The Minneapolis Institute of Art has three distinct architectural faces: neoclassical, modern and postmodern. Of these three, the most intriguing and least appreciated is the modernism of architect Kenzo Tange’s annexes, which also are quintessentially Japanese.

The museum opened its doors in 1915: a majestic neoclassical building with a central portico and a grand stair, designed by McKim, Mead & White. When, half a century later, a major expansion was needed, modern architecture had gained ground. The institute’s board of trustees envisaged a new modern complex, and deliberated over 30 major architects from around the world. The coveted commission eventually went to leading modernist Kenzo Tange, already a celebrated virtuoso in his native Japan. Tange went on to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1987 and the prestigious Praemium Imperiale in Arts in 1993.

Tange, born in 1913, emerged as a powerful figure in Japan after World War II. Commissioned by the Japanese Institute for War Recovery, the architect set up his Tange Lab (at Tokyo Imperial University, where he taught) to survey bomb damage in war-ravaged cities. This led to Tange’s first major breakthrough work in building: Hiroshima Peace Center (1949-56), which included a memorial in the shape of a hyperbolic parabola (reminiscent of the Japanese haniwa clay cylinders that marked the mounded kofun tombs) and a museum, a magnificent linear concrete structure raised on pillars.

In the 1960s, Tange produced a great many masterpieces in Japan, and then his architectural enterprise shifted abroad (due to an economic downturn in Japan in the 1970s). He focused on big commissions in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, ultimately accumulating more than 100 buildings and planning projects outside of Japan — yet with only two completed projects in the United States, the other a high-rise in Chicago (1990).

On a wintry January day in 1970, Tange flew to Minneapolis to present his vision to the museum’s board of trustees. Tange identified himself as an urbanist first and an architect second, which impressed the trustees because the expansion project to configure a cultural complex at the heart of the city required a planner’s sensitivity. Tange grasped the multiple needs of a museum, a theater and a school. His design philosophy to preserve each building’s identity while achieving a harmonic whole struck home with the trustees.

A photo from the institute’s archives shows a well-groomed Tange in a fitted jacket (fashionably, with only its middle button fastened), a striped shirt and a patterned tie, his hair neatly combed back, his thick eyebrows sticking out. Gazing intently at a site model that covers a large portion of the Minneapolis urban fabric, Tange obviously had planning in mind.

Tange’s plan revolved around strong axes: an east wing with a theater annex attached to it through a linkage above and a glass entryway below, and a west wing with a school building placed behind it at some distance along Stevens Avenue. This placement afforded each building a sense of individuality, and together, they demarcated a shared semi-public/semi-private inner courtyard that reciprocally strengthened the buildings’ bonds. (Little did Tange know that his sophisticated planning would later be marred by the blatant intrusion of a postmodern theater annex and the Target wing, designed by Michael Graves.)

With a minimalist touch, Tange joined the new wings to the original building via the buffer of a glass structure. Thus capping and framing the neoclassical front on its ends placed the façade in the spotlight, as if it were itself an exhibit of the museum, as Tange intended. To enhance an overall unity, Tange clad his additions in white-glazed brick, punctuated with dark panes of windows in varied sizes. On the whole, the new complex exuded silence (an aesthetic principle that underlies many Japanese art forms), especially when immersed in the snow-filled wonder of a wintry Minnesota landscape.

Yet, this splendid complex only partially celebrated Tange’s architectural prowess, which stems from his reinterpretation of Japanese artistic traditions in the context of modern Japan. During an intense “tradition debate” in postwar Japan (incited by a national identity crisis), Tange advocated an architectural sensibility assimilating two prehistoric, aboriginal styles: Jomon vs. Yayoi. The contrast between Jomon and Yayoi can be thought of as free-spirit vs. logic, which translates, in the stylistic realm, to organic vs. geometrical forms. Jomon designs radiate uninhibited forces of movement; they exemplify, in Tange’s words, “the vital pulsations of life.” In contrast, Yayoi designs display intellectual order, their forms marked by control and calm.

Tange’s finest works indeed capitalize on the dualities of dynamic forces and geometrical order, Jomon and Yayoi — as seen in, for example, his iconic Tokyo Olympic Gymnasiums (1964) with dramatic sweeping concave and convex roofs (onto which are soldered enameled steel plates), suspended by steel cables draped from a central structural spine. Here, structural daring is balanced and sustained by rigorous geometric calculations.

When it comes to architectural form, the Minneapolis Insttitute of Art is no match for Tange’s masterpieces. However, his splendid modernist additions met the institute’s goal to instill a “mod social hub” in the city. Inside the museum, dynamic architectural elements — stairs, bridges, walkways, openings and lofty spaces — boost chance encounters, social interactions and visual connections, within as well as without, to the surrounding landscape.

Over the years, fillers and space alterations have not been kind to Tange’s original design. Thankfully, a recent redesign by VJAA (an acclaimed local architectural firm) restores and even amplifies lightness and liveliness in the museum lobby of Tange’s wing. VJAA’s subtle and clean design, on the one hand, counters Graves’ postmodernist grimaces of a kitsch classicism, and on the other, revives Tange’s modernism and minimalism. New spaces, amenities and cozy furniture in the open seating areas encourage visitors to linger and mingle. Surely, “the vital pulsations of life” are vibrantly felt in today’s museum.


Lisa Hsieh is an assistant professor of architecture of the University of Minnesota.