words Kieran Long
The Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Sciences is a building dictated by weather. It is designed to endure extreme temperature swings along with the 5.5m deep snowfalls that characterise winters in Niigata province, northern Japan. And severe weather is also to blame for the fact that I haven’t seen the building or met its architect.
I first set eyes on the museum at the Venice architecture biennale in September, where the large-cale model was one of the hits of the festival. It was a huge snake of Corten steel in an idealised winter landscape, complete with children dancing in circles in the snow. I was not the only critic swooning over it, but since I was going to be in Japan shortly afterwards, I was determined to meet the building’s designers – Takaharu and Yui Tezuka.
In Tokyo, we organised a meeting for a Saturday afternoon. I left the hotel to hail a cab, and walked straight into a ferocious wall of water: typhoon Ma-On, Japan’s strongest in ten years, which left two dead and caused chaos over that bank holiday weekend.
The single window in our schedules had just closed and I returned to London without making the five-hour drive to the museum, or even meeting the Tezukas. “It was quite unfortunate that typhoon hit us at that moment,” said Takaharu Tezuka by email. Back home, I had to base my article on plans, pictures and emails.
The Tezukas have had a practice in Tokyo since 1994, but they began their careers abroad. Yui Tezuka studied at the Bartlett in London, and Takaharu followed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania with a four-year stint as an associate at Richard Rogers Partnership. The practice has completed about a dozen private houses, and won the competition for the Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Sciences in 2000. Since then it has been based in Tokyo, a city battered by ten typhoons this year alone.
Matsunoyama was built as one of the venues of the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial. This visual art festival is intended to provide a cultural event for this remote rural area, which is subject to severe problems of depopulation, and has seen its young people flee to the cities to pursue more lucrative careers than farming.
The festival first took place in 2000 and for the second triennial in 2003, two new buildings provided the venues – an official central building by Tokyo-based architect Hiroshi Hara and the Snow-land Agrarian Culture Centre by the Netherlands’ MVRDV. Hara’s building is a cool modernist courtyard building, referencing a market and intended as a gathering place for people, goods, and objects from all over the world. MVRDV created a building intended to maintain relations between city dwellers and the rice farmers of the area, even extending to a project to find new owners for abandoned rice fields.
Tezuka Architects’ building in Matsunoyama has a similar mission: to accommodate art but also to foster conversation and cultural exchange between visiting city dwellers and the residents of the surrounding countryside.
The entrance to the museum is in the middle of the snake-like plan, and the building unfolds in a linear manner from there, punctuated by kinks and turns. From the entrance a corridor takes visitors past laboratories and meeting rooms to an exhibition hall and a cafeteria looking out across the landscape. At the other end is the 34m observation tower, a high, dark space containing sound and light installations. The exhibitions focus on the rich ecology of the area.
Inside, the building does not really express the snaking form of the exterior, but is conceived as a series of rhomboid segments. These are punctuated by huge windows. Some of these openings are 12m wide, and are made from 7.5cm thick acrylic, which Takaharu says was the only transparent material that could withstand the extraordinary snow loads of the Niigata winter. The coloured plasterboard finishes combined with these snow-covered windows suggest an igloo-like interior. A faint, diffuse light percolates through the huge windows in winter. In summer the snow disappears to reveal stunning views of the surrounding Bijin Bayashi forest and the rice fields.
The 111m long building has to bear snow loads of up to 2000 tonnes in the winter, and the entire structure expands 20cm in the summer. The skeleton of the building is steel, and the cladding pre-oxidised Corten steel. Only the tower section has fixed foundations, with the rest of the building sitting on roller bearings to allow for the extreme expansion.
It is a primary and basic piece of design that evokes the fundamental purpose of architecture, which is to provide shelter, and space for creativity: as soon as you are able to erect a door to your cave you can stop worrying about sabre-toothed tigers and you don’t have to try quite so hard to keep warm. You can cook, make conversation, sing, make cave paintings – architecture allows culture to happen. This primal fact of the discipline surely has its emblem in the Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Sciences. By email, Takaharu describes the wintertime visitor being “led through high walls of snow into a unique tunnel world where they are shielded from the harsh climate.”
The tower is a marker in the landscape – a kind of secular spire that attracts the proverbial wanderer even when the rest of the building is covered in snow. Tezuka describes it as a “submarine”, with the tower its periscope. The tough, continuous covering of Corten, welded as in a shipyard, is a convincing barrier between the arbitrary natural world and man’s attempts at civilisation.
The museum is also designed as a place of cultural exchange, and the success of this will be harder to measure. Is this building really any different from the cultural regeneration model suggested by the Bilbao Guggenheim? As contextual as it seems, perhaps it is in fact just another tourist honeypot, allowing us to consume the countryside and anaesthetising us against the wilderness. But this is a building that manifests the boundary between the world outside it and culture within. It is a brilliant contemporary expression of this eternal architectural opposition – well, at least judging by the photographs it is.