A Royal Home Renovated – Art Deco Inspiration in Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
One can say that the expansive scope of modernity we see and feel in Japan today is very much owed to the rise of the Meiji Restoration Period (1868-1912). It was, perhaps, inevitable that the country had to break its shell after over 200 years of nationalistic seclusion from the rest of the world. Thus, when the era of “enlightenment” embraced enormous military, political, economic, educational and social reforms that aimed to fuse modern technology from the West and traditional values from the East, it consequently adopted “new” artistic and architectural influences from the West, which were carried on until the early Showa Era in response to the advancement of the Industrial Revolution movement in Japan.
Today, we may witness only a few of such remaining Western architecture around Tokyo: Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum and Café 1894, Marunouchi (1894), Tokyo Station (1914), Old Shimbashi Station Historic Site (1872), Akasaka Palace (1909), Bank of Japan, Nihonbashi (1882), Tokyo National Museum, Ueno (1872), Ministry of Justice Building, Kasumigaseki (1895), The Imperial Library of Japan, Nagatacho (1872), Mitsui Honkan, Nihonbashi (1929), Mitsukoshi Department Store, Nihonbashi (1935), K Hattori Building-Wako Department Store, Ginza (1932) and others. Among them, an often-neglected historical edifice but bearing equal significance and prestige not only for its vast, sprawling garden but also more importantly for the Art Deco interiors of Prince Asaka’s former residence, is the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Meguro.
About a ten-minute walk from Meguro or Shiroganedai stations, the museum property is conspicuous enough from the main road by the thick canopy of luscious trees, which also adjoins the Institute for Nature Study. During the Edo period, the Matsudaira Clan from the Sanuki-Takamatsu domain in Shikoku took residence on this site, and when the domain system was abolished in 1871, the land was returned to the Japanese Imperial government. Since then up to 1913, the estate acted as an arsenal, until a portion of about 35,000 square meters was granted to Prince Asaka in 1921.
Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), son-in-law of Emperor Meiji, was a military officer of the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1923, he was sent to France to study military strategy where he and his wife remained for another two years. Incidentally, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was held in Paris in 1925, that the Prince and Princess visited with much enthusiasm. So captivated by the exposition of the Art Deco style, the couple commissioned French designer Henri Rapin and renowned Art Nouveau glass designer René Lalique to redesign the Asaka residence that currently houses the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. The design of the building was, hence, commenced in 1933, and is considered an elegant masterpiece, the Art Deco style.
From the entrance gate is a pleasant passageway amongst the towering trees leading to the spacious lawn on the left and the imposing façade of the museum building in the center, coated in stucco-like finish (mixed with tiny pebbles), and highlighted by bow-shaped bay windows and decorative air vents in elaborate grillwork. It was the intention of the Prince and Princess to showcase a simple but sophisticated interlace of both Japanese and European design elements, especially in the interior work, which evidently symbolized the immersion of Western culture into the Japanese way of life.
Some of these blended design features can be seen through the inclusion of traditional Japanese patterns, such as the seigaiha (wave pattern of layered concentric circles creating arches), herringbone, and tortoiseshell found in many details around the museum building. The entrance foyer uses the familiar Japanese palace architectural element of goten-mawari (areas used by the Imperial family) and shinka-mawari (areas used by the household staff) divided from each other by double-hinged swinging doors in Lalique glass relief design, while the delicately finished floor is an intricate work of mosaic natural stones designed by Takashi Oga of the Imperial Household Ministry of Construction Bureau.
The radiators in almost all the rooms are covered with interesting grillwork, some consisting of Japanese Art Deco motifs. In the anteroom, the Showa technique of applying black roiro lacquer over concrete is also applied on the fountain bass pedestal and concrete pillars. The ceiling panels in the private dining room are made from Japanese cypress wood, and the doors from Japanese cedar. In this room, one can also spot a tokonoma (recessed alcove for placing a calligraphy scroll and ikebana flower arrangement), a typical traditional Japanese interior feature. More interplay of European and Japanese aesthetics, such as Taizan kiln floors (artistic tiles of the Showa period), Japanese ancient ceramic techniques, nunome linen-pattern tiles, and others can be found in almost all the rooms, balconies and bathrooms.
Similarly, the exquisite garden encompasses a Japanese and European touch with a teahouse at the far end, and beautifully sculptured bushes resembling landscapes of Western castles. The premises are perfect for a quiet promenade and solitary moments.
Running until July 7th, the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum is exhibiting a massive collection of artworks by Polish-born French painter Kisling in the exhibition, Kisling, Grande Figure de I’Ecole de Paris. Kisling, who worked with contemporaries Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Foujita and others, was mostly renowned for his cubist approach, but later rebounded to realism. This technique is widely evident throughout the exhibition, covering approximately 60 paintings from 1920s to 1930s, especially portraits, still-life flowers and landscapes. There is something quite magnetic about Kisling’s works that glitter with bright and bold colors and sharp and deeply pronounced silhouettes, which altogether deliver a long-lasting impact to the viewers. His soft portrayal of almond-eyed nude women is particularly revealing. The vivid spectrum of hues against the boundless green landscape outdoors provides a most enthralling contrast.
Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
5-21-9, Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Approx. 7-10 minute-walk from Meguro or Shirokanedai stations
Garden admission fee: 200 yen
Exhibition admission fee: Depends on the exhibition