The Museum as a “Hall of Art”and Symbol of Marunouchi’s Revival

NAITO Hiroshi
(Architect / Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo)

Designed by Josiah Conder, known as the father of modern Japanese architecture, Mitsubishi Ichigokan was the first Western-style tenant-occupied office building that sparked the Marunouchi district’s development as a symbol of Meiji-era (1868-1912) modernization. The building, which evokes the days when the street was known as “Itcho London (the London Block)”, has been resurrected as the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo. We spoke with an architect who has been involved in many museum and art gallery projects about the significance and potential of the restoration.

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo: Preserving Local Memory for the Future

Part of the role of architecture is as a repository for, and entryway into, the memory of the place being occupied. The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum is a museum housed in the restored Mitsubishi Ichigokan, Marunouchi’s first office building, and was conceived as part of the redevelopment plan for the district.

Urban redevelopment is often a humdrum affair, and generally involves building a skyscraper or two and leaving it at that, but in the Marunouchi area it has been a bit different. Buildings that embody local history, such as the Tokyo Station building, the Industry Club of Japan Hall, and Dai-ichi Seimei Hall (present-day DN Tower 21) have been respected and preserved to the greatest possible extent, and I believe the restoration of Mitsubishi Ichigokan perfectly epitomizes this mentality.

Among the old business conglomerates, while Mitsui’s patronage underpinned Edo Period (1603-1868) culture centered on the Nihonbashi district, it can be said that Mitsubishi’s patronage supported the modernization of Tokyo from the Meiji era onward. The red-brick Mitsubishi Ichigokan stands as a symbol of this new era, when “Edo” became “Tokyo.” Originally, the site was home to barracks and training grounds belonging to the Army Ministry, but the authorities decided to offload it to the private sector, and it was acquired by Mitsubishi.

Conversion of Marunouchi into a commercial district was part of Tokyo’s urban planning being advanced by the Meiji government, and as it faces directly on to the Imperial Palace, it was considered vital to make Maruonuchi a symbol of Meiji modernization of the Japanese economy. For this reason, I believe, Mitsubishi sought to develop a Western-style district of stone and brick architecture based on a British model. In that sense, Mitsubishi Ichigokan is perhaps the ideal architectural embodiment of the role Mitsubishi played from the Meiji era onward, and it is highly significant that the building was restored, in this manner and at this site, to its state during its heyday.

With towering skyscrapers sprouting all around it, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum looks just a bit incongruous. Even fifty years from now the building will be a reminder of the past, hinting at what the area was once like, while at the same time it paradoxically breathes life into new development in the surrounding area. No doubt there were various options for methods and techniques of restoration, but I think it’s good that the approach taken was as faithful as possible to the original design, building materials, and construction methods.

Reaffirming the Role and Significance of Museums

In our present age the art museum, and in Japan the term for “art museum” itself (bijutsukan), may be undergoing drastic change. Around the end of the Meiji period, OKAKURA Tenshin wrote, “If we at least had buildings permanently dedicated to exhibitions of art, it would contribute to the development of art in our nation,” and this marked the origin of the art museum in Japan. When we trace this history, however, we find that today many public bijutsukan have become “large-scale rental galleries” rather than museums in the sense of buildings permanently dedicated to exhibition of art. Their interiors are blandly neutral white-cube spaces with state-of-the-art air conditioning and lighting equipment, and in some respects it is necessary to operate and administer them in this way, but can they really be called “museums”?

In my personal opinion the phenomenon of the exhibition—that is, showing a lot of paintings lined up on a wall—is a strange one to begin with. To give an extreme example, when I go to a museum for an exhibition, I generally go there in search of just one work that truly moves me. Museums would probably feel unjustified collecting admission fees unless they exhibited a large number of works, but a lot of them simply show too many. If it’s truly a monumental work of art, isn’t one enough? It seems to me that museums could exist just for the purpose of creating these moments, when we encounter that one spectacular work.

The human body is a mysterious thing, and it is in two quite different states at the moment one steps into a museum, and when one arrives in front of a painting. The process of finding and engaging with a work includes such physical actions, and one of the truly difficult challenges for museums is how to produce or facilitate those moments.

To take this line of thinking further, if we ask whether art museums are really necessary in the first place, we may have to ask the more fundamental question of whether art is really necessary. I cannot see the future, but it seems that with computer technology and our information society advancing to this extent, art as expression of intrinsic human emotions and testament to our spirits’ existence will be more necessary than ever. I believe the significance of museums in the future rests on how deeply they can consider and comprehend the current needs of humanity. There are so many people in the world mentally and emotionally suffering––how can we help them? In the future, museums will be expected to address these issues.

The Museum as a “Hall of Art” Has a Right to Be More Assertive

I believe I have seen about half of the exhibitions at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum thus far. With regard to the visitor experience, there are certainly a lot of points that could be made, given the original nature of the place as an office building. I get a strong sense of the care with which museum staff plan exhibitions, taking into account all the circumstances of the Ichigokan building such as the sizes of works that can be brought in, distances viewers can stand from them, and space limitations. I am sure there are lots of challenges for the administrators, but at the same time, a space where anything is possible paradoxically runs the risk of falling into a slump.

The term yakata (“hall,” an alternate reading of the -kan in Ichigokan and bijutsukan) is appropriate for the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum and it has the particular circumstance of a private-sector operator exhibiting works in its own building. This, to me, actually makes a positive impression. One could say the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum is the farthest thing from those public art museums that have now become more like galleries. In that sense, the museum could adopt a more assertive stance. It would be interesting if the museum’s proprietors selected just a few of the works they love the most and dedicated the museum fully to finding the ideal places and conditions to exhibit them.

Most museums set up exhibitions in chronological order and instruct viewers on the route to follow. I wonder if this is really the best way to do things. In fact I often go through exhibitions backwards, even though the staff give me plenty of sidelong glances. Sometimes it is more interesting to look at painters’ last works before their deaths first. If we want to know an artist’s chronology, we can always look at the exhibition catalogue. I believe actually viewing paintings in a museum is an experience in a different dimension from “first this, then this…” Maybe this is a tall order, but why not try this at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum? Admit visitors and let them wander around freely.

Seeing a museum show according to the designated route is passive, and it robs viewers of the active process of discovery. There is a big difference between a visitor discovering something, and the museum having them discover it. Looking back on my own experiences, the times that linger in my memory are the times I discovered something of my own accord.

I feel that as a building, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum harbors great potential for such spontaneous discoveries. Put another way, I think the future of the museum will be defined by how curators and other staff at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum recognize this potential, and promote future exhibitions accordingly. The question is how the museum can present art differently from public art museums and the like, and turn this difference into a decisive advantage.