In recent times Japanese architects have increasingly gained a reputation world wide for designing some of the most interesting domestic and public spaces. The best of these designs reflect much about their culture and tradition, which is often exemplified best through a beautiful sense of understated function and simplicity. If you combine this minimalist approach with the use of the latest in modern building materials, the result is often quite spectacular. Jules and I found this to be very much the case when we visited one of the most beautiful museums in the world that sits high in the Shigaraki mountains overlooking Lake Biwa and not too far away from Kyoto.
The Miho Museum was opened in 1997 and was designed by renowned architect I.M.Pei, who’s most notable works include the glass pyramid of the Louvre in Paris and the east wing of the National Portrait Museum in Washington DC, both of which we have had the privilege of visiting. So it was only fitting that we sought out this amazing building too, although it wouldn’t be easy with the most convenient way to travel to it’s remote location being by car. So on a beautiful spring day, in the company of our licenced friends, we winded our way through a scenic mountain landscape filled with lime green spring foliage, to seek out this architectural icon.
After spotting the turn-off we arrived to find a well designed although somewhat understated building, however we quickly realised that this was not the actual museum at all, but rather a tastefully constructed ticket office. The actual museum remained hidden behind the hills and would require us to take a gentle uphill walk before the building would make its impressive reveal. The picturesque walk involved passing through a huge metal-lined tunnel carved into the mountain and exiting onto a cable bridge spanning the valley below. This combination would surely form one of the most impressive approaches to a gallery you are ever likely to see.
When the view of the museum unfolds, images of a traditional temple or teahouse come to mind, with the building settling nicely into the landscape much as they have done here for centuries. Although modernist in essence, the architect has shown respect to long held cultural traditions by creating a structure that is in total harmony with its natural environment. Upon entering we are welcomed into by a light filled interior that is reminiscent of the Louvre foyer, particularly with it’s use of warm coloured limestone walls. This, combined with the spectacular outlook, created an instant sense of wonderment that had people sitting down to simply admire this unique space. Clearly no expense had been spared in this building (reported to cost over 215 million dollars), not to mention the site itself which saw 100,000 truck loads of soil removed then put back in order to meet national park regulations.
Amazingly all of this was privately funded by Koyama Mihoko, heiress to a textiles fortune and one of the richest women in Japan, who’s dream it was to house a priceless collection of Egyptian, Roman and Asian cultural artifacts that were collected from throughout the world following one clear aquisition policy…’beauty at any cost’! However in the end, it is I.M. Pei’s building that remains the real star here. It is a perfect example of how thoughtful architecture can remain modern and functional, while still remaining in harmony with nature. This is something that appears to be rarely achieved these days, but with the Miho Museum they certainly got it right!
courtesy of the Miho Museum