in Shibusawa City, which primarily operates in the summer resort season. Altogether I have thus been involved in the design of four art museums in Japan.

Outside Japan, I designed the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, which opened three years ago [1986]. An ongoing project is the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, which is a giant, all-encompassing museum that includes sections stretching all the way from Egyptian to modern art. At my present pace of work, I probably won't be finished with that project until the next century, although a fairly large portion ought to be completed as the first phase in the next few years.

HOME Concerts Tickets
Information Drama/Dance Membership

Exhibitions Special Essay
Designing Mito Introduction to the Theatre Introduction to the Hall

Copyright 1998 ART TOWER MITO. All Rights Reserved. Created by TK.
Mail to: