In 1997, the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City announced that Yoshio Taniguchi had won a 10-entrant competition against world-famous architects like Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas to design the museum’s $425 million overhaul. Around the world, art lovers and architecture mavens alike responded with a loud, bemused, “Who?” So unknown was the 67-year-old architect outside his native Japan that one confused well-wisher congratulated Terence Riley, MOMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, on selecting “Tony Gucci,” a nonexistent Italian architect.
But shed no tears for Taniguchi the Obscure. He prefers anonymity. Indeed, he kicked off a recent interview with TIME in his almost monastically spare office in central Tokyo by confessing half-nervously, half-wearily: “I’ve been avoiding this type of thing as much as possible.” Still, MOMA reopened last Saturday amid great fanfare, so there’s now no avoiding the limelight. Although he has a built a number of highly respected buildings in Japan over a 40-year career, this is Taniguchi’s first international commissionand it ranks as one of the most important museum projects in decades. In an instant, it has vaulted him into a rarefied pantheon of global architecture giants.
Taniguchi’s reticence is not a pose, but a reflection of an old-fashioned conviction that his work should speak for itself. “I don’t like the thought that some people might know me but not what I design,” he says. “I choose to express myself through my architecture.” His indifference to the jostling for position that often defines the architecture game is so pronounced that Taniguchi initially ruled himself out of the high-profile contest to refashion MOMA. He had never participated in a competition, and he was in no hurry to start. “I prefer to design for clients, on projects with a high likelihood of getting built,” he says, “not in hypothetical exercises against other architects.”
But Riley had stumbled across one of Taniguchi’s museums in Japan in the early ’90s and had been dazzled. “One can’t help but be amazed at the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of his work,” says Riley. “In a country where they have incredible earthquake requirements, there was something ineffably light about his buildings. It’s this attempt to take all of these millions of tons of material and put them together in a way that they seem neither heavy nor even material.” So, in 1996, when MOMA sent out 10 letters of invitation to participate in the competition, Taniguchi was among the chosen. Reluctant to the end, he didn’t respond for weeks. “They had to telephone me, saying, ‘We are waiting for your reply,'” Taniguchi recalls. After consulting with friends and colleagues, he at last accepted the challenge.
Once he’d committed, Taniguchi spent a year studying MOMAits history, how it had selected architects in the past, anything that could provide an insight into the museum’s inner character. “Like a medical doctor, I need to know the nature of an institution so I can make a proper diagnosis,” he says. Taniguchi then crafted a proposal that offered both an expansion and a continuation of the museum’s identity: the fundamentally conservative worldwide arbiter of serious, modern fine arts. In doing so, he created a radically understated counterpoint to the increasingly hyperbolic, maximalist trends in museum architecturea movement exemplified by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbaowhere a stunning building grabs at least as much attention as the art it houses.
Instead, Taniguchi created an elegant, understated jewel box of a structure true to one of the guiding principles of his career: as a place for people and art to interact, the museum building should all but disappear. “Architecture is essentially a container for people and what’s inside,” says Taniguchi. “My architecture should not compete for attention if it is trying to fulfill that mission. Also, this is the Museum of Modern Art, one of the finest collections of art in the world. How do you compete with that? I don’t think you should compete. The art is the star.”
In an age of flashy iconoclasts, a subtle traditionalist like Taniguchi may be the true radical. Indeed, his final presentation in 1997 to MOMA’s seven-member Architect Selection Committee was so low-techso unlike anything seen in architectural pitches in decadesthat Riley remembers it as a near disaster. “Taniguchi is not what you’d call trained in the art of salesmanship,” he says. “There were no special effects, no flip-books, no PowerPoint presentations. What you had was a rather shy man talking about his philosophy of architecture. It was probably one of the worst presentations I’ve seen in my life.” But once Taniguchi focused on his design and began pointing out the salient features of his model, says Riley, “there came this whole level of revelation and excitement.” The committee, made up of heavy-hitting art collectors like cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder and billionaire financier Sid Bass, unanimously approved Taniguchi’s plan.
One of the most controversial decisions Taniguchi made was to retain the famous amalgam of faades along the museum’s West 53rd Street side. The product of five separate building campaigns, the streetscape features successive faades by Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Goodwin, Philip Johnson, and Cesar Pelli. Taniguchi argued to keep them intactas a kind of history of modern architecture. This fueled early mumblings that the renovation was an opportunity lost, a glorified embalming rather than a genuine rebuilding. Dismissing such complaints, Taniguchi says: “Unlike many museums, MOMA faces a street, not an avenue, so even if I did something interesting, no one would see it. This way, instead, I decided to make my contribution very simple and retain the most interesting part of my work for the inside.”
That emphasis has become abundantly clear now that the doors have been thrown open. Other than the familiar faades, nearly the entire museum has been disemboweled; inside, it unfolds into something quite extraordinary. Completely reorganizing and expanding the gallery space , Taniguchi has transformed the museum from what used to feel almost like a mall into a rare temple of calm and a reinvigorated setting for viewing great art. With its crisp lines, smooth materials and minimalist dcor, the museum offers an instant shelter, an oasis in a gritty, insomniac urban center.
On land where the Dorset Hotel used to stand, Taniguchi has built six floors of galleries with an atrium in the middle to provide both light and easy navigation. On the existing floor space, he has retained and expanded the much-beloved sculpture garden, but encased it in glass, he says, “like one would a precious object.” It still serves as the museum’s beating heart and the centerpiece of the entire blockTaniguchi compares the museum to New York itself, calling the sculpture garden MOMA’s own Central Park. Thereafter, he says, the interplay of spaces involved attempting to “connect the two cores”the sculpture garden and the atriumvia a series of bridges, balconies, stairs and passageways, which link the various galleries in a splendidly nonlinear and open floor plan.
With the full unveiling, any concern that the renovation might be blandly understated has fallen away. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times declared the redesign “one of the most exquisite works of architecture to rise in this city in at least a generation.” Robert Ivy, editor in chief of Architectural Record and an ardent fan of Taniguchi’s work in Japan, says the redesign proves “there’s very much a place for buildings that are refined, that fit within their place, that offer quietness and repose, finesse and delight. This building will engage another generation of museumgoers, but it is not meant to shout.”
While Taniguchi has just been selected to design a $30 million museum in Houston, he has no intention of abandoning his standard practice of spurning competitions and accepting only a handful of commissions. “I like to be involved with each project as much as possible,” he says. “I can only do a few buildings at a time.” For now, his main focus is back in Japan where he’s designing a new home for the Tokyo Club and creating a new gallery at the Kyoto National Museum. “After I won the [MOMA] competition, I got lots of offers,” he says with a smile, “but I had to say I am sorry.” And with that, the modest master goes back to work.