Eight days before the revered architect I.M. Pei passed away at 102 years of age, I had the opportunity to visit one of his last—and more remote—commissions: the Miho Museum in Japan.
Standing amidst the Shiga mountains in a protected nature preserve, Pei’s Miho Museum, which opened in 1997, fits in well with the other modern yet very accessible works of this master who left an indelible mark on the world before his passing on May 16th of this year.
Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural historian and author Paul Goldberger wrote a lovely obituary for Pei in the New York Times, capturing the architect’s expansive work and spirit. When thinking of Pei, my mind naturally turns to the beautiful East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a museum I’ve visited many times. One feature that always brings a smile to my face wasn’t exactly designed by Pei. Etched into the stone is a listing of all those who made the East Building possible—politicians, National Gallery leadership, architects, and more. At one point the beautiful Tennessee marble has turned a different color, the result of millions of visitors rubbing the name of I.M. Pei with their hands, wanting to connect physically and spiritually with the design that showed how a modernist could fit a masterpiece into the core of Washington’s monumental architecture.
While not as famous as the East Building, the glass pyramid at the Louvre, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or other major works designed by Pei, the Miho Museum nonetheless struck me as impressive architecture that beautifully fit its site and unique program.*
After a slow ride up curvy mountain roads, one arrives at the Miho and its welcome center. From that point visitors approach the museum itself via a pedestrian tunnel cut through the mountain, giving a hint of the 75% of the museum spaces that Pei placed underground to maintain the look of the nature preserve.
From the darkness of the tunnel the light draws you toward a cantilevered bridge and a first look at the museum building. I was there on a perfect spring day. The shift from darkness to light and beauty was as striking as it was intentional.
Once inside the museum, Pei’s use of steel and glass for the ceilings and some exterior walls, balanced with warm French limestone for the interior spaces, takes over the experience. The extensive glass allows a sense of nature to move into the building, and also provides vistas which include an earlier bell tower Pei designed for the museum’s founder.
After almost two hours at this wonderful space, it was time to go. The trip back from the light into the tunnel meant you were leaving what Pei, upon first seeing the site, described as Shangri-La.
I would have felt privileged to see this beautiful work of art at any point, but to have had the opportunity to be in Japan and to see the Miho Museum first-hand in the month of the master architect’s passing, was especially moving.
Rest in peace, I.M. Pei. Your work has graced the world we live in.
More to come…
*I’m not going to use this post to go into the somewhat mysterious—and perhaps questionable—practices in acquisition of the collection by the controversial founder of the museum, Mihoko Koyama, who is also the founder of Shumeikai, a new religious group that claims some 300,000 followers.