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The Main Building of the National Museum of Western Art is one of the representative buildings designed by French architect Le Corbusier. It is the only building in Japan.
From 1916 through 1923, the Japanese shipping magnate Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950) invested his own personal fortune to collect Western arts, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints. His French collection was stored in Paris, and was seized by the French government as enemy property when Japan suffered a defeat in World War II.. As a result of a bi-lateral discussion, French Government agreed to return most parts of the Matsukata's French collection to Japanese Government in 1953, under the stipulation that a new art museum should be established to properly house and exhibit the art works for raising Japanese understanding on Western art history. In order to fulfill the condition of the collections' return, the Main Building of the National Museum of Western Art (hereinafter referred to as the "Property") was built by the Japanese government in Ueno Park.
Le Corbusier was appointed as the architect of the new museum. In his designing process, Le Corbusier visited Japan in November 1955 to investigate the planned construction site, and finalize a set of drawings and specifications in his atelier in Paris. Based on the plan by Le Corbusier, execution plan was prepared by three Japanese architects, Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Takamasa Yoshizaka, who had studied under Le Corbusier in Paris. The construction work commenced in March 1958 and completed in March 1959, under the supervision of those three architects.
The Property is a reinforced concrete structure with a flat roof. It raises two stories above the ground and one underground story. Its planar configuration is square with 49 pillors (stilts) on a structural regular grid of 6.35x6.35 meter squares.
The organization of the building is based on a spiral within a square. At the center of the building, there is a double-hight court (Nineteenth Century Hall) with a triangular cone skylight which is approached through the pilotis and entrance hall on the ground floor. A ramp within the Nineteenth Century Hall reaches a gallery on the second floor. At half the height of the second floor, there is an entresol that wraps around the Nineteenth Century Hall. Natural light streams in from the high side light placed on the entresol floor and indirectly fills the gallery space on the second floor and the Nineteenth Century Hall.
Thus, visitors walk by the pilotis on the first floor and then enter the building where they are bathed in natural light as they proceed into the Nineteenth Century Hall. Next they are led up a ramp in the southeast section of the hall and on to the exhibition rooms on the second floor. Natural light streaming in from the second-floor windows and clerestory windows leads visitors so that they walk through the exhibition rooms in a clockwise direction and again are led to a ramp.
With its flat roof, square planar configuration, spiral walkways, and floor plan that allow for the extension of the floor spiral as the collection expands, the Property is considered to be a representative work of Le Corbusier's concept of Musée à croissance illimitée ("museum of unlimited growth"). The Property is also valued for its design elements that are characteristic of Le Corbusier, including pilotis, a roof garden, ramps, and a lighting design that incorporates natural light. It thus has outstanding universal value as a building representative of Le Corbusier, a leading world-class architect of the twentieth century.
The Main Building of the National Museum of Western Art is representative of the late years of Le Corbusier, who was one of the fathers of modern architecture and has had an unparalleled influence on architecture since the twentieth century. Moreover, it is the only building in East Asia designed by Le Corbusier. Inspired by the Mundaneum project (1928–29), Le Corbusier created the concept of the Musée à croissance illimitée, an ideal he later sought to express in various architectural projects. There are said to be only three buildings that fully embody the concept. The Main Building of the National Museum of Western Art is one of them and is thus a valuable example of the Musée à croissance illimitée concept.
It is clear that the Property was designed by Le Corbusier based on the official documents as well as the drawings and specifications from that time. Many records have been preserved regarding the construction as well as the repair work performed since the completion of the building. From these materials, it can be confirmed that the various elements in Le Corbusier's Musée à croissance illimitée concept-including a flat roof, square planar configuration, spiral walkways, and floor plan that allows for the extension of the floor spiral as the collection expand-are well preserved. Moreover, it can be confirmed that repairs were performed with full respect paid to the design principles of Le Corbusier. From the perspectives of form and design, materials and substance, location and setting, use and function, as well as spirit and feeling, the Property is thought to have high authenticity. In addition, the Property is located in the beautiful setting of Ueno Park which further ensures the Property's integrity.
The three art museum buildings that Le Corbusier designed are the Main Building of the National Museum of Western Art, Sanskar Kendra (Museum at Ahmedabad) (India,1957), and the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh (India, 1965), all of which are based on the Musée à croissance illimitée concept. Of those, the Property is the only one which incorporates the technique of emphasizing the flow of the traffic line while utilizing natural light. This is something that Le Corbusier was unable to incorporate into the two other buildings due totheir climate condition. Of the art museums designed by Le Corbusier, the Property is therefore thought to be the most complete expression of the Musée à croissance illimitée concept.