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i. m. pei's new museum

by Kay Itoi  

The Miho Museum,
Shinga, Japan
photo Shinkenchiku-sha

An aerial view

glass roofs at
the treetops
photo Timothy Hursley

The Miho Museum
photo Timothy Hursley

The Miho Museum
photo Timothy Hursley

Inside the
museum's grand hall.
photo Timothy Hursley

south wing
photo Higashide

Cult figure of a
falcon-headed deity,
ca. 1295-1213 B.C.

Gandhara Buddha,
2nd century A.D.

Fresco panels
depicting a garden,
Roman, 1st century A.D.
   As everyone knows, this year the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the new Getty Center in Los Angeles have opened what must be the grandest museums in the world. Much less known in the West is another new face: Japan's Miho Museum.

Visiting Miho Museum, which opened on Nov. 8 in the midst of the beautiful mountains of Shigaraki, 20 miles north of the ancient capital of Kyoto, is a joyous experience. I.M. Pei designed the landscaping so that the museum is tantalizingly invisible except from close range. "The idea is that you should somehow feel that you just happen upon the mountain," says the 80-year-old architect. Taking his inspiration from an ancient Chinese tale in which a fisherman enters a cave and discovers a lost paradise, Pei created a quietly austere, light-filled museum that seems almost too good to be true.

"The most wonderful thing about it is a harmony between the building and the environment," says Hiroko Koyama, president of Shinji Shumeikai, the new spiritual organization that underwrote the $216-million project. The site was inside a natural park, and thus subject to a number of restrictions on the height and size of the structure. Pei's solution was to bury nearly 80 percent of the building under ground. As a result, it gives a beautiful, subtle silhouette of a series of glass roofs that float above the mountain slopes.

The building looks distinctly Asian, with its Japanese-style gardens, terraced steps similar to those of a Japanese temple, and the Chinese-looking door to the entrance hall. Even the glass roofs recall traditional Japanese buildings.

But there is much more to the design. The geometric skylight that serves as the ceiling of the first story is distinctive. Natural light filters through the aluminum (but wooden-looking) sun screens that cover the skylight to fill the entrance hall and a long corridor. An asymmetrical, 120-meter-long cable-suspension bridge, which connects the reception pavilion and the main museum building, is like a sophisticated contemporary sculpture.

One might wonder what led Shinji Shumeikai, an apparently very wealthy but little-known Japanese religious group, to the world-renowned architect. Koyama explained that her mother, Mihoko Koyama (after whom the museum was named), founded the group in 1970. Shinji Shumeikai now boasts 300,000 members worldwide. Its art collection began over 40 years ago with the founder's modest tea ceremony utensils and expanded into Japanese art. The group began contemplating building a museum and turned for advice to Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, who had designed the group's extravagant sanctuary building years earlier. He suggested his friend I.M. Pei.

Encouraged by Pei to make the collection more diverse and international, Shumeikai soon began collecting Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Islamic art. (It helped that Hiroko Koyama had written a thesis on Gandhara art at a university in Kyoto more than three decades ago.) The group made headlines in 1994 when it purchased, through a Tokyo dealer, a 9th century B.C. Assyrian relief at the Christie's London for $11.9-million. Today the limestone work is prominently on display at the new museum. Other stars of the collection include Roman fresco panels depicting a garden, a 2.5-meter-tall Gandhara Buddha and a cult figure of a falcon-headed deity from Egypt.

To accommodate the collection, the building has two wings -- the north devoted to Japanese art and the south wing to the rest. A long corridor runs through the two wings, which are connected by the main entrance hall. Many of the exhibition spaces, particularly in the south wing, were designed around specific art pieces. That meant another challenge -- if not a headache -- for the architects. Well into construction, Shumeikai continued to buy art, thus changing building requirements. When a centuries-old Iranian medallion and animal carpet nearly six meters long arrived, there was no wall of that height in the building. So they dug further into the mountain to make an underground gallery.

One most unforgettable thing at Miho Museum is not an art piece. One step into the glass-roofed entrance hall, one would be immediately confronted by the magnificent panorama of the nature preserve -- a breathtaking view. Framed by a grand old pine tree, which was specially selected and planted for the effect, vaguely seen in the distance is Shumeikai's sanctuary building and bell tower, which Pei designed in 1990. "The way we bring light into this place, the way we open up to the sky, and also open up towards the view all has to do with our desire to bring nature into harmony with architecture," says Pei.

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.