I had been told it would be a harvest moon when I was in Kyoto, but somehow, I forgot about that. What I noticed was the sun setting over the city, igniting the hair of laughing schoolchildren, spreading honeyed warmth over the walls of the Kiyomizu temple, on the hill overlooking the city.
“The sun never knew how wonderful it was,” said Louis Kahn, the great modernist architect, “until it fell on the wall of a building.” It was easy, that afternoon, to see what he meant.
But then the sun vanished, and Kyoto was cast in shadow.
I had come to Japan to see architecture. Specifically, Japanese museum architecture. I wanted to find out if Japan’s celebrated contemporary architects — seven Pritzker Prize winners since 1987, four in the past five years — were merely unusually adept at mastering an international design idiom, or if there was something uniquely Japanese about the way they worked — and specifically, about the ways they addressed the challenges of building art museums.
Having seen some of their buildings in the US, I wanted to see their work in the context of Japan’s native aesthetic traditions and distinctive landscape.
With barely a week up my sleeve, I knew that my impressions would be absurdly superficial. I reassured myself with the thought that sometimes our minds are more susceptible when we don’t know things — when we are operating, as it were, in the dark.
My timing was good. A new building had just opened at the Kyoto National Museum, one of Japan’s four great national institutions, and home to a ravishing collection of Japanese art. It was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, the much-admired architect now in his late 70s. Taniguchi studied at Harvard, and worked briefly in the US for the Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius. He designed the beautiful Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, an uncannily calming annex to the National Museum in Tokyo. He was responsible, more recently, for the major 2004 renovation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I also wanted to see the island settlement of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, where another of Japan’s world-famous architects, Tadao Ando, has built an extraordinary series of museums over two decades.
Ando has also designed museums in the US — most recently in the Berkshires, where he revamped the campus of the Clark Art Institute. But unlike Taniguchi, who is all nuanced minimalism and understated elegance, Ando is easy to dislike. His preference for unadorned concrete and long, relentlessly straight walls can seem fanatically severe and unyielding, his buildings like an ultra-modernist dream turned dismal, ruinous nightmare.
But you can’t really comprehend Ando, or so I’d been told, until you see what he has done at Naoshima, where he has added a new building every few years since 1992. These projects have been commissioned by Soichiro Fukutake, the head of a publishing company his father established and the founder, in 2004, of the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation.
Fukutake got to know the islands of the Seto Inland Sea after his father’s sudden death in 1986. He moved from Tokyo to the company’s headquarters in nearby Okayama, and fell in love with the area. He came to see it as a potential antidote to Tokyo, which had begun to seem to him “a monstrous place,” as recounted in “Insular Insight,” an anthology published in 2011 — a competitive, neon-lit, over-stimulated dystopia, where children are neglected and denied access to nature.
Of course, many foreigners who harbor similar feelings about Tokyo, by far the world’s most populous city, sentimentalize an old idea: the Japan of the tea ceremony, the Samurai code, the Floating World, and so on.
Interestingly, however, instead of seeking solace in this mythical Old Japan, Fukutake, in his own small bid to heal modernity’s ills, turned to international contemporary art and to an aggressive, ultra-modern architect, Ando.
There’s no doubt that he and Ando have created something special at Naoshima — something simultaneously of its time and weirdly timeless. In the process, they have transformed the island into a destination for lovers of art and architecture.
Do we not need to acknowledge that, to thrive, art and the aesthetic faculty demand shadows, as Tanizaki suggests, and obstruction, as the concept of ‘oku’ implies?
Fukutake’s story put me in mind of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, who, a century earlier, had established her museum in the Fenway with similar ideals. Gardner was the daughter of a wealthy businessman. And yet, like many of the biggest beneficiaries of modern commerce (and like many of her literary and artistic friends, including Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese author of “The Book of Tea”), Gardner was appalled by the ways in which the rush to modernize was transforming Boston, degrading the health and spiritual lives of its inhabitants.
Gardner was also in mourning. She had lost her infant son (to pneumonia) in 1865, her father, in 1891, and her husband in 1898. She had been to Japan, and her developing ideas for a museum dovetailed in fascinating ways with aspects of the Japan craze sweeping Europe and America (and especially Boston) at the time.
That craze had a strong spiritual component. New England’s cultural and religious leaders found in Japanese Buddhism, and in the aesthetics of Old Japan, promising alternatives to the ills that ailed the modern West.
Gardner’s museum — layered, cloistered, holding darkness and light in dynamic counterpoise — was designed as an antidote to the waves of modernity washing over American cities. It was to be a sanctuary, a retreat, a place of aesthetic elevation and spiritual consolation.
Anyone who has been to the Gardner knows that Fenway Court, as she dubbed it, is also the opposite of most modern art museums, where an ideal of maximum illumination and transparency holds sway. Gardner’s museum, by contrast, is opaque from the outside and, as often as not, dismayingly dark inside.
It can also be disorienting. Works of art are bundled in with furniture and decorations, and the galleries offer no clear interpretative order. Its former curator, Alan Chong, compared the experience of visiting the museum to the shifting points of view in the late novels of Gardner’s friend Henry James.
But of course, all this “confusion” is a part not just of the “charm” of the place, but also of Gardner’s special intention for it. She wanted to induce a certain susceptibility in the viewer. Fired by the thinking of writers like Walter Pater, who wrote with such passionate intensity on the Renaissance, she wanted to charge her museum with the kind of mystery and poetry that are, in most cases, conspicuous by their absence from most modern museums. Darkness and shadows were part of her arsenal.
On the flight over to Japan, I had started reading “In Praise of Shadows,” a well-known 1933 essay by Junichiro Tanizaki (a Japanese writer often compared to Pater). I finished it curled up in my room at the Hotel Okura, a 1960s modernist gem in Tokyo designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi (Yoshio’s father). Outside, the city was being lashed by typhoon Phanfone.
“In Praise of Shadows” is only partly about architecture, but it does have a lot to say about the relationship between building and light in Japan. Tanizaki contrasts the Western notion of an ideal architecture — strongly vertical, brightly lit — with the Japanese ideal: horizontal, recessed, penumbral. Where the roof of a Western house, he says, “is no more than a cap,” designed to create as few shadows as possible, a traditional Japanese roof is like a “parasol,” with deep eaves creating dark shadows.
This basic difference, he claims, forced the Japanese people to learn to discover beauty in shadows (since “beauty must always grow from the realities of life”).
Tanizaki describes how light from a garden in a traditional Japanese building might enter in through paper-paneled doors. He goes into raptures about the darkness of a building’s innermost rooms, where certain objects made from gold and lacquer will take on a special gleam. And he notes, in a passage that brought to my mind the feeling of being in the Gardner Museum on a winter’s afternoon, “the experience, on a visit to one of the great temples of Kyoto or Nara,” of being shown a treasured scroll in a dark alcove, and having to take it on trust that the all-but-invisible brush strokes are part of a magnificent painting.
“Yet the combination of that blurred old painting and the dark alcove is one of absolute harmony,” writes Tanizaki. “The lack of clarity, far from disturbing us, seems rather to suit the painting perfectly.”
In the new Japan, Tanizaki complains, people are so “benumbed by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.” He wrote that in 1933. What would he have made of Tokyo’s Ginza or Shinjuku districts today?
Tanizaki’s paean to shadows chimes with a concept in traditional Japanese architecture called “oku.” The term describes a psychological and emotional experience triggered by one’s approach to deep, inner space. It is about the ways in which you are led on, and led inward, by the choreographing of spatial layers, and the obstructing intervals between those layers.
Light, of course, plays a vital role in this choreography, because it is hard for light to reach into depth, unless the architect deliberately opens out internal spaces to the outside.
That’s what Gardner did at Fenway Court, and it’s what Tadao Ando does in many of his buildings. But unlike the ideal modern building, where light penetrates everywhere, both Ando and Gardner designed spaces in which darkness played just as vital and animating a role as light.
You can make the connection between oku and layers of privacy, layers of intimacy. The concept implies something innermost and inaccessible, something potentially profound, and it suggests a charged distance, heightened by impediments, between you and that profound intimacy. (As I write that, it seems clear to me that oku is also fundamentally erotic.)
All of this is obviously in opposition to the modern Western notion of transparency: an explicit ideal not just in modern architecture but in the political and corporate spheres, as well, about getting rid of obstacles, getting rid of darkness, making all things visible. It hinges on the idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant, while corruption and evil thrive in the shadows.
It finds its forms, architecturally, in the transparent buildings of Italy’s Renzo Piano (who designed the Gardner Museum’s extension and, most recently, the new Harvard Art Museums): clean, rational, light-filled, and with its viscera, wherever possible, on display. It reaches its apogee in the ubiquitous Apple Store (designed by the American firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson), itself a variant on Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.
Transparency as a social ideal makes sense. Light is beneficent. But do we not need to acknowledge that, in order to thrive, art and the aesthetic faculty also demand shadows, as Tanizaki suggests, and even obstruction, as oku implies?
There are, of course, very practical, non-aesthetic reasons for art museums to embrace darkness. Art works, especially Asian masterpieces, can be easily damaged by bright light, and particularly sunlight.
Yoshio Taniguchi, who ostensibly is a classic light-loving modernist, has nevertheless shown what a master of darkness he is in his wonderful new Kyoto National Museum building. Most of the galleries are dark, as they are required to be, none more so than the large inner gallery holding superb 11th- and 12th-century Buddhist sculptures.
But you reach them by following a carefully choreographed path that, using translucent screens and unexpected openings between different levels, calibrates the passage from light into darkness and back again with tremendous sensitivity.
At Naoshima, in the various museums designed by Ando, Taniguchi’s rationalism is jettisoned in favor of a take on oku that is highly dramatized, irrational, and deliberately labyrinthine. Ando’s masterpiece on Naoshima is the Chichu Art Museum, which Ando has constructed into a hill, so that the museum is almost entirely underground. Nevertheless, light is let in from above, and the handful of works on display (six late waterlily paintings by Claude Monet; two light installations by James Turrell) are very much about light.
High concrete-walled courtyards and other apertures let in strong light. But Ando’s control is absolute, and one’s passage from light into dark and back out again is deliberately disorienting.
It’s also weirdly thrilling. I came to Naoshima with a bias against Ando. His concrete obsession is so often alienating: no color, no patterning, little softness or yielding. His insistence on controlling circulation within his buildings, and even on the approach to them, can make you feel herded, bullied.
But there’s no doubt that in Ando’s best buildings, and especially in the Chichu museum, the feeling he creates is powerful, disturbing, and deeply suggestive, in ways that have everything to do with oku, and with the irrational power of shadows.
Back in Kyoto, the shadows had lengthened as the crowds walked down from the Kiyomizu temple, past shops selling fans and kimonos and green tea ice cream. The sun had set by the time I found myself wandering through the famous lanes of the old city, Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka.
And then, as I crossed the Kamo River, I remembered the moon. What initially made me look up was the sight of hundreds of people standing on the bridge, and lining the banks on the far side, by the old Geisha district.
Many were holding up cellphones and taking photos. But many more were simply gazing in silence. They were spellbound, and not just, I now realized, by the full moon. Rather, they were watching the shadow that slowly moved across it, advancing imperceptibly, eclipsing the light.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.