Re-reading Arata Isozaki: The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma

This article is the first in a series celebrating the architectural production of 2019 Pritzker Prize Laureate Arata Isozaki. We’ve been digging through the JA archives, tracing the chameleonic progression of Isozaki’s ideas over the last several decades, and are pleased to re-present some of them.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Gunma was completed in 1974, amid a backdrop of rapid Japanese economic growth and urbanization, following the media frenzies accompanying the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo ’70, and during a period when references such as the Japanese tateokoshi (a method of architectural drawing that treats all building surfaces as if they were floor plans), Sol Lewitt, and Superstudio were found in Isozaki’s writings.

Museum of Modern Art, Gunma. Isometric drawing: Arata Isozaki and Associates

The MoMA, Gunma conceptually departs from the image of cubic frames scattered about on the museum grounds’ expansive, flat lawn. Isozaki writes, in “The Metaphor of the Cube,” an essay that appeared in The Japan Architect’s March 1976 issue:

“If the sole interest is displaying works of art, merely creating a place is sufficient. The works of art are thereby given a multi-dimensional frame. The visitors to the museum too are contained within this frame. In other words, within the frame the visitors encounter the works of art, and the act of appreciating art takes place…The art museum arbitrarily “quotes” a number of movable works of art and weaves them into the context of the act of exhibiting.”

The idea of a museum constituted by inconspicuous frames, minimally interfering with the art and visitors it supports, is reinforced at multiple levels of its construction. The frames themselves, 12m to a side, are finished with a uniform thickness—resulting from the use of square aluminum panels on the exterior, as well as the general use of columns and beams that are similar in dimension—that betrays an easy understanding of how forces act upon the structure, lending it an abstract quality akin to pure geometry.

Transposition of square geometry, from floor tiles to mullion. View toward the exhibition hall for Japanese art. 

This dematerialization is further communicated in the museum’s glazing, and in its interior, where square proportions are employed in the Carrara marble of the entrance hall, the reinforced concrete’s formwork, the cubic seats, and in the floor tiles.

Isozaki posits that these transpositions between scales—from floor tiles to the structural frame— reduce the impression of the cubic framework’s weight, and instead induce a “feeling of lightness and of upward-rising freedom.” He continues, “Because of its four equal sides, the square gives very little sense of verticality or horizontality.”

Museum of Modern Art, Gunma, entrance. View toward the marble platform. 

Discrepancies are also humorously employed in the project, to instill in visitors a dizzying awareness of the comprehensive, geometric system. These manifest as “supplementary structures,” such as the reflective marble platform at the end of the MoMA, Gunma’s entrance hall. The stepped platform, resembling a stair that in reality is too large to use as such, contains an elevator for the physically disabled, a machinery room, a storage space, and an information desk. Given its awkward size and material quality, it easily becomes the focal point of all perspectival lines in the hall. “Within the symmetrically frontal frame of the cube is a twisted, upward-thrusting white mass that creates optical illusions,” Isozaki wryly writes, “since [the cube] is unstable and therefore appears rarely in nature, it is a symbol of artificiality.”

Museum of Modern Art, Gunma, entrance. Photo: Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Void below the west wing, the exhibition hall for Japanese art. 

The museum’s west wing, the exhibition hall for Japanese art, also represents a designed discrepancy. Nearly separated from the main axis of the plan, the wing projects at 22.5 degree angle:

“The bend in the axis provides a needed warp in a composition that might be rendered entirely static by the simple repetition of right angles in all spaces. In other words, this is the minimum means of supplying a deliberate agitation that has the effect of causing the entire structure to seem to rise.”

The wing is rotated 22.5 degrees from the plan's central axis. Photo: Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Isozaki’s machinic project, playful in its rigidity and contradictions, explores a certain post-modern “placeless-ness” associated with the early globalization of the 70s—one that has become increasingly familiar today. On the sprawling museum lawn, Isozaki erected a self-effacing frame that could accommodate art, and people, from just about anywhere.