The National Museum of Western Art has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Transboundary Site

The modernist landmark was built in 1959 to celebrate the renewal of diplomatic relations between France and Japan after World War II, and the return to Japan of a large collection of Western art that had been sequestered during the war, but its main claim to fame and the reason for its nomination is that it was designed by Le Corbusier (1887-1965), one of the greatest and most influential architects of the 20th century. Seventeen works in seven countries by the Swiss-French architect has been registered collectively. NMWA is his only work in the Far East. His signature piloti (columns) and reinforced concrete are immediately evident, but the staunchly rational and functionalist Le Corbusier also had a surprisingly poetic side.

The concrete facade
The concrete facade. The piloti (columns) at the entrance are carefully spaced according to the Modulor system. (Photo: © The National Museum of Western Art)

The sun, the sky and the golden rule of “Modulor”

The basic materials of city planning, he claimed, was “the sun, the sky, trees, steel and cement, in that order.” Consequently, the museum is beautifully situated in the park, surrounded by trees and permeated by natural light. Everything is constructed on a human scale according to a harmonic set of standardized measurements Le Corbusier developed called the Modulor, which was based on the size of a 183 cm (6 feet) tall European man. Double-height ceilings alternate with lower ones: 226 cm(7.4 feet) was the optimum ceiling height, Le Corbusier proclaimed. High enough for most people a century ago, perhaps, but if you are tall, certain sections of the ceiling actually feel disturbingly low, and their rough, black surface only adds to that impression.

The National Museum of Western Art
The main building exhibition rooms are designed to create a natural route around the works. Note the varying ceiling heights! (Photo: © The National Museum of Western Art)

Le Corbusier’s “museum of unlimited growth”

Another of Le Corbusier’s key ideas was to create a “museum of unlimited growth” – a spiraling structure that could be expanded with additional external rooms as the collection grew.

A new annex was added in 1979, designed by one of Le Corbusier’s Japanese apprentices.

The National Museum of Western Art
The ramp leading from the 19th Century Hall to the exhibition rooms on the second floor is one of Le Corbusier’s characteristic features. (Photo: © The National Museum of Western Art)

As Japan’s flagship venue for art in the Western tradition, NWMA regularly holds exhibitions by the most famous names in the history of art. These shows are obviously very popular and well-attended. A tip to beat the worst congestion is to go on a Friday evening, when the museum stays open longer. But don’t forget to explore the fascinating building itself as well!

The National Museum of Western Art
Sculptures by Auguste Rodin in the annex, which was built in 1979, overlook the lush inner garden. (Photo: © The National Museum of Western Art)