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 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.
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.
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!