In Japan, incinerator becomes a work of art

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / June 20, 2004

HIROSHIMA, Japan -- ''What a dump," as Bette Davis put it.

Visitors to the Hiroshima City Naka Incineration Plant are likely to utter the famous line from ''Beyond the Forest" with an entirely different intonation, however, something like, ''What a dump!"

Hiroshima is known worldwide as the city that suffered the first atomic bomb. Ruins intentionally left in place commemorate that horrific history.

The city has just acquired a very different symbol. It needed to deal with trash in a country with little space to spare, and city authorities made the bold decision to build a monument to waste and put it on a site where people would have to take notice: over the city's main street.

To design the new facility, they chose one of the most revered architects in Japan, Yoshio Taniguchi, who gave the city one of the most immaculate buildings anywhere. No smell. No dirt. No banana peels to slip on. You can watch all facets of the process, starting when the garbage trucks unload and ending with the broken-down, burned, compacted material from which the surrounding sidewalks are made. It's the ultimate in recycling.

If Taniguchi isn't well known in the United States, that may change this fall, with the opening of the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, which he designed. It's the most high-profile museum building project of the first decade of the 21st century.

Eager museum types who want a preview have been turning up in Japan to inspect his work there: repositories of culture including the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in Tokyo, the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, the Marugame Genichiro Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art -- and of course, the dump. Thanks to Japan's super-efficient bullet train system, the Shinkansen, they're all day trips from Tokyo if you don't want to change hotels.

Consider making your base the Imperial in Tokyo, well located in the center of this immense city where the airport is a two-hour drive from downtown. (Your options are either a hotel-airport shuttle bus or a second mortgage for a cab ride.) Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Imperial, but if you read the fine print, and just look around, you'll note that his design is long gone, replaced by a generic faux Art Deco.

The Wright of myth -- the egomaniacal tyrant -- couldn't be further removed from Taniguchi, who has perfected the Japanese art of self-effacement.

''A great architect will make the architecture disappear, and leave only space and light," he says. He has designed 10 museums -- and counting -- in Japan, and while none of them overwhelms the collections as do some recent museums by star architects, they ''disappear" with a grace that all but the most insensitive souls will recognize.

A couple of buildings into the Taniguchi trail, a sense of his style emerges, along with a sense of his range and his respect for each project, whether it's housing priceless antiquities or garbage. The three-year-old Gallery of Horyuji Treasures falls into the former category. It contains fabulous Japanese Buddhist objects, many more than a millennium old. To house them, Taniguchi created a building within a building. The approach is ceremonial, on a walkway crossing two shallow pools. This outer space is all light, air, and reflections. The walls are glass and steel. There is so much of the former that you're hardly conscious of the transition from outdoors.

This building is meant for quiet contemplation, either of the elegantly tamed nature outside or the treasures locked in the interior structure, their mystery protected by thick stone walls. No natural light penetrates this space. A single entrance beckons, and in this case, the approach is dramatic. Here are magical objects in dark surroundings that protect them from the damaging effects of sun. Your eyes adjust; you notice the splendor of an eighth-century ''Kanjoban." A bronze canopy and banners once used in religious rituals, it looks like a shower of golden lace falling in the stairwell.

Beyond is a room with gold-colored walls that emphasize the preciousness of the contents: 48 small, ancient, gilt bronze Buddhist statues, each housed in its own glass case. The cases form a grid that fills the room; all the figures face forward. It's a riveting display. To avoid spoiling its drop-dead drama, Taniguchi put the labels on the sides of the cases, not the fronts, lest your eye be distracted. That kind of detail is one of his trademarks.

After the glory of the galleries and their contents, you emerge into the light again, perhaps to wonder how the museum can keep all that glass clean. It's lead-free, which means it has no greenish tinge. It's virtually invisible. It's also very high maintenance: A single fingerprint would distract your eye.

Taniguchi himself helps with the maintenance budget. He buys quantities of the elaborate Abrams-published monograph on his work at $50 each, then signs and donates them to the museum bookstore, which charges $200 for the special autographed copies. The proceeds go into a cleaning fund.

. . .

It's no surprise that Toyota City's official American sibling is Detroit. The Japanese automobile giant arrived in what was then Koromo Town in 1934. By 1959, Toyota had made the place so prosperous that it was renamed in honor of the company. In 1995, it opened the Taniguchi-designed Toyota Municipal Museum of Art -- which doesn't have a single car in it. It's a collection of modern and contemporary art, folding Japanese work into the flow, not hard to do in these days when Japan has become a major player in new, nontraditional art.

Built on a hill where an Edo Period castle once stood, the Toyota Museum is quietly luxurious and huge, a place to spend a day. There are pools, gardens, a teahouse, and galleries, including one that is all white. White walls. White art. A glass staircase makes you feel as if you're climbing on air. Surprising vistas and vantage points reveal themselves as you turn corners.

The architecture is delightfully, willfully confusing. Floors tilt upward almost imperceptibly, hinting at shifting space without shouting the news. Some walls don't extend to the floor; others don't make it to the ceiling. They seem to be deciding where to be. A courtyard is filled with freestanding mirrored rooms and panels, all reflecting each other and you, challenging your sense of space.

Despite the overall ups and downs of the Japanese economy, some areas are obviously more prosperous than others. Toyota City and its museum feel well funded. One small indication is the large number of artworks that come with free explanatory handouts with punch holes at the edges: Pick up enough of them, put them in a ring binder, and you've got a textbook on 20th-century art and a bit of 21st.

. . .

An art museum can reveal a great deal about how a city sees itself. Toyota's seems a trophy; Marugame's reads as a community center. The Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art -- a Taniguchi design that opened in 1991 -- bills itself as a ''station-front" museum - in other words, it's opposite the train station, which makes it easily accessible to all.

It is named for the painter Genichiro Inokuma, who died last year and who worked in a Western style. His art, though, is unknown to 99 percent of the Western public, despite his having spent most of his career in Paris and New York. The museum's entrance is a giant frame, like a proscenium stage, with an Inokuma mural that looks like graffiti but is actually white marble inlaid with dark stone. Its fanciful imagery includes animals, people, and a helicopter.

The museum is meant not only as a tribute to the artist, but as a multipurpose focal point for the city. The complex incorporates the city library, an auditorium, and art-making opportunities including an abundance of pencils and pads of paper for spontaneous doodling. The structure sits between two streets linked by a pair of grand outdoor staircases, making it a convenient, high-traffic pass-through even for people who aren't visiting the galleries. The hope, though, is that pedestrians will turn into participants.

The main gallery is vast, with 22-foot ceilings. The space has lured internationally prominent artists including Marina Abramovic, David Hockney, and Christo, all of whom have had shows in this very off-the-beaten-track place.

Just down the road from the bustling Marugame there will soon be another Taniguchi-designed museum devoted to a single artist, Kau Higaya, who died five years ago. Now a construction site, it will be a narrow building, stretched along the Inland Sea, with a view of the island where the artist was born.

. . .

The ''not in my backyard" attitude toward dumps exists worldwide, with a few ingenious exceptions: The artist-designed waste facility in Phoenix is one, a destination in itself even if you have nothing to throw out.

City authorities in Hiroshima, a rather left-wing crew, also wanted a dump that would be an attention-grabber. They got it. Its grandeur and scale are cathedral-like.

In its center at street level is a pass-through that offers a view of the sea: Think Arc de Triomphe. One flight above is a giant corridor that you can walk through to reach the water, so clean that it has an abundance of edible fish. The building's message is that garbage is not only part of life, but an interesting part that deserves our attention. So the trash transformation is completely visible. Visitors watch it through huge glass walls. A touch-screen system in both Japanese and English explains every bit of the process; a timeline chronicles the history of garbage in the city. In the ''Refuse Pit," giant claw-like machines lift and aerate the trash, so it will burn better. The process is mesmerizing, something out of science fiction.

Everything here is silver colored, from the building's corrugated stainless steel skin to the weathered wood floors. A garbage truck cut in half is one of the opening exhibits. The message, that trash deserves our attention and thought, is so elegantly played out by Taniguchi that it is easy to imagine adventurous souls signing up to use the dump for wedding receptions. Taniguchi anticipated that. Tucked into the main corridor is a bar.

''The client didn't ask for it," the architect says, ''but I thought it would be useful."

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