Late spectacle

Kengo Kuma has designed a new museum. The Kadokawa Culture Museum in Tokyo’s metropolitan region resembles an archaic jewelry box, and explores the potential stone offers as a material.
by Alexander Russ | 8/27/2020

It seems a bit as if it has fallen out of time – the new museum Kengo Kuma has created in Tokorozawa. However, that is not just a product of the architect’s signature style, but above all of the building’s purpose. The Kadokawa Culture Museum as it is called is part of Tokorozawa Sakura Town which is a kind of theme park complete with hotel, bookstore, hospitality outlets and a pavilion for various events. The planners even included a shrine that was likewise designed by Kuma. The developer: the Kadokawa publishing company, which is specialized, among other things, in Mangas. It therefore comes as no surprise that the complex is dedicated first and foremost to Japanese popular culture. The conversion project was developed together with the city of Tokorozawa, with its 350,00-odd inhabitants, and straddles some four hectares of a former sewage plant. According to the press release, the “focus was on development of the region with a view to striking a harmonious balance between nature, culture, and industry”. Presumably, Kuma’s museum was intended to be the main magnet attracting the masses from central Tokyo, about 30 kilometers away. Which brings us to the crux of the whole matter, as COVID-19 has obviously undermined many a certainty. And the concept of a themed entertainment park now seems strangely ancient. And the question then of course arises whether that also applied to the architecture of the museum. The stone monolith that Kuma designed for this purpose certainly fits better into an era when cities such as Bilbao sought to boost their economies by relying on assistance from “star architects” such as Frank Gehry.

In terms of appearance, the building, which is clad in panels of granite, seems completely sealed off from the outside world. Only a few spacious openings cut into the body of the building serve as windows, underscoring the sculptural feel of the whole. The five stories are thus not discernible as such from the outside, just as little as are the contents of the architectural jewelry box. The latter is, in keeping with the usage concept, essentially eclectic: The ground floor is home to a neutral exhibition space: it is subdivided by pillars and is about 1,000 square meters large; fittingly, it currently features a retrospective of Kuma’s oeuvre. Moreover, there is a small library with books and comics published by Kadokawa. On the first floor, there’s a café and a shop attached to it, and on the second floor another exhibition space, devoted entirely to Anime. The third and fourth floors offer a real gem: Here, you can admire the “bookshelf theater” in which “projection mapping” technology comes into its own. The eight-meter-high shelves are brought to life by a special projection technology and float with their contents of about 50,000 books virtually in the direction of the ceiling. Given all these sleights of hand, the building’s stone grounding seems all the more necessary, and it also serves to package the somewhat incoherent content in a consistent shell.

That said, the building is of course not Kuma’s first monolithic design. His stone museum in Nasu, built in 2000, already explored stone’s design potential and created spaces that oscillated between light and heavy, open and closed. The Kadokawa Culture Museum again toys with opposites. These arise from the arrangement of the stone, which generates a pixel-like and seemingly artificial pattern on the façade of the otherwise archaic volume. Despite the skillful interlocking of a total of 20,000 individually finished granite panels to feature the polygonal geometry, the building lacks the poetic ambivalence typical of many of his others works. Then, what predominates is the spectacle. At the moment, it is the only highlight that Tokorozawa Sakura Town has to offer: While the museum opened as early as August, the other institutions are not scheduled to go into operation until November owing to COVID-19. Whether the shrine Kuma designed will be used is anybody’s guess. A little divine help would surely not go amiss in these difficult times.