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Yoshio Taniguchi

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Yoshio Taniguchi has been little-known outside Japan, until MoMA. In Japan he is best known for a series of galleries and museums - these building types are often not so different, since in Japan some of the 'museums', such as at Marugame, are devoted to a single, renowned, living artist.

There are other buildings, too: schools, a base for IBM, a municipal waste-recycling centre-cumexhibition (the Ecorium). But these buildings also share with the galleries their repose, their sense of being sanctuaries in the non-plan of Japan - however urban their location - and their generosity of public spaces, their controlled yet sensuous Minimalism, their refinement of detail, the animating effects of daylight.

Taniguchi was educated first as a mechanical engineer in Japan, then in architecture at the Graduate School of Design in Harvard, under Sert. His first main job, through 1964-72, was in Kenzo Tange's studio, with work on projects such as the replanning of Skopje in the former Yugoslavia (now Macedonia). Since he set up his own practice in 1975, though, the projects have all been within Japan - until MoMA.

MoMA was also his first experience of an international competition, so he cannot tell whether it is typical that when he won, one of the runners-up, Herzog & de Meuron, sent him chocolates and a picture-postcard of a knife. He smiles about it now, as he did then, taking it in the spirit in which it may have been intended.

In visiting some of his Japanese buildings, it is the consistency of atmosphere, as much as the architectural form, that is so striking. Almost like the tea house writ large, there is a serenity, a sense that the pace at which you experience the building (and its contents) is being controlled. Like the tea house, too, there is the dominant orthogonality, but one not afraid of the occasional contradiction. And the austerity that can be Minimalism is dissolved by a sensuous, though understated, handling of materials - for Taniguchi, with today's palette of glass, steel and tile, enriched with stone and timber. He wishes not to invent details but 'to reduce them'.

On a larger scale, spaces flow from one to the other, each gradually revealing the next, no one of them a central climax. It is a very Japanese approach. To the Western eye, reading his building plans suggests a cellularity and lack of simple legibility that evaporates when you experience the building in its three dimensions.

Models are an essential part of Taniguchi's way of working, a means by which he realises everything, from this subtle three-dimensional legibility through to his refinement of details. In the Japanese context, which allows it to happen, he talks of working everything out first, then building very quickly. On one modest-sized project I visited, site huts were given over to models, including some storey-height details at full size. In Japan it is assumed that things will be built well; delivering the same in New York was a challenge. Literally hundreds of models have been built for MoMA, Taniguchi says. To cope in New York he has had to accept wider joints and tolerances. In Japan he can think in terms of an eighth of an inch, he points out, but in the US it begins at three-eighths. In anticipation of such site issues, he changed the rhythm of some of his architecture by using larger components - not necessarily inappropriate to MoMA's size and context.

There is also a language of columns - something we rarely talk of. For us, it belongs to the lost age of pilotis, before every space beneath a building was assumed to be a retail opportunity.

For Taniguchi, there are rectilinear colonnades of substantial materiality, and then the columns that seek to disappear, apparently impossibly tall and slender, the hard-won product of ingenuity such as concrete-filled steel or even solid rectangular-section steel (as are several-storey mullions on to the garden at MoMA). There are also the broad circular columns, counterpoints to his rectilinearity, solid objects in space like those in temples, sometimes standing alone, that could have been avoided structurally, articulating space and directing the flow of movement.

Most of his buildings stand alone. Where there is a closer urban context, the buildings typically aim to redefine this rather than respond to it; not too surprising in the non-plan of Japanese urbanism. Whether facing out into the landscape or in an urban setting, creating an enclave that faces inward, water is often a key focus for contemplation, playing a similar role to gravel and rock gardens exemplified by the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, but in contemporary form. On several projects he has also worked with US landscape architect Peter Walker.

The development of his Japanese architecture is well documented in The Architecture of Yoshio Taniguchi (published by Harry N Abrams) and in the exhibition, 'Yoshio Taniguchi: Nine Museums' now on show at MoMA. The man is more hidden - how will he, as sensitive as his architecture, handle the glare of MoMA publicity, of in-your-face New York? With controlled calm, one suspects. He will not be joining the superstar circuit. He wishes to be there, on site, with his buildings. He has done relatively little teaching and lecturing in the past and has largely given those up to devote all his time to making architecture.

As he says: 'To this day my interest in, and passion for, architecture has not changed in the least, and no matter how much time and energy I may devote to it, I enjoy every moment of it. I believe myself very fortunate for having chosen it as my life's work.'

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