French architect Le Corbusier’s foray into the Far East

Built in 1959, Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art received World Heritage designation last summer.

National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo
The museum was completed in February 1959, about six years before Le Corbusier's death [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]

Tokyo, Japan – Adjacent to Tokyo’s historic Ueno Station is a three-storey square building constructed of reinforced concrete. This grey and somewhat hulking structure might not initially command too much attention among the city’s other sights but for the exposed columns on its first floor, propping up the rest of the building.

The sign at the gate announces that this is the National Museum of Western Art – and since last July it is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site to be found in the greater Tokyo area, a region hosting a population of more than 35 million people.

The crucial significance of this building is that it was built under the auspices of the renowned Swiss-born French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known by his professional name Le Corbusier.

The museum’s initial construction took almost a year and was completed in February 1959, about six years before Le Corbusier’s death. It was his only work in Japan, and indeed his only building to be found east of his much more ambitious and groundbreaking designs in Chandigarh, India.

Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art was one of 17 Le Corbusier-related sites to receive the World Heritage designation last summer, with the committee justifying the awards by explaining that they “reflect the solutions that the Modern Movement sought to apply during the 20th century to the challenges of inventing new architectural techniques to respond to the needs of society. These masterpieces of creative genius also attest to the internationalisation of architectural practice across the planet”.

Challenging the Modern

Indeed, what most defined Le Corbusier’s long and varied career as an architect and urban planner were his attempts to grapple with modern, industrial society.

He consistently sought to make a sharp break with the past and to create designs and structures in accordance with the new demands of modernity – or at least his own vision of what a future industrial world should look like.

Le Corbusier was a painter as much as he was an architect, and he was often searching for simple, functional designs that could be effectively mass-produced and thus be made available to serve the material and environmental needs of ordinary families.

On the other hand, few would argue that he always got it right. While his underlying aim may have been to improve the material lives of the many, he has also been criticised as having unwittingly helped legitimise the brutal, boxy architecture of the high-rise apartment buildings that grow like weeds across the urban landscape.

By the time the National Museum of Western Art commission came to him in the mid-1950s, Le Corbusier was in the twilight of his career and among the most renowned living architects in France. However, even then he could still be controversial and full of surprises.

The Japanese government was seeking the return from France of the important European art collection of the industrialist Kojiro Matsukata (a son of former Meiji-era Prime Minister Masayoshi Matsukata), which had been trapped there during World War II.

France finally agreed to relinquish the Matsukata art collection, but stipulated that a French architect must be selected for the new museum.

The museum is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site to be found in the Tokyo area. [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]
The museum is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site to be found in the Tokyo area. [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]

The best man for the job

Le Corbusier was a natural choice, not only because of his top-level prestige at that time, but also owing to the fact that he had several talented Japanese disciples – Junzo Sakakura, Kunio Maekawa, and Takamasa Yoshizaka – who could translate his broad ideas into a concrete reality with a better knowledge of the local circumstances and building conditions of Tokyo.

The basic plan was an elaboration of a concept by Le Corbusier which he called the “Museum of Unlimited Growth”. He had first conceived this notion decades earlier, but now he finally had the opportunity to realise a structure that articulated one possible adaption.

Shoichiro Sendai, of the Graduate School of Engineering at Hiroshima University, notes: “Le Corbusier only made the basic plans. The execution was the work of the Japanese architects who had experience in Atelier Le Corbusier. In this sense, the National Museum of Western Art was actually a collaboration.

“Of course, the original idea itself was by Le Corbusier, but the building contains particular functions designed for the Japanese context,” he said.

Professor David Stewart of the Department of Architecture and Building Engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology additionally notes that Le Corbusier was not even on site for most of the construction period: “He only actually visited Japan when the building was nearly finished.”

An imperfect representation

Beyond this, the building which exists today is an imperfect representation of what Le Corbusier himself had in mind for the completed development. “The entire project was never built. It included a whole area of buildings of which only the painting gallery exists,” explains Stewart.

Originally the complex was meant to include such elements as an outdoor theatre and a public plaza. The broad vision was that this area would become a “miracle box” at which the public could be treated to a series of wondrous and surprising experiences.

Stewart believes that Le Corbusier himself would probably have been somewhat disappointed that the area surrounding the National Museum of Western Art wasn’t developed according to his original and considerably more sweeping plans.

Moreover, there has also been extensive rebuilding at the museum since it first opened its doors in 1959. The underground floors and the expanded use of artificial lighting may be perfectly well justified by practical considerations, but would not necessarily have met with the original architect’s personal approval.

Still, the great significance of this commission is that it provided Le Corbusier with the opportunity to work in collaboration with his main Japanese students, benefiting both him and them.

With his death in August 1965, the National Museum of Western Art became Le Corbusier’s only direct work in Japan, although he did continue to exercise a wider, indirect influence through his Japanese students and admirers.

Not least among these was Kenzo Tange, architect of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and later the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, both of which, in their own ways, exhibit a clear reliance on the French architect’s inspiration.

Source: Al Jazeera