Asia Museum Of Modern Art

Built on a rigid triangular geometry the new “Asia Museum of Modern Art” in Taichung/Taiwan shows Tadao Ando’s skills in building a controlled, high-quality masterpiece that acts as an urban anchor for the surrounding university campus.

Japanese contemporary architecture is in high demand in Taiwan these days. The former colony is currently a welcoming importer of dozens of high-profile projects from architects from its Northern neighbor. For the time being almost all first prizes in architectural design competitions in Taiwan goes North. Up until very recently the only major Japanese architect without a project in Taiwan was Tadao Ando. That changed a month ago, when Ando’s new “Asia Museum of Modern Art” opened its doors to the public in Taichung in central Taiwan.

The new three-storey, triangular museum is affiliated with the Asia University, whose campus-in-the-making surrounds the new building. Ando’s new museum has the power to transform the whole campus which – urbanistically so far – is set rather unhappily in Taichung’s Wufeng district, where its tacky neo-classicist main building feels utterly out of place. Ando’s contribution thus is a quantum leap ahead.

Traditionally, university museums were founded and designed for one of two purposes: Either to collect pieces of art that the local students could use as case-studies in their art education, or to collect pieces that the Professors themselves bought, discovered or produced. Asia University does not have an art or even art-history curriculum, however, so neither scenario is the case in the new museum of the Asia University. It was commissioned simply because “great universities like Harvard or Princeton all have great art museums”, according to the mission statement.

So the intention in Taichung was to gain prestige for the school which is a fair goal. But the client, Mr. Chang-hai Tsai, was risk-averse in his choice of art works to be bought for display in his new museum (mainly Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, an all-time favorite anywhere in North-East Asia) and also in his choice of the architect. Bypassing an architectural design competition, Mr. Tsai directly commissioned Tadao Ando of Osaka, arguably one of the world’s best museum architects of our time. A safe bet.

By picking Ando, Mr. Tai could be sure to get a beautiful, pure, well-built museum that would raise some attention. And so it went. Mr. Tsai is the Chairman of China Medical University and the Founder of Asia University. From 1995 to 2001 he served as superintendent of China Medical University Hospital. He received a M.D. from Teikyo University in Japan in 1997, so the choice of the architect is also reconnecting the client with the country in which he studied.

Ando designed a marvelous, rigid, well-detailed building around the small art collection. Known for basic geometries and his skill-full use of exposed concrete, Ando in this case picked a triangular geometry, which is rather unusual in his oeuvre. The choice proved to be a blessing and a curse at the same time. While Ando totally resolved the diagonal grid even in the smallest detail including the furniture, the rigor of the equal sided triangle still feels like a cage at times. To soften this, Ando made a wise choice in offsetting the three floors against each other. This move increases visual and spatial drama.

Rodin’s “The Thinker” greets visitors on approach. Upon entry into the lobby, the building welcomes its visitors with a strong smell of fresh concrete. While the ground floor contains secondary uses such as café, shop and lecture hall, the first and second upper floors both contain art galleries, with one floor being the reverse mirror image of the other. While on the first upper floor the perimeter hallways are wide enough to be used for the display of artworks on moveable walls (Ando’s concrete walls themselves are sacrosanct of course!), in the top floor much narrower, empty hallways circumvent a set of inner galleries. Thus, the galleries on the lower floor have a lot of daylight from one side (which can only be controlled by some simple inner louvers), the upper floor galleries have to depend on electric light for making the art works come alive. Four different stairs connect the three floors.

Curator Su Yao-hua will probably have a bit of a hard time matching her exhibitions with the spaces on offer. Basically there is two kinds exhibition spaces: either bright rooms behind an all-glass façade with lots of views of the hotchpotch campus setting around it (including a very dominant power pole next door) or introverted spaces without any light or views. In the uppermost floor a central triangular atrium is cut out of the floor plan.

The design of the facades is driven by the horizontal tatami-size proportions of the mullions and exposed concrete surfaces and the V-shaped columns behind the glass that are used for compression in most places and for tension, where the top wing of the museum is turned into a suspension bridge to form a cover above the entrance plaza below. The structure here resembles a Vierendeel truss – only with diagonal columns. There is not as single vertical column to be found anywhere in the building. The nice thing about the all-glass facade is that it animates the elevations with art works visible through the curtain wall, preventing a closed-box impression that all too many museums around the world feature.

Ando’s architecture is worth nothing if it is not built well. This proved to be a challenge in Taiwan: Six Japanese craftsmen were stationed on-site to supervise construction and make sure that all pieces meet the strict “Osaka standards” for fair-faced concrete set out by Ando. The construction process often went “two steps forward, one step back”: Many elements were built, knocked down and rebuilt again with a better quality – this costly and labor-some learning process finally led to a building of very high standards.

In conclusion the choice of understated, all-grey materials and surfaces creates a good, humble background for the art works on display. And for the urban factor the powerful geometry of the new museum has already proved to be an urban anchor for the surrounding university campus.