A Hidden Jewel in the Mountains of Japan

Chosen among the 10 most significant works of I.M. Pei, the Miho Museum was inspired by poetry.
11 July, 2017
The internationally famous architect I.M. Pei turned 100 this year to much fanfare, but there's a much less celebrated Pei masterpiece in Japan that deserves greater attention.
Pei is the architect who designed the Miho Museum, a jewel nestled into the mountainside near the town of Shigarakicho Tashiro, just to the southeast of Kyoto.

The Miho Museum is named after its late founder, Mihoko Koyama, an affluent Japanese woman who commissioned Pei for the USD$216 million project as part of a commitment to her Shinji Shumeikai spiritual organization. Pei says that when he first saw the site destined to house a collection of Eastern antiquities, he was reminded of a Chinese poem that speaks of a lost paradise discovered only by traveling through a cave opening. That inspiration ultimately found expression in the museum itself.
The site is adjacent to a protected nature preserve, and visitors arriving at the museum must first enter through a long tunnel burrowed into a mountain ridge. The tunnel is lined with curved aluminium panels that change color with the time of day or season, reflecting the cherry blossom pink or verdant green of the landscape that meets it. Inside, the pathway of the brushed aluminium tunnel is lit by wall sconces that cast pools of light to the surface. A visitor emerges from the tunnel to next encounter a bridge.

The 120-meter half-suspension bridge with its steel rope archway spans a ravine before reaching the steps of the Miho and a circular door that mirrors the tunnel entranceway. The effect is so striking that in May, the Louis Vitton design house used the Miho approach as a runway for a 2018 fashion show.
Image: Wikimedia
Yet it's there that visitors for the past two decades have stepped into a museum that disappears into the mountain itself. There's a reason for that, and it's because of Pei himself. Initially, the Miho Museum was meant to be a modest oasis of art offered by the Shinji Shumeikai sect. Pei agreed to take on the project – he had previously completed a bell tower for the group – on the condition that Mihoko Koyama expand the collection. She agreed, investing impressive sums in antiquities for the museum to the tune of a reported $500 million meant to advance the spiritual dimensions of nature and history.

As the catalogue of treasures grew, so did the space needed to house them. Yet since there was little room to expand between the ridges, the Miho Museum room additions were built underground. Today, more than 80 percent of the galleries and exhibit space are sheltered in the mountain itself, bringing to life Pei's vision of the Chinese poem from childhood and his sense that the museum is like Shangri-La.
Image: Lifebylyle
The rooms in the 17,400 square meter facility that are above ground include a warm atrium, with floors and walls in limestone and breathtaking views. Above them is a translucent geometric roof achieved using triangles to evoke a sense of the traditional Japanese roof and its angles. Natural light bathes the galleries and hallways on these floors, which from the air appear as a cluster of small village houses. Aluminium also was used in the slats, designed to look like bamboo blinds and mute the glare of the sun.

The Miho Museum is a distinctively angular Pei creation, and was selected this year as one of the 10 most significant buildings designed by the now-centenarian architect.
Banner image: Hiveminer