Sakado, Japan / Studio SUMO
Two program requirements are combined in one neat container at Josai University, a private institution in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo. The school wanted an appealing, environmentally optimal home for an exceptional collection of Japanese art assembled by its founder, Mikio Mizuta. And since the best-available site on the built-up campus was right at its public entrance, the project took on a second key role as a university gateway.
The constricted site, its 30-foot height limit, and the desire to save most of its existing trees dictated the overall building form: a shoe-box-like shape two stories high and about 100 feet long. But the resulting structure is anything but a simple square.
The building’s initial impression is of boxes within a box—of its galleries hovering inside a somewhat larger container. This composition, says partner Sunil Bald, AIA, of New York–based Studio SUMO, “is an allusion to the floating world,” a reference to the museum’s collection of Ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”), a genre of paintings and woodblock prints. A series of ramps, sheltered but not fully enclosed, occupy the space between the galleries and the outer container.
These ramps, dimensioned for moving freight as well as visitors, lead to destinations on several levels. The lower floor, sunken a half level into the ground, houses various backup facilities and, most visibly, a glass-walled information center that doubles as a lecture hall and additional exhibition space. The upper part of the structure is occupied by two galleries, their floor levels 1 meter apart.
The long flanks of the outer container are composed of 52 concrete elements, each 4 feet wide and ranging from 28 to 21.5 feet high, bending 90 degrees at the top to span the 11-foot-wide ramps. Slits along the vertical joints provide daylight and ventilation for the spaces within. Besides sheltering the ramps, the concrete helps protect the galleries against solar heat gain and climate extremes.
Fabricating the concrete elements posed some unusual challenges. They had to be cast on edge, with forms that could be altered a bit for each unique piece; their vertical surfaces are not quite rectangular, but angled slightly to follow the slope of the ramps.
Visitors can reach the two upper-level galleries by following the ramps halfway up the building to the gallery-reception area. To one side of this lobby is a gallery designed to accommodate the museum’s prized Ukiyo-e prints and other treasures, which because of their fragility are rotated here from off-site storage; only a fraction of the collection is on view at one time. A few steps up on the other side, a second gallery exhibits less-vulnerable works such as 20th-century paintings. One can exit directly to the top of the ramp sequence from there.
Special attention was given to the care of the woodcuts and other antiquities in the first gallery. The architects visited many other museums that exhibited such art and distilled what they observed, designing the cases to exacting environmental standards. In accordance with Japanese tradition, the cases allow for the display of works either vertically or horizontally. And the soft, even case lighting is made more effective by minimal ambient light levels in the windowless space.
Today, it is unusual for American architects to carry out work in Japan. While many U.S. firms had projects there to the 1990s, such commissions have become quite rare. Significantly, this is not the first building on the Josai campus by Studio SUMO (whose name is not, as one might assume, of Japanese origin, but a compound of the names of the two founding principals: Bald and Yolande Daniels, Assoc. AIA, known to some by the nickname “Momo”). The firm designed Josai’s 75,000-square-foot School of Management, which was completed in 2006. That sleek but no-nonsense facility became a university asset. And, as this museum, it was designed with Obayashi’s contractors and design department.
Now the museum is another object of pride for the school, and one that is shared with and appreciated by the surrounding community. And ranging as they do from glass-encased to dimly lit, the galleries offer a variety of spaces for the art—Ukiyo-e prints or otherwise—to float, while the world stays grounded.