Architecture of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology

Arata Isozaki and Krzysztof Ingarden, the architects of the Manggha Museum building, talk about its architecture.

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Arata Isozaki reminisces

I met Andrzej Wajda in Tokyo in 1987, which was when I found out about his idea to build a ‘Japanese centre’ in Kraków. The story of his years-long fascination with Japanese art enabled me to understand the mystery of this ongoing strong influence exerted by Andrzej Wajda’s films on Japanese people, despite the great distance – literal and metaphorical – between our countries.

The following year, I visited Kraków for the first time, to select the site for the proposed construction. We decided together that the best location would be the one across from Wawel Castle, on the other side of the Vistula, which made it possible to integrate the view of the monumental Wawel Hill into the architectural composition of the Centre. As the place is quite visible from the hill, I tried to align the future building well with the meanders of the Vistula, to avoid disturbing the special atmosphere of this place, going back to ancient times. The roof structure is formed by several intersecting waves which flow with the course of the river. On the outside, the walls are finished with sandstone sourced in Poland; inside, I used bricks and wooden structural elements in accordance with the local tradition. I wanted the building to strike its roots into Polish soil just like the Japanese art that found a home here through Jasieński’s collection.

Arata Isozaki, architect

Arata Isozaki, architect of the Manggha Centre; source:

Architecture: the idea

The Manggha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology was inaugurated in November 1994 in Kraków, across the river from the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill. The building had been designed by the eminent Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, in collaboration with Kraków architects: Krzysztof Ingarden, Jacek Ewý and JET Atelier. It was designed as a meeting place for the two cultures – on both the historical and contemporary, and both the artistic and technological levels.

The function of the building is that of a museum and a venue of exhibitions, with a complex of multi-purpose spaces for conferences, concerts and theatre productions, also storage rooms and offices. The museum’s exhibition spaces are filled with temporary displays of Japanese art (some of it from Feliks Jasieński’s valuable collection, part of the collection of Far Eastern art owned by the National Museum in Kraków).

Krzysztof Ingarden

The architectural design

Towards the end of the 20th century, in a melting pot of architectural projects, it is hard to find and identify separately any local or national character of achievements in this area of activity. This is caused by the internationalisation of the art market, the standardisation of the clients’ needs, the quantity and the rate at which architectural expressions emerge and vanish in the information abyss.

Kraków, Poland’s former capital, located somewhat aside from today’s major whirlwinds and fashions of style, is a city where time still passes sufficiently slowly for art to be noticed, and also a city which – by reciprocity – art is able to notice as well. In its architectural makeup, indigenous forms have over centuries intermingled with the influences of various eras and cultures. And despite the fact that Witold Gombrowicz perceives this region of Europe as a country and culture without a specific face (and let me quote his writing: ‘where the East and the West soften into each other. A country of weakened forms . . . None of the great movements of European culture has ever penetrated Poland, not the Renaissance, not the wars of religion, not the French revolution, not the industrial revolution...’), still, places like this one, where the ‘forefields’ of cultures meet and permeate one another, and peoples mingle and migrate, create an unexpectedly auspicious field for contestation, for unexpected encounters and surprising mutations of forms that have not been subjugated by rigorous orthodoxy. Centuries of historical layers have created in Kraków a coherent and pronounced urban complex of its Old Town, with the Castle dominating it from Wawel Hill – a national symbol.

The site where the Manggha Centre has been built is located in a bend of the Vistula River, right across from Wawel Hill. It would be difficult to find a better context. Thus the architect had a tough problem to solve: his task was to devise a form whose exterior would enter in a relationship with the architecture of Wawel while its interior was to become an adequate backdrop for exhibiting Japanese art. Neither could dominate. The solution was found in a form which was relatively neutral, void of direct iconic cultural connotations, and yet showed indirect and distant references to the traditions of both cultures: Japanese and Polish.

It needs, however, to be pointed out that, for the intermingling of cultures and meanings that belong in different traditions to be successful, form itself had to become a powerful sign – a skeleton carrying all other signs. Arata Isozaki decided that no cultural references should be excessively exposed. He wanted the design to be able to cross cultural borders: ‘just as Jasieński’s collection transcended the boundaries of Japanese art, this building should go beyond the boundaries of Japaneseness and take root in Polish soil.’

Therefore, the very place (topos) became one of the inspirations for the shape of the building. A structure which is so visible from the terrace on Wawel Hill was inscribed into the meanders of the Vistula flowing in the middle, to prevent interference with the genius loci that had been present here from time immemorial. A few wavy lines of the river which flows nearby dictated the geometry of the roof structure lines, as Isozaki wrote in a Manggha Centre catalogue. The broken curves of the waves also formed a distant Japanese reference – to a well-known woodblock print from the series ‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’ by Hokusai, included in Jasieński’s collection, depicting fishermen on a boat carried by a big, dominating wave.

It was this motif of a WAVE that became the hull, the framework and the main form of the design, with a double reference: to Japanese motifs at the level of an iconic sign, and to the local topographic context at the level of the sign described as an ‘index’ (the river embankment co-defines the shape of the building) and also as a ‘mimesis’ of the river meandering at the foot of Wawel.

Krzysztof Ingarden

Main entrance to the Museum

Two cultural traditions: the entrance path – maze and perspective

      In the functional layout of the building, a clear scenario can be perceived, leading entering viewers inside and submitting them to the action of successive changing stage sets which form a path, or a scenario, of the entrance. The path has its beginning, elaboration and culmination, like a classic Greek tragedy.

The main entrance to the building is located at ul. Konopnicka. This is a busy, noisy thoroughfare carrying transit traffic through the centre of Kraków – not exactly a neighbourhood desired for a museum. The noise posed a serious threat to the contemplative ambiance of the exhibition rooms. The facility had to be designed so as to become an acoustic screen itself. Therefore, two belts of walls were positioned along the street as a surrogate fortress defending the interior from the din of the city. The first wall, 150–120cm tall, directs a visitor to the entrance, and the other one – the wavy wall of the building, heavy, almost void of windows – distances itself from the street where wide stairs ascend towards the gate in the wall. Between these walls, in a moat of sorts, which ensures relative tranquillity, a pool of water and a small garden have been designed. The entrance path leads a visitor through the two lines of walls across the moat. The way it is shaped shows affinity to the principles of composition characterising the architecture of Japanese samurai residences, palaces or fortresses. The path leading to the main entrance is not visible in its entirety at first, nor is it marked out in a manner which can be predicted in advance by a visitor.

There is no monumentality in it, no axiality, no symmetry. It is divided into short, broken sections which, when traversed, open up before an onlooker new images, new perspectives, and new surprising elements at its converging point. Thus, the first section of the path – the pavement along the street in front of the wall encapsulating the ‘moat’ garden – is the beginning of the scenario: it invites you to walk along the wall, further on, without yet showing the goal which is the entrance door of the building. What can be seen from behind the outer wall is a ribbon of stone entrance elevation, or actually only its upper part without windows, while the outer wall itself, along a gentle arched line, directs the traffic along the building and leads one’s sight towards the tree growing in the inner courtyard, on one side of the axis of the main entrance. A person walking along the wall will notice after a while that the level of the pavement ascends gently and that it enables them to notice, on the right hand side, a pool and a lowered garden, emerging behind the wall. An unexpected view is unveiled; one can stop for a moment, embrace the hidden garden with one’s sight, and those who head for the offices will see the descending path, down the stairs, next to the pool. Others will go on towards the tree which closes off the perspective of the access path and only after they have come near it will a new perspective open up before them on the right (hidden until now us well), to show wide stairs leading to the main entrance. Here, they will need to turn right by ninety degrees and walk towards a dark opening which forms the gateway to the interior.

Krzysztof Ingarden

Upper storey

Composition of the solid. Asymmetry and order

The entrance to the building is cut in the stone wall, as wide as the stairs, and upwards all the way to the roofline. Placed in the centre of the opening is a post which supports the roof descending here in a basketlike manner. Such a composition of the entrance gate, with a post and a basket roof on the symmetry axis of the entrance, shocks architects who look at it from the point of view of the Western, classical rules of architectural composition. This results from a different compositional logic, based on asymmetry. Bruno Taut, a German Modernist architect and Japanese architecture lover, perceived asymmetry as its typical and essential feature. The logic of this asymmetric composition can be noticed when you analyse the whole solid of the building – in particular its undulating roof. It is made up of planes covering the three structural tracts along the building. These planes (parabolic hyperboloids), or ribbons, are made up of sinusoids, and each of them has a different amplitude and length. This variability of rhythm endows the solid with a very natural, organic character, making it similar to a free layout of sea waves frozen in a still picture. The waves of the roof look as if the tops of some waves irregularly missed the bottoms of others, yet it can be noticed that this free composition has one element which brings about some order: all the planes of the waves are caught and clipped together at one point – along the entrance axis. Emphasised with the front post, it imposes order instantly on all the trembling geometry of the waves and clips together all the sinusoids in their maxima or minima.

This way, it determines a special point in the building, the point where you can get under the waves of the roof and proceed underneath them in the direction set by that axis, with an orderly sequence of waves above your head. The axis which imposes order on the entrance and on the layout of the waves leads the viewer further on inside – to the other side of the interior, which is in a full and deliberate contrast to the heavy stone entrance elevation. It is entirely open and glazed, showing a panoramic view of the Vistula and its opposite bank with Wawel Castle on the left and St Michael’s Church on the right. The large panoramic window of the entrance hall and of the café frames the view of the opposite bank. The view thus becomes a borrowed element of the composition (shakkei). It is the culmination of, and a reward for the viewer who has traversed, the path – the scenario. At the same time it unveils for the newcomer the historical context in which the collection of Japanese art has been situated. It allows you to stop for a moment – a moment needed to transfer from the noisy world of the street to the world of perception of art and reflection.

Krzysztof Ingarden

Lower storey

The Interior

The finish of the interiors is a consistent complement of the scenario. We have mentioned that the interiors are supposed to stress the bi-cultural dimension of the facility. One can notice already in the entrance hall that the central route within the building, composed of a series of large gates, is dualist in nature: utterly un-Japanese due to the finish material, and Japanese in terms of composition.

The gates, which align themselves into ever smaller stage wings in a perspective, one behind another, and move on from the hall to the exhibition room, resemble the rhythm of torii gates on a path, forming entrances to some Japanese temples. These gates, however, in the building, are clad with brick, a material utterly alien to Japanese tradition. Can such a material be a backdrop for displaying Japanese art? Its use in this project is intended as a way to transfer the external context of the site into the exhibition room. For the viewer, it is to provide information that Jasieński’s collection is exhibited near the walls of Wawel – walls made of brick and visible from the entrance hall. It is also to signal that the Manggha Centre building is part of the culture of a specific place near Wawel.

At the same time, the other elements of the interior – dark-wood structures (deep bog green), the dark-grey ceiling between the beams, and the black hardwood of the floor – are to create a mysterious space of darkness, an ambiance comparable to the murky interiors of Japanese castles of the Edo period. The interior of the exhibition room had to be strong and stark enough for the displayed samurai armours to feel at home, and sufficiently delicate and neutral to prevent them from dominating the sensitive impressions of Japanese woodblock prints. When describing the composition of the Japanese Centre, one should point out that, in structural terms, the building is subordinated to form. In other words, its form is not the result of simple structural or functional necessity (which was the primary postulate of Modernism in architecture).

In the case of the Centre, the form is decided by the content that it is to represent, although clearly the form has to allow for adequate realisation of the function. The building of unique form, austere and void of excessive detail after the Modernist manner, is to tell a poetic tale of two cultures. Such a special correlation between the architect’s intention – a poetic tale – and the form which is to express it can be described by paraphrasing the well-known Modernist slogan ‘form follows function’ into one that describes the Manggha Centre better: form follows poetry.

Krzysztof Ingarden