The Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology is the most Japanese building in Poland, thanks to its unique design philosophy characteristic of the unique philosophy of design, characteristic to the Land of the Cherry Blossoms.
The history of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Kraków begins in 1987, when Andrzej Wajda was awarded the Kyoto Prize for his lifetime achievement in film and theatre work. The Kyoto Prize is an extremely prestigious Japanese award which has been awarded annually since 1985 by the Inamori Foundation and was created in collaboration with the Nobel Committee as a Japanese equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Apart from being a prestigious trophy, the prize comes with 100 million yen endowment.
In 1987 Wajda’s prize was worth 1,5 million USD – an astronomical amount of money in Poland at that time. Wajda decided to donate the money to establish a museum in Kraków in which Japanese art would be exhibited. The Japanese government and a number of private donators were involved in founding the museum. The crucial part of the exhibition was Feliks Jasieński’s collection of Japanese art.
Jasieński, nicknamed ‘Manggha’, was an art critic and collector himself as well as a prominent scholar of Japanese culture. He wanted to donate his collection of Japanese art to the National Museum in Kraków in 1920, but there was not enough space for over 6,500 works.
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In the early 90s, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki created a design for a new building for the museum. Isozaki was recognised for his built work in 2019, when he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered to be one of the world's highest architecture prizes. Izosaki’s design for Manggha museum was created in collaboration with architects from Kraków, Krzysztof Ingarden, Jacek Ewý and JET Atelier. The task was not easy –- the building was supposed to be located on the banks of the Wisła river, just in front of the Wawel Castle; a prestigious and challenging spot due to its specific environmental conditions.
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Isozaki, together with his co-workers, sought for a neutral form for the building. They did not want it to refer to any of the cultures or trends. Although using references from Japanese culture would seem obvious, the architects decided not to use a distinctly Japanese style. The attitude of modesty and restraint was unusual for the Polish architecture design of the 90s, which was dominated by dynamic shapes and vibrant colours; opposite of heaviness and greyness of PRL architecture.
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The starting point for museum’s design was the Wisła –Vistula River - its meandering course was translated into architectural forms. The flat, horizontal building with its irregular shape and rippling roof merges into the landscape, becoming almost unnoticeable. From the castle’s terraces on the Wawel Hill, the museum building was designed to resemble shimmering waves. The bright stone on the building’s facade highlighted the subtlety of its architectural shape. Arata Isozaki described his project:
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I wanted the building to blend in with the river, in order to preserve the unique atmosphere of the surroundings. The walls were made with sandstone mined in Poland. In accordance with the local tradition, in the interior of the building I used bricks and a wooden construction. I wanted the building to put down roots in the Polish soil; just like the Japanese art which settled here thanks to Jasieński’s collection.
Until 2007 the museum operated under the name the Manggha Centre for Japanese Art and Technology and until 2004 it served as a branch of the National Museum in Kraków, which opened to visitors on the 30th November 1994. Arata Isozaki described his project as an union between art and technology, where technology becomes a tool to create a coherent, spiritual space – a simple, inviting place for the museum’s collections. The building has been called an ‘architectural haiku’ for its simplicity and unpretentiousness of form, which remains far distant from banality.
In 2005, Krzysztof Ingarden and Jacek Ewý started working on design for an annex to the main block of the museum. In 2015, the Europe - Far East Gallery was built in front of the main building. The gallery is more geometric and raw in its form and consisted of exhibition rooms, storage rooms and curators’ offices. Krzysztof Ingarden wrote that ‘the gallery’s architectural form is minimalist, emphasising the spaciousness of museum spaces, serving as a neutral background for artistic presentations’. The gallery building was built using granite, concrete and glass, completed with details from whitened wood.
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After the building was finished, the Manggha Museum of Art and Technology was criticised for its architectural form, which was considered ‘naive’ for imitating the surrounding landscape. Today we know that Isozaki’s design was simply ahead of its time. In an age of deconstructive extravagance, the design of the building offered a simplicity of limited forms, which gained appreciation over a decade later.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated into English by Ola Galewicz, August 2020.
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