In the year 1959, two Modernist museums designed by world renowned architects were erected – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in the heart of New York City and Le Corbusier’s The National Museum of Western Art in central Tokyo. Wright continued with his signature organic style although the location changed from the Midwest suburbs to Manhattan, while Le Corbusier continued his brutalist style in his only work in the far East. This essay compares their approaches to museum architecture. What role does cultural identity play in the design of such an institution? How are their ideological differences portrayed through the buildings? In what ways do the structures convey the architect’s understanding of a museum and its function? We conduct the analysis in the context of the post WWII period.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum located next to Central park holds a renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art, and features special exhibitions throughout the year. Established by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1939, it was designated as the museum of non-objective painting. The current building was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first building in New York City, designed in 1944 and built in 1956.1 The cylindrical building is wider at the top and has a unique ramped gallery that extends up in a continuous spiral along the outer edges of the building, ending just under the skylight.
Figure 1. The Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York
Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art was commissioned by the French government to house Kojiro Mastukata’s remarkable collection of western art. Mastukata (1865-1950) was a Japanese industrialist in Paris whose collection of art was first transferred to the French government and was returned Japan in 1956 under the condition that a French architect would develop the project to house these work2. The main building of the museum is Le Corbusier’s only work in the far east and one of the only three realizations of his theory – “unlimited growth museums”. The Ueno Imperial Park, in which the museum is located, is an important public space in Tokyo considered to be equivalent to the Central Park in New York.
Figure 2. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
Representing A Nation
It is important to consider the different cultural identity and location when comparing the two museums – one located in the Big apple of rising America, designed by an American, and the other in the capital of defeated Japan, designed by an European. In an interview with the New Yorker about the Guggenheim that was then still in progress, Wright claimed that with this work he had aimed to “help build an American culture” because “you cannot have a culture without an architecture”3. Wright strived to separate the building from its immediate surroundings, refusing to let the city change his organic style derived from countryside living4. Note the apparent consistency shared by American modernist artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and architects such as Wright. They were joined in the pursuit of a home-grown style that was uniquely American, an organic aesthetic that rejected industrialism.
Influenced by post-war economic development and the dissemination of ‘progressive’ western ideas, modern architecture found its way to many parts of the world around the 1960s5. However, direct uprooting and appropriation can be problematic. If an architecture had been right for Manhattan could it be right for Tokyo? In the far east, modernist prototypes are transformed to match new climates, cultures, beliefs, technologies and architectural traditions. However, the relevance of such imitations in the new context needs to be considered, in order for it not to be merely a cliché. Completed in the post WWII period, the National Museum of Western Art was dedicated as a symbol of the resumed diplomatic ties between Japan and France. The inception of the museum was not a simple plug-and-chug. The construction, architecture, and displayed content echoes its cultural and political identity – a Japanese collection of Western art housed in a western building, constructed with the help of three Japanese apprentices who developed the detailed drawings and supervising the construction. Both museum buildings act as representations of the country’s social and political status at the time. This symbolic function is acquired through the significance of their location in major metropolitan cities, the ideologies represented by their renowned architects, and the historical context in which they are commissioned in.
The Guggenheim was surely a demonstration of wright’s ideal of an ‘organic’ architecture, in which form and space were fused. The building takes the form of a cylindrical spiral that grows wider at the top. It is a combination of equilibrium and movement, with an inherent sense of growth and aspiration. The seemingly incongruent circular shape amongst the rectilinear grid of Manhattan was meant to be seen as an antidote to the visual squalor of the crowded downtown. Material wise, Wright used reinforced concrete to construct a dramatic spiral with sweeping cantilevers, and smooth textured concrete outter walls. It was as Vincent Scully observed: “so structurally suited to the form.”6 Wright’s work marked the beginning of a new type of a structure, one with a fluid design that fused separated layers that are so typical of post and beam architecture into a single form. Like Le Corbusier, Wright also made powerful use of ramps in his sequencing of space. As Etlin stated, the ramp “functions not as the preparatory agent of a mise en scene but rather as an integral component of the architectural promenade”7.Visitors could descend down the winding ramps that lead from painting to painting along the outer walls. Since the relatively intimate size of the interior grants a panoramic view of the exhibition from across, the ramp itself as well as other museum visitors become a part of the spectacle.
The National Museum of Western Art, consistent with Le Corbusier’s previous work, is based on the modular system that he invented, which rigidly follows a “scale and proportion” system. This system is omnipresent in the museum, from the structural members to the architectural details and furnishings8. The museum exemplifies a mixture of earlier principles such as the five points of new architecture and remnants of his earlier machine aesthetic, and new innovative features. Such design created a tension between well-worn formulations and new patterns of form and meaning. A result of the horrific mechanical slaughter during WWII, Le Corbusier had lost much of his previous confidence in machines and its progressive potential. At the same time, the world had also moved from his pre-war utopian ideals towards Wright’s organicist ideals. His post war commissions were seen as opportunities to advance newly formed principles – such as the introduction of new devices like beton brut (bare concrete) and the brise-soleil (the sun breaker), part of Le Corbusier’s brutalist style that he developed in his later years.
Defining the Museum
The two structures also reflect each architect’s understanding of the concept of an art museum. Paul Goldberger, a renowned critic said that, before Wright’s modernist building, “there were only two common models for museum design: Beaux-arts Palace … and the International Style Pavilion”. The Guggenheim was one of the first highly expressive and intensely personal museums. “In this sense, almost every museum of our time is a child of the Guggenheim”9. Solomon R. Guggenheim, the owner of the collection, wanted to create a suitable space for the exhibition of contemporary forms of art. Previously art works had seldom been present anywhere other than the incongruous rooms in old static buildings. So he hoped that in this innovative form of harmonious interior these new paintings would be seen for itself under the most favourable conditions.10 Indeed, Wright created a sort of ‘centre for the arts’ by including attached studios that was in harmony with non-objective art in the museum. However, Wright also saw architecture as the mother of art. This directly resulted in an undeniable shift of emphasis from the art to the building in the actual design. Features such as the outward sloping walls, the dark beige coloured walls and the lighting system of Wright’s design were all found to be at odds with some of the fundamental requirements of viewing works of art. Some argue that the deficiencies arose because of Wright’s overconfidence, however one could also argue that he did not intend to overshadow the art work; instead it was simply caused by a miscommunication between the patron and architect. Nevertheless, the museum is considered a symbolic landmark of modern art and a milestone in modern architecture.
The National Museum of Western Art, on the other hand, effectively served as a prototype for Le Corbusier’s theory, ‘museum of unlimited growth’, which was formulated in 1929 for the Mundaneum in Geneva. It was a square spiral that would eventually develop and grow according to the changing needs of each project11. Never realized in the West, it was widely discussed but also criticized as utopian. The museum built in Tokyo is closest to the original concept compared to the other two, as those in India had to be altered to adapt to local weather. The façade, almost blind with no windows, emphasizes the horizontality of the composition. In the masterplan Le Corbusier had designed, the area surrounding the museum was also included to give room for expansion. In fact, the original design did eventually evolve into a building far exceeding the original plan. Though basic elements such as weight bearing walls and columns remained, a series of comprehensive renovations, including the removal of the museum library were made to make room for further expansion and additions of side wings.
The two buildings are in some ways fundamentally different. With Wright’s building, is wholly homegrown, whereas Le Corbusier’s is a successful implementation of a Western concept in an Oriental context. Also, the Guggenheim exemplifies a fluid structure, whereas the National Museum rigidly conforms to scale and proportion. Our comparison expands into the ideologies behind each structure and the American and European Modernist Architectures that they represent. Wright’s Guggenheim was created not only to hold artwork, but also to be recognized as a work of art itself. The National Museum on the other hand is an utilitarian structure, meant to hold artwork, and could be expanded to make space for more if necessary. Yet one should not overlook the similarities. The two museums borrowed many architectural features from each other, which seems to imply a mutual inspiration. Wright used ramps, which were Le Corbusier’s signature characteristic, and the spiral form mentioned in his ‘museum of unlimited growth’. Also, the capacity for expansion in Le Corbusier’s National Museum comes close to Wright’s organic style, as the building is thought of as something that ‘grows’.