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Kanno Museum’s Liminal Structure

A museum with a social and cultural agenda, Kanno Museum lives within a residential-sized building. Hitoshi Abe devised a strategy to design a building where art and structure become interdependent. His design interpolates delicately with its location while pushing steel panel construction forward.

Photos by Atelier Hitoshi Abe & Daici Ano

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Situated on a hilly residential site with a view of the Shiogama Bay in the distance, Kanno Museum is 800 metres away from Shiogama Station in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. The museum presents itself as a textured cube (10m x 20m x 10m) with a corten steel exterior skin with strategic window placements. It is not immediately discernible how many floors the museum comprises by looking at it. The museum was designed to be a modest cultural landmark within its immediate residential surrounding.

There is a noticeable three-metre drop of elevation from the street level to the concrete base of the building and a three-metre setback from the property line to the northern edge of the building. A cantilever sculptural stair made of concrete draws visitors into the main entrance from the museum’s parking area. The design brings to mind an homage to Marcel Breuer’s entry bridge from the street of New York City into his famed Whitney Museum. Visible bare concrete finish ends here.

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The interior space is white where each successive space is polygonal in shape and volume. The first reception space has a southeast triangular window offering visitors an unobstructed view towards the city and the bay. This window forms the top half of the glazed diamond-shaped cutout seen from the exterior. Natural light plays an important role in directing visitors into the subsequent gallery spaces, spread out on three levels connected by hovering steel plate stairs.

We, as visitors, start from the top and wind our way down orbiting a geometric nucleus, where an elevator and a toilet are located. Hitoshi Abe designed each gallery space to have an origin of a specific work of art placed within it. The intimate gallery space feels as if it is suspended at mid level enhanced by natural light coming in from peripheral windows and skylights. Slanted interior walls, made of composite embossed steel plates painted white, dynamically construct the individual character of the respective galleries. These oblong dimples laid on a 25×25 cm grid make the 3.2 mm steel sheet more rigid. By welding these indentations back-to-back, a double-sided wall panel is formed with an overall thickness of six cm.

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The interior slanted walls were derived organically from the boundary surfaces of soap bubbles model. Its cellular proportion and location corresponds to the required building program. Therefore, the logic created by a cell structure also inspires the logic for the structural stability, which simultaneously acts as a spatial enclosure. “The normal, layered model of architecture has to contain absolute coordinates in it somewhere, and these end up dictating the positions and types of space found on each floor,” explains Abe. The result is an ingenious assembly of abstract volumes coupled with shipbuilding technology in architectural construction. Prefabricated steel wall panels had to be transported to building site through narrow residential streets. Each panel was then fitted together and welded on-site.

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Hitoshi Abe further explored the museum’s spatial composition and its possibilities in his Rainbow Exhibition in 2006. He devised punctuated natural lights by affixing gel films to recreate a museum experience into a prismatic display of colours – hues of reds, yellows, blues, greens and purples – bouncing off different finishes inside the museum, while exaggerating its architectural features in a dialectical relationship with the artworks. On my visit to the museum in late November 2017, I witnessed the full effect of natural light dispersed by the white angled and textured museum walls as a “neutral” backdrop for the eight permanent sculptures on display.

The sculptures in the museum are the private collection of Kiyo Kanno which comprise Madeleine Charnot by Bourdelle, Lucilia by Greco, Madame Alice Derain by Despiau, Helmet Head no. 6 by Moore, Woman Looking at Her Foot by Fazzini, Seated Cardinal by Manzu, Small Nude by Marini, and Right hand of Pierre de Wissant, the Burghers of Calais by Rodin. The largest gallery space is located at the lowest level of the museum with a 5-meter ceiling height and is equipped with a grand piano for small concerts and other public functions. A triangular skylight illuminates this space and it reveals itself to be the bottom half of the glazed diamond-shaped cutout seen from the exterior.

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One year prior to Kanno Museum’s opening in 2006, another museum building explored steel plate construction and soap bubbles as a generative idea. It was Makoto Yokomizo’s Tomihiro Art Museum completed in 2005. Yokomizo won the competition in 2002 and derived the idea of differing adjacent tubes from soap bubbles sandwiched between parallel planes. These clusters of tubes satisfy space requirements and establish a rectangular single story envelope covering 2463.5 sqm which is 11 times bigger than Kanno Museum’s total floor area. Tomihiro Art Museum is dedicated to the artworks of Tomihino Hoshino and is located next to Kusaki Dam surrounded by the natural landscape of Kusaki Park and Sankyozan Mountain showcasing the autumn colours during my visit in late November 2011.

Both projects organize museum space in a non-orthodox composition. Each gallery and space was designed with its own unique character. Yokomizo’s design relies more on a multitude of materials and wall colour schemes versus Abe’s restrained choice of materials and sensitive understanding of natural light. Kanno Museum’s angled interior threshold thickness is 6 cm and Tomihiro Art Museum’s is 4 cm at the threshold of adjacent galleries. Steel panel construction demonstrates and facilitates structural optimization and surface subdivision at both museums. These defining walls are robust in their performance yet they are perceptibly delicate.

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