Tokyo Makes Waves

Visitors to Roppongi, Tokyo's posh entertainment district, come for a taste of the latest trends in fashion, food and fun. But increasingly, the tree-lined neighborhood is offering up opportunities for more-highbrow culture: last month the dazzling new National Art Center, Tokyo--called the Big Wave--became the latest museum to open. The spectacular building, by the world-renowned architect Kisho Kurokawa, who also designed the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, uses thousands of sheets of glass to achieve a sense of fluid transparency. It features a 22-meter-high atrium and 14,000 square meters of exhibition space--more than any other museum in Japan--and is designed to be energy efficient, incorporating special glass to cut heat and recycling rainwater. "We now have a cutting-edge art center," says its director, Hideki Hayashida. "We believe it will play an important role as the new art spot."

In keeping with its open, flowing structure, the administrators have taken the unusual--and controversial--step of shunning any permanent collection in favor of high-powered exhibits that come and go. Hayashida says it will typically host two large exhibitions simultaneously, featuring not only world-famous artists but also up-and-coming young Japanese artists. The inaugural show, "Living in the Material World--Things in the Art of the 20th Century and Beyond," showcases more than 500 works spanning the last century, from Paul Cézanne and Marcel Duchamp at the beginning to Jasper Johns and Cornelia Parker at the end. On top of that, a selection of 200 items from the Pompidou Center in Paris also opened last week.

Since the center opened, it has drawn thousands of visitors each day, intrigued by the building as well as by the idea of consuming art between shopping for Louis Vuitton and Armani. Indeed, the National Art Center arrives in the midst of Roppongi's cultural transformation. For many years, the area was known mainly for its bars, clubs and boutiques. But that has begun to change--especially since the 2003 opening of the Roppongi Hills complex, which consists of office buildings as well as the Mori contemporary art museum. "I could never have imagined that this area would change so much in such a short period of time," says Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori museum. And there is more to come. Across the street from the Big Wave, the Kengo Kuma-designed Suntory Art Museum, a collection of Japanese traditional arts, and the research design center 21/21 DESIGN SIGHT, created by Tadao Ando and Issey Miyake, are scheduled to open next month.

The change didn't happen overnight. Conceived 30 years ago, the plan for the National Art Center was originally devised in response to calls by dozens of local art associations for more space to display their annual exhibits. But experts argued that a "national" art center would not fulfill that purpose. After years of discussion planners decided that the new place should host large-scale exhibitions as well as smaller, local ones to better serve the public.

That's easier said than done, however. "I imagine it's going to look like a department store of art exhibitions," says one expert who asked for anonymity. Others believe that the center, which cost as much as $290 million, doesn't have enough resources left to continue planning innovative shows. "The question is whether [it can] produce exhibitions that will be as good as the new facilities," says Kenichi Nagata, a professor of the philosophy of art at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

For now, it's off to a good start. Critics have praised the building's design, and visitors have been as impressed by the galleries' accessibility as by the works on display. Forthcoming exhibits will include a show on Monet and one on emerging Japanese designers. At this rate, the Big Wave is destined to make quite a splash on Japan's cultural landscape.