Original Views

Ryue Nishizawa creates an unconventional museum for Hiroshi Senju’s paintings of nature.

Office of Ryue Nishizawa

Hiroshi Senju
Museum Karuizawa

815 Shiozawa, Nagakura,
(81) 267-46-6565

Nagano, Japan

Dropping a boxy museum into a lush green environment wouldn’t fit with Ryue Nishizawa’s approach to design. When the International Cultural College Foundation commissioned a gallery space dedicated to the work of the Japanese artist Hiroshi Senju, the architect wanted to be on the same wavelength as the artist. “Senju holds a position in the art world that belongs to the traditional Japanese style, but he is always meeting new challenges,” Nishizawa says, explaining his fascination with the renowned Nihonga-style painter, who is famous for his dramatic representations of waterfalls. “Although many of his works carry the theme of nature—which is typical of Japanese art—Senju always creates his own, original views.”

As with his innovative designs for the Towada Art Center and the Teshima Art Museum, Nishizawa (who is also a partner at the award-winning firm SANAA) has once again revolutionized museum typology with the Hiroshi Senju Museum Karuizawa. Encouraged by the artist, who insisted that his works be displayed in daylight, Nishizawa turned the conventionally closed museum box into an open playground full of light. Hidden within a lush garden, the museum has a large roof supported by glass walls that flood the space with natural light. Four organically shaped courtyards punch through the roofscape, intermingling the paintings with trees.

In addition to the unusual lighting, Nishizawa changes the museum experience with the floor: instead of leveling the site’s 11.5-foot height difference, he covered the topography with a layer of concrete, allowing the museum to “gently hug the slope.” Thought was also given to the ceiling height. The curvature of the roof is different from that of the floor, creating an ever-changing cross section that provides the flexibility needed to accommodate Senju’s variously sized artworks.

Even the manner in which the art is exhibited is unconventional. Instead of displaying a series of paintings on a long exhibition wall, Nishizawa opted to present paintings individually on a series of small, freestanding surfaces. Distributed across the curved floor, the thin concrete partitions produce short sightlines, giving visitors the opportunity to fully absorb each piece of art. Just a slight shift in focus is enough to blend the natural scenes depicted in the paintings with the gardens and greenery behind each artwork. Moving from one work to another, and contemplating each by turn, helps visitors understand the relationship between pieces. The result is a museum that seems as free as a stroll in a park, but also provides, as Nishizawa says, “a space that feels as inviting as a private living room.”

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