The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo
Blaine Brownell The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo

In 1996, Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, mused about fellow Japanese architect and former colleague Kazuyo Sejima’s ability to translate concepts into buildings. “You see a building as essentially the equivalent of the kind of spatial diagram used to describe the daily activities for which the building is intended in abstract form,” he wrote in an El Croquis article. “At least it seems as if your objective is to get as close as possible to this condition.”

For architectural historian and critic Anthony Vidler, the design approach of Sejima, co-founder of the renowned firm SANAA, enables architecture to be married to its diagram. In a 2000 Representations article “Diagram of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Representation,” Vidler writes, “Sejima herself has developed the genre into a design method of distinct clarity, where simple black and white diagrams of function and space are translated elegantly into building in a minimal aesthetic that goes well beyond the merely functional. In a way, that has led some critics to see echoes of Japanese mysticism in the intensity of her material abstractions.”

Aperture with metal mesh on the fourth floor
Blaine Brownell Aperture with metal mesh on the fourth floor

These qualities are evident in Sejima’s recent Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, a building designed to house the works of Katsushika Hokusai, the most famous artist of the floating world period (1600-1867) in Japan who is universally recognized for his multicolored woodblock prints "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" and "Red." Hokusai spent much of his life in Tokyo’s Sumida prefecture, where he was born. The museum is thus as much a celebration of his local legacy as a space to exhibit his prints.

Sejima’s skill in linking architecture to diagram is even more impressive here, given the challenge of commemorating the works of a consummate and prodigious artist. Hokusai explored many representational strategies throughout his career and published painting manuals for students as well as his famous volumes of manga—which, in Hokusai’s time, meant “curious drawings.” The Sumida Hokusai Museum design therefore assimilates both the translation of spatial concepts as well as some of Hokusai’s representational strategies into architectural form.

Permanent exhibition space
Blaine Brownell Permanent exhibition space

Hokusai typically constructed images that invite multiple stages of discovery. Some elements are obvious, while others are less overt and may go unnoticed. A good example is ""The Great Wave off Kanagawa," in which a formidable tsunami occupies half of the print. Many viewers miss the fact that what appears to be one of the smaller cresting waves is actually a distant Mount Fuji, its white and blue colors the same as those used for the water. It is also easy to overlook the diminutive boats and hapless fishers caught in the wave’s great swell.

Likewise, the Sumida Hokusai Museum also invites a process of discovery.The four-story museum occupies one end of a public park. Its visually striking façade consists of a monolithic aluminum skin with no conventional windows. Instead, the façade's apertures assume the form of large triangular voids in the shiny metal form. These, in turn, consist of glazed curtain walls, some facets of which extruded metal mesh protects and reduces their glare. The panoramic aluminum cladding imparts a bright, diffused reflection of its surroundings in a soft blur. This surface conjures certain references to paper—the “canvas” of printmaking—both as a neutral field intended to capture color and light and as an ultra-thin shroud with crisp folds akin to origami. This analogy is reinforced by the traditional Japanese notion of paper not as an empty surface, but as a medium full of expressive potential.

Curtain wall aperture on the ground floor
Blaine Brownell Curtain wall aperture on the ground floor

From the outside, the structure appears to be an outsized, iconic monument with no apparent signs of entry. Once inside, the intersecting corridors at ground level encourage exploration. Upon even closer review, the mesh-clad facets only reveal their light-transmitting qualities when visitors see them from within. In these ways, the building cannot be fully appreciated until it is perceived from multiple vantage points.

This process of discovery includes dynamic qualities that animate the exhibited art. Hokusai was intrigued by the notion of capturing kinetic elements of the natural world, such as water, in static prints. The museum's recent exhibition “Phantasmagoric! Hokusai’s Water Wonderland” chronicled the artist’s lifelong endeavor to portray this fluid element. According to the exhibition catalog, “Glistening, wriggling, raising waves, as though a living thing: [sic] meet water as Hokusai depicted it to experience a water wonderland—while being astounded by Hokusai’s distinctively unconventional compositions.” The building itself embodies aspects of dynamism and fluidity, albeit in an abstract way. The angled, glazed walls of the corridors that bisect the first level generate a kaleidoscopic effect that imparts a mild sense of disorientation due to the ever-shifting layers of reflected planes. In the permanent gallery, the museum floor is illuminated by moving lights that flare along a line of wood planks like fireflies—a literal, if ethereal, form of movement.

Kaleidoscopic reflections inside the museum's north entrance
Blaine Brownell Kaleidoscopic reflections inside the museum's north entrance

These connections between Hokusai’s work and Sejima’s design are my interpretations, and not necessarily the intentions of the architect. However, successful buildings are ones that welcome myriad readings, including unplanned ones. Sejima’s work embodies an enigmatic quality that has long encouraged speculation—particularly regarding the connections between representation and construction.

For example, the architect’s early projects fascinated Ito for what he interpreted as an embodiment of the fast-paced, media-infused contemporary city. Yet Italian architect Pierluigi Nicolin has argued that Sejima's work reinforces a kind of deceleration, symbolizing a transition from “a sociological, or mimetic, phase, related to the world of information processing, to a scientific, philosophical or mystical phase.” The inscrutable qualities that invite multiple, imaginative interpretations—coupled with the thoughtful and thorough fulfillment of the design brief—are what make Sejima’s architecture so masterful.