I set out to create an understated structure, where the architecture and landscape would simply fold together,” says architect Ryue Nishizawa of his design for a new museum dedicated to the art of Hiroshi Senju. The delicate building is arranged over a two-and-a-half acre site in Karuizawa, a town in the Nagano prefecture of Japan known for its natural beauty.
The 1,490sq m exhibition space is wrapped almost entirely in an envelope of glass, designed to bathe more than 100 large-scale works by Senju in an even, natural light. The 53-year-old Japanese artist gained prominence in the 1990s for his vast paintings of waterfalls and was the first Asian to have received an honourable mention at the Venice Biennale – in its 46th edition.
“This project gave me the chance to review Senju’s oeuvre all over again,” says Nishizawa. “Nature emanates from his paintings, and I wanted people to have the sensation of walking through a forest and encountering, one by one, Senju’s art along the way.”
The museum’s roof is a sinuous metal canopy punctured with curvilinear shapes – a motif we have seen deployed in a few of Nishizawa’s most celebrated projects. But unlike 2009’s Serpentine Pavilion or the Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne – both created with partner Kazuyo Sejima as SANAA – here, the shapes extrude downwards into glazed courtyards. Home to 150 varieties of trees and shrubs, carefully selected by Senju and Nishizawa, these inner gardens form a natural backdrop to the paintings that continuously changes with the seasons. “Most museums prize wall space over windows,” says Nishizawa. “Skylights become the most effective way to introduce natural light. But applying such a conventional method to a place of lush greenery like Karuizawa would have been a travesty.”
Nishizawa has dealt with the technical challenges of designing the Senju Museum in his typically elegant and restrained manner. True to the sloping site, which has a difference of more than 3m in ground level, the concrete floor is gently contoured to fit the ground, rather than a series of artificial tiers. A combination of foliage, overhanging eaves and UV-coated glass control the levels of daylight in the gallery.
As a synthesis of art, architecture and nature, the Senju Museum is a new form of gallery space, says Nishizawa – one that introduces variation to the traditional white-box space. “This space proposes a new museum form,” he says. “Instead of hanging artwork along a straight wall, I proposed creating separate worlds to showcase individual pieces. I wanted visitors to feel as if they were wandering around in Senju’s creative world, pausing to take in his works as if they were in their own living room.”