The National Museum of Western Art was built in 1959. The architect of the main building is Le Corbusier. The museum was created for the Matsukata Collection, a collection of French art with impressionist paintings and sculptures by Rodin. The financier Kojiro Matsukata started collecting in 1905 and added pieces until after World War II. Now the museum displays a wide selection of western art. In 2016, the museum was designated a UNESCO World Heritage as one of the sites listed as “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”.
1. History of the National Museum of Western Art
The National Museum of Western Art was established to house and display the Matsukata Collection, named after shipbuilding magnate and art collector Matsukata Kojiro (1866–1950). Educated in the United States, Kojiro was the son of Matsukata Masayoshi (1835–1924), aristocrat and one-time prime minister. Kojiro went on to make a fortune as president of the Kawasaki Dockyard corporation, which benefited from the highly lucrative business of building ships for the Japanese navy during World War I (1914–1918). Kawasaki expanded aggressively in these years, opting to produce ready-made ships for sale instead of waiting for buyers to place orders. This strategy and the proactive sales efforts it required brought Matsukata to London in 1916, where he began to collect art.
A businessman and patriot, Matsukata was not interested in art for art’s sake. Instead, he wanted to take advantage of his wealth to compile a collection that could be displayed in Japan for the benefit of Japanese artists and connoisseurs. This ambition can be understood in the context of Japanese efforts in his time to “catch up” with the West in all spheres, including the military, economic, and cultural. Matsukata ventured that establishing a museum of Western art would help his countrymen “understand the psychology of the Western peoples.”
Between 1916 and 1926, Matsukata’s collection swelled to more than 10,000 works of art, including a diverse selection of European oil paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and furniture as well as around 8,000 ukiyo-e prints, which had been acquired by foreign buyers and taken out of the country in the latter half of the 1800s. Matsukata stored much of his vast trove in London and Paris due to the prohibitively high costs of shipping the art to Japan, but did not give up on his vision of eventually establishing a museum.
That dream, however, seemingly died in 1927, when a financial crisis toppled the Jugo Bank, Kawasaki Dockyard’s largest creditor. To save the company, Matsukata had to put up most of his personal assets, including his art, as collateral. The Matsukata Collection was dispersed: the artworks kept in Japan were sold off one after the other, while those in London were lost in a fire in 1939. The approximately 400 pieces that remained in France survived World War II, but were seized as “enemy property” by the French government before the end of the war.
In the early 1950s, negotiations were initiated between the Japanese and French governments for the return of the Matsukata Collection. The two sides eventually reached a deal, with the French agreeing to send most of the artworks to Japan in exchange for a promise that a museum be built to house them. This pledge led to the 1959 opening of the National Museum of Western Art, and the belated realization of Matsukata Kojiro’s dream.
2. The National Museum of Western Art and World Heritage Status
The National Museum of Western Art became a World Heritage site in 2016, when it was included as part of a transnational designation made up of 17 sites across seven countries. Called “the Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement,” this inscription highlights buildings designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965). A pioneer of Modernist architecture, Le Corbusier developed a variety of innovative concepts and techniques in response to the social challenges of his time. He argued for standardized, “human-sized” buildings in which function comes before appearance, breaking with the classical focus on aesthetics in favor of minimal, “rational” designs, and uniting architecture with urban planning to design entire cities, such as Chandigarh in northern India.
Le Corbusier incorporated several of his groundbreaking ideas into the National Museum of Western Art, which opened in 1959. Its architectural characteristics and appearance have been preserved nearly unchanged since then, prompting the French government to recommend the museum building for World Heritage status as part of the Le Corbusier designation, which was first proposed to UNESCO in 2008 and approved eight years later. The building is, to the extent that is practical, maintained in accordance with Le Corbusier’s design and the original blueprints, the development of which Le Corbusier left to his Japanese protégés Maekawa Kunio (1905–1986), Sakakura Junzo (1901–1969), and Yoshizaka Takamasa (1917–1980). All three went on to have successful careers of their own, with Maekawa designing an annex for the museum in 1979, as well as two other major buildings in Ueno Park, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (1975).
3. The National Museum of Western Art Building (Le Corbusier’s Design)
The main building of the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) was designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965). A pioneer of Modernism, a school of thought that emerged in the early 1900s and came to dominate architectural thinking after World War II, Le Corbusier argued for standardized, “human-sized” buildings in which function comes before appearance. Several of his key ideas are reflected in the NMWA, which was completed in 1959.
Standing on columns
Seen from afar, the NMWA looks like a giant concrete matchbox raised above the ground on pillars. The pillars carry the weight of the structure, supporting its floors and allowing for a degree of freedom in the placement of both the interior and exterior walls. This distinctive solution, which Le Corbusier called pilotis, is a core feature in many of the architect’s buildings and clearly noticeable when visiting the NMWA. While most other museums only display art in spaces free of objects that could obstruct visitors’ views, the NMWA exhibition rooms are punctured by concrete columns poured into pinewood frames, their imprint a tangible testament to Le Corbusier’s vision. The outer walls, which are supported by the pilotis and therefore not critical to the building’s structural integrity, appear flat from afar but close up can be seen to be composed of replaceable panels embedded with jade stones.
The modulor, a scale of proportions based on the human body, is another of Le Corbusier’s ideas that is employed throughout the NMWA building. Standardized measurements extracted with this scale were used by Le Corbusier’s Japanese protégés to determine things like the height of the handrails on the museum balcony, the distance between the pilotis columns, and the dimensions of the forecourt. Le Corbusier devised the modulor system to make his buildings “human-sized,” but used a person 183 centimeters tall as his point of departure. Visitors around that height are therefore likely to find the NMWA quite comfortable, while those shorter or taller may at times find themselves having to either stand on their toes or bend over, as the case may be.
Le Corbusier’s concept of a “museum of unlimited growth” was perhaps the most ambitious idea in his NMWA design. The architect envisioned a museum that could be expanded whenever necessary, first by reordering the walls inside the exhibition rooms and later by adding rooms and entire floors to the building, which would eventually assume a pyramid-like shape around a central lobby. The NMWA incorporates several elements from this concept, such as an entrance hall in the middle, a corridor-like series of rectangular exhibition rooms that spiral upward from the hall, and movable walls in these rooms. Constructing additional floors, however, was never considered realistic. The building’s large front window is indicative of another quirk in the architect’s thinking. Le Corbusier placed great emphasis on having natural light enter his structures, but did not consider the suitability of such a solution for an art museum. Today, the NMWA severely limits the inflow of sunlight to protect the artworks on display.
4. Buildings in Ueno Park Related to Le Corbusier
The National Museum of Western Art (NMWA), a designated World Heritage site designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965), is not the only notable example of Modernist architecture in Ueno Park. In fact, as you approach the park from the direction of Ueno Station, the first building you will notice is the imposing Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a concert hall built in 1961. It is the magnum opus of Maekawa Kunio (1905–1986), who studied under Le Corbusier and was one of the three Japanese architects to whom the Frenchman delegated the hands-on design of the NMWA. Tokyo Bunka Kaikan stands directly opposite the museum building, making for easy comparison of these two concrete icons. While their column-based structures—a feature that Le Corbusier called pilotis and Maekawa incorporated in several of his buildings—are similar, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan appears both bulkier and more ornate than the somewhat modest NMWA. Maekawa’s structure features a spacious lobby, the deep blue ceiling of which is dotted with lights to signify the night sky, while the floor is decorated with a leaf-like pattern intended to bring to mind city streets in autumn.
Passing between Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the NMWA and heading further into the park, go straight and take a right at the entrance to Ueno Zoo to reach the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (TMAM). Another Maekawa design, this edifice dates back to 1975 and has a distinctive red-brown brick exterior that makes the building appear unobtrusive despite its size. Inside, distinctively Modernist features such as spiral staircases and abstract floor-tile patterns stand out, as does the placement of large sections of the galleries underground. On the whole, the TMAM feels less imposing than both the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the NMWA, perhaps suggesting that Maekawa, in his later years, came closer than his teacher to achieving the Modernist movement’s goal of designing “human-sized” buildings.
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