Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Museum in Harmony with Nature

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

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Art Right Under Your Feet

This is a blog article that Jules has been ribbing me about for quite a while, but it has to be said that Japan simply has the best manhole covers in the world! Now, I know that might sound a bit ‘nerdy’ to Jules and to others, but as a Visual Arts teacher you come to appreciate all sorts of interesting forms of street art, in whatever form it may take. For such normally drab and utilitarian objects, here in Japan they are always beautifully creative and can be viewed no matter where you find yourself within the country.

Often as we walk the streets, I will take the time to stop and photograph some of the more interesting designs. After all, there are said to be over 6000 different images throughout the country that include a wide range of popular motifs based upon the Japanese love for landscapes, nature, local landmarks and festivals. The designs themselves vary considerably depending upon the prefecture in which they are found, but they are always highly intricate and stylized designs. Quite often the covers are painted in detailed colours, but they are equally impressive as relief images in their raw metallic state.

Apparently all this attention to manhole covers came about in the 1980’s when the national construction ministry decided to hand over responsibility to local municipalities for what was seen as an insignificant form of city infrastructure. This somehow sparked the competitive nature of rival towns, encouraging them to create the most distinctive design to represent their area. What ensued was a series of contests, which encouraged communities to develop more and more creative images. Today these humble metal manhole covers have attracted international attention, particularly from those who are referred to as ‘Drainspotters’, who often trek across the country to seek them out and of course photograph them. Indeed if you search Google you will find an increasing number of sites that pay tribute to the Japanese manhole cover in extensive detail…ie

So if you do happen to step foot in Japan, remember to take look at what is happening on the streets. Great art isn’t always to be found in galleries, but can often be discovered in the most unlikely of places. While exhibitions will come and go, I’m sure that this form of art will be around for a good many years to come. The humble manhole cover, as seen on most local streets, remains yet another one of those quirky artifacts of modern Japan. Although remaining functional, they continue to reflect a certain attention to civic detail, but more importantly an artistic sensitivity to an object that is so often overlooked in most other countries. Sure, it may sound a bit ‘nerdy’, but the manholes here do certainly grab your attention and are quite impressive. I guess it’s like viewing any form of art; it’s all about the search and discovery of something new… even if it is to be found just below your feet!