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The Miho Museum, near Kyoto, was designed by I.M. Pei, who created a structure that is at once strikingly modern, respectful of traditional Japanese aesthetics and sits at ease within nature. As Pei himself once said, "This is Shangri-La".

The architect I.M. Pei might be most famous for his glass pyramid at the Louvre, and more recently known for the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, but the project that he describes as his personal Shangri-La is much less known. The Miho Museum, located within a nature preserve in the town of Shigaraki, near Kyoto, Japan, was commissioned in 1991 by heiress Mihoko Koyama as a home for her collection of Asian antiquities. When it opened in 1997, it stunned the international design community with its combination of traditional Japanese references that sit in harmony with Pei’s signature use of vast planes of glass, all of which rest on a lush mountainside.

In a feat of both engineering and design, 80% of the 180,000sq. ft. Miho Museum is installed underground. Rather than dig into the earth, Pei choose to move the earth and then put it back on top of the structure, along with the same trees. “As a consequence, it blends with nature,” commented Pei. “You cannot separate the two from each other.”

The Miho Museum’s ability to be both at once a striking architectural structure while also blending into the surrounding nature is something that Pei carefully studied to achieve. “Look at the works of Le Notre, the great 17th century French landscape architect. He reshaped nature into a work of architecture,” said Pei at the time of the museum’s opening.

A dramatic entrance to the museum takes in a tunnel and bridge that spans two mountain ridges, both of which are references to traditional Japanese architecture. “I can think of no better example to illustrate the difference between the east and the west with respect to the relationship between architecture and nature,” explains Pei of his desire to incorporate Asian aesthetics. “[The site was] considered to be a sacred place, once chosen to be the site for an important temple... [We] took great care in planning the museum with minimum disturbance of the surrounding nature.”

From the entrance, glimpses of Pei’s classic glass roofs can be spied within the lush mountainside. As modernist as they are, the shapes of these glass structures were inspired by farmhouses of the Edo period. Like at the Louvre, the interior is constructed from French limestone and is flooded with light from above.

Because of its geographical situation, the Miho Museum closes for approximately 3 months of the year as its access roads freeze up in cold weather. Just reopened on March 12, the Miho is presenting its annual exhibition, a show of the work of Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-99). But, despite the treasures that lie within it, it is the building itself that remains the star attraction of the Miho Museum. As I.M. Pei notes: “This is a building built in our times... but I had the responsibility to respect the tradition that has developed through the centuries.”



"Japan's architects in the distant past strove to bring their buildings into harmony with their environment and the surrounding view. Of course, I don't want to be a copycat but I do want to respect the thinking of the Japanese people and their culture and traditions.

I think you can see a very conscious attempt on my part to make the silhouette of the building comfortable in the natural landscape.

It goes without saying that the external structure is an essential element but at the same time the content must be of an international grade as well."

I.M. Pei


More info:

The Miho Musuem reopened on March 12, 2010 with the exhibition Nagasawa Rosetsu: The Fanciful Painter, that runs until June 5. The museum usually closes in December until the following March.

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