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Lessons from Harvard days have served MoMA's architect well

"Architecture should speak for itself," Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect of the new Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, said last week. He was the final speaker at a press conference in MoMA's new sixth-floor galleries. Journalists from all over the world were there, in such numbers that those in the back of the hangar-sized space watched the proceedings on a live video feed.

MoMA is the architect's first project outside Japan -- but not his last. He was just awarded a commission for a Houston museum. In Japan he has designed dozens of buildings, nine museums among them. During MoMA's opening festivities over the past couple of weeks, he has been the most feted man in Manhattan, although his design has both critics and champions. The former see his austere building as an inflated version of the old MoMA. The latter see it as a fabulous showcase for art of a quality that could never be upstaged by architecture, so why try? Taniguchi's MoMA is a deferential gesture to Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock, and the other luminaries in the collections.

Architecture is in his blood -- specifically the kind of clean, pure high modernism of the old and new MoMAs. His father and grandfather were both in the profession. His father designed a palace for Japan's crown prince. And in the year that Taniguchi was born, 1937, his father designed a new home for the family. "It was all white, in the International style," Taniguchi recalled this summer while showing a visitor some of his buildings in Japan. "My father used the house as a lab, to test lighting for projects," something he does himself. "Japanese architecture is a zigzag, the opposite of Palladian symmetry," he added. "The sliding screens in Japanese houses can create layers of indirect light," the sort of lighting he also uses in museums.

What has not been noted much about him is his Harvard/Boston connection. (Also largely overlooked in the cork-popping over the MoMA is that initially, MoMA and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art were sister institutions, both with Harvard roots.)

Taniguchi came to Harvard's Graduate School of Design in the fall of 1960. "I was kind of lonely," he recalled. "A foreign student then was rare. I was the only person in the class who didn't speak English. Some students had fathers who had fought Japan in the war. That was still an issue then. I felt I was representing Japan. I felt I had to behave perfectly, but I didn't understand how.

"Our first assignment was to analyze a city called Lincoln, outside Boston," he said. "It was so beautiful there. We were supposed to study the materials, colors, and textures." Instead he returned to school with a lot of lyrical sketches, not at all what the assignment called for.

The modernist aesthetic he brought from Japan dovetailed nicely with the school's views on architecture. Taniguchi was there when Jose Lluis Sert was its dean and Walter Gropius was still a guiding spirit. During his Boston years, Taniguchi also worked at the since-liquidated architecture firm Perry, Shaw, Hepburn & Dean, and with the Architects Collaborative in Cambridge. The standard book on the collaborative refers to him as an architect there, "but I was really just a student model maker," he said.

Taniguchi has that rarest trait among architects: modesty, to the extent that he's proud of the autographs he's collected from famous artists -- Christo, David Hockney, and many more -- who have exhibited in his museums in Japan.

Before coming to Harvard, he studied engineering, not architecture, and so he had to learn both the field and the English language. "I had to take architectural history to learn to describe the differences between Greek and Roman architecture in 15 minutes," he recalled. "There was no Japanese architecture being taught."

After his return to Japan in the mid-'60s, his ties to the Graduate School of Design remained strong. He conducted a special tour of MoMA for the school last week; he's still in touch with his classmates and with Boston friends including Peter Grilli, the director of the Japan Society. "It's the oldest Japan Society in America," Taniguchi points out with pride.

The initial awkwardness he felt at Harvard, the gap between two dramatically different cultures, has been smoothed over. "I don't think about East and West," he said. "Which is better, chopsticks or knife? Some people expect me to add something Japanese to MoMA. But that's not because I try to. It's because I'm Japanese."

Anyone who has seen his museums in Japan and talked to him about the designs knows that he had more leeway there than in New York in terms of integrating architecture, art, and the surrounding city. (MoMA curators aren't big on sharing control of their installations.) In Japan, he's also designed gardens and even furniture on occasion.

Some of Taniguchi's Japanese buildings have calm, expansive pools of water in front of them: They almost seem to float. Others have exterior walls with curtains of cascading water. All have views made possible by designs with windows and balconies where you'd least expect them.

Unlike MoMA, his Japanese museums aren't squeezed into a city block. The Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, in the city of Marugame, has a grand staircase that reaches invitingly to a plaza in front of the building and takes people up through a courtyard, then down to the next street over. "It's a shortcut in the city that gets people involved in the museum as pedestrians," he said, "then perhaps as participants."

He has been able to use the same strategy at MoMA, opening up a new entrance on 54th Street. The lobby provides free public access between 53d Street and 54th. Surely some of the people using the space as a pass-through will eventually want to explore the museum itself. He also wanted to open MoMA's famous sculpture garden to the street, which the museum vetoed. "They said they want to keep it serene," said the master of architectural serenity.

Taniguchi's work habits are positively medieval compared to the current norm in the West: huge office/studios filled by hundreds of architects peering at computer screens. Taniguchi's Tokyo office is tiny, and his employees number 13 or 14. Also, "I don't like to use computers to design," he said. "I start by sketching."

He thinks about his buildings around the clock. "Architecture is my leisure activity," he said. "We don't have children, so I spend time with my wife, more than the usual Japanese husband. And I play golf."

And what buildings does he admire in Boston? At the top of his list is City Hall, designed by Kallman, McKinnell, and Knowles in the 1960s, during Taniguchi's Boston sojourn. He called it "very strong, influential architecture that relates to public spaces."

When told that a sizable portion of the Boston public dislikes the building, regarding it as cold, clunky, and out of scale with its surroundings, he is surprised. His reaction could apply to his own new MoMA building as well. In Japan, months before the New York opening, he anticipated controversy over the design, which runs counter to the current flashiness of museum buildings. "Architecture now is so loud," he said. "I want to be quiet."

On the other hand, "controversy means people are talking about something," he said. "That's the way architecture survives -- through strength and discussion."

Christine Temin's Perspectives column runs on Wednesdays.

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