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The MoMA in Kamakura and Le Corbusier’s Disciples

The Japanese architect Sakakura Junzō 坂倉 準三 (1901-1969) led a charmed life. The man with a degree in art history from the Tokyo Imperial University was accepted into Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris, stayed there for seven years, and then went on to become one of the most famous modernist architects in Japan. It seems that Sakakura only formally studied architecture for six months at the Paris Institute of Technology. As was common in that day and age he learned his skills through apprenticeship. And what a star assistant he made. He would go on to design, in collaboration with other like-minded architects, the National Museum of Western Art (1959) in Tokyo, the West Plaza of Shinjuku Station (1967) also in Tokyo, the artist Okamoto Taro’s house (1953, now a museum), and the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura (1951), a city in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture.

The Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.

The Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.

It is the 神奈川県立近代美術館 MoMA Kanagawa that we visited last week. When one hears the word “MoMA” out comes memories of the colossal beauty that is the MoMA in New York, or for Tokyoites, the futuristic 国立新美術館 National Arts Center in Ropponggi. But the one in Kamakura is quite tiny in comparison. Yet it is the very first public museum in Japan dedicated to modern art. Small as it may be, it is a bright, airy building, aptly built by a modernist architect.

Views from the interior of the MoMA Kanagawa.

Views from the interior of the MoMA Kanagawa.

It’s quite obvious to see Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture applied to the museum. The bulk of the structure is off the ground, supported by what could be the equivalent of pilotis (reinforced concrete stilts) in the form of slender steel columns. There is a free facade (non-supporting walls) and an open floor plan that make up the exhibition room. Because the second floor holds the artworks there are no ribbon windows all around, but the center of the building opens to an inner courtyard allowing light throughout the building. The small cafe sandwiched between the two exhibit rooms has wall-to-wall glass windows, with views of the pond and surrounding trees. The first floor, featuring natural stone walls, opens to the yard and pond, like a spacious porch. The one point that is missing is the roof garden. But never mind that. The whole building screams modernist. It must have made Le Corbusier proud of his disciple.

Tribute to Charlotte

Speaking of Le Corbusier, on exhibit that day was the French architect and industrial designer Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), another one of the great man’s disciples. I am willing to admit that at first, I cared not for the building itself, but was only interested in seeing Periand’s works. It seemed that Perriand and Sakakura got acquainted at Le Corbusier’s Paris office, and that was why her works were chosen for exhibit in celebration of the MoMA Kanagawa’s 60th anniversary.

Billboard and used ticket for the Charlotte Perriand exhibit at the MoMA Kanagawa.

Billboard and used ticket for the Charlotte Perriand exhibit at the MoMA Kanagawa.

The exhibit is a tribute to Perriand, with focus on her connection to Japan and how Japanese traditional art and design influenced her works. Perriand arrived in Japan in 1940 on invitation from the Japanese government. She worked as an adviser in “modernizing” and promoting Japanese designs to make them viable for foreign export. The exhibit is a source of joy for her fans: it displays not just Periand’s first issue creations but also plenty of hand-drawn sketches, scaled drawings, design notes, a scale model of one of her buildings, as well as black-and-white photographs of her travels throughout Japan. There were even lecture notes and legal documents. Her representative furniture designs are on display, as well as lesser known pieces.

It was apparent that Perriand learned a lot from Japanese traditional interiors, as shown in her design of a staircase-type cabinet, a modernized version of the Japanese 階段下収納 kaidan-shita shūnō, as well as wall bookshelves inspired by the Japanese 違い棚 chigaidana. Two of her diaries filled with sketches, measurements and notes are also on display (not the actual notebooks but digitally scanned pages on a self-flipping screen). The evolution of her design sensibilities—from her preference for glass, tubular steel, and chrome-plated furniture to the increasing use of paper and bamboo after her stay in Japan—is well documented in the exhibit.

The first floor video viewing area, showing a documentary on Perriand.

The first floor video viewing area, showing a documentary on Perriand.

Charlotte Perriand was constantly overshadowed by her mentors and peers. The story goes that when she first interviewed for Le Corbusier’s atelier, she was rejected in a condescending manner. Undaunted, she turned her own apartment into a modernist dream, and produced enough to hold a solo exhibit. It was then that Le Corbusier was convinced of her potential, and took her into his atelier in 1927. She would go on to help design the chairs that Le Corbusier is famous for, the iconic LC series. She also gave the world the bookcase-type movable wall partition, as well as the plastic stacking tray system. Her designs were not just practical, but had a simple beauty. She was a modernist pioneer, one of the rare, successful women in the architecture profession. Still I felt that, maybe with the exception of her Japanese fans, she never really got the recognition she deserved.

The iconic LC series chairs in the first floor video viewing area.

The iconic LC series chairs in the first floor video viewing area.

Speaking of chairs, in the first floor video viewing area of the museum the officially licensed furniture manufacturer Cassina generously provided LC-1, LC-2, LC-3, and LC-4 for everyone to sit on. And boy, were they super comfortable! There’s a reason why these chairs are so incredibly popular. We could have sat there all day.

Coffee shop at the MoMA in Kamakura.

Coffee shop at the MoMA in Kamakura.

After looking at the exhibit, we were ready for some coffee and cake. We tried the one coffee shop, a teeny-weeny space wedged between the exhibition rooms. There was a mural on one wall, color coordinated with Arne Jacobsen’s chairs in orange. It was bright but windy and chilly outside so we stayed indoors, but the balcony had lovely views of the pond and neighboring shrine. There was a very, very limited menu; we each had a cup of tea and quiche. There’s a 50 JPY discount for ticket holders.

Sculptures at the MoMA Kanagawa's main building.

Sculptures at the MoMA Kanagawa's main building.

In the first floor there are sculptures in the courtyard as well as outside around the building.

Getting There

At the MoMA Kanagawa it was a day filled with modernist architects and their designs, from the building itself to the objects inside. The museum is less than half-an-hour away from Yokohama station by train, and about a 10-minute walk from Kamakura station. The 900 JPY admission ticket covers both the main museum and the annex, about five minutes away on foot. It is right next to the 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, so you can see both modernist architecture and traditional Japanese structures in a day.

NOTE: The pictures shown above are of the main building in Kamakura. The annex is not shown here, but will be put in a separate article. There is another building that comprises the MoMA Kanagawa, the largest of the three in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture. We’ll visit there one day and give you a report here, as always.

I’d Love to Hear from You!

So, what do you think of this article? Do share your thoughts in the Comments section below. Also, if you know this museum well and have some tips for visitors, do share!

External Links

The Museum of Modern Art in Kanagawa – official site
Charlotte Perriand – biography at
Charlotte Perriand – Centre Pompidou’s page. It’s in French, but even those that can’t read French will be delighted by the photographs.

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  1. Hmm. Building reminds me of the Villa Savoye. Minus the rounded top.

    • Yes, they do have similarities! I guess that’s because they’re built on the same principles. I would have added a rooftop garden. :)

  2. Nice article, pics and info on a rather obscure museum. I’ll check out the exhibit schedule and might go if something interests me.

    • The Charlotte Perriand exhibit is until early January next year, I believe. I do hope you’ll find something interesting in next year’s schedule! :)

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