The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was Japan‘s first open-air museum when it initially opened in 1926. It is located in Ueno Park, which also has a zoo, a historical museum, a scientific museum, and several other art museums, and is a 7-minute walk from the park exit of JR Ueno Station. A range of planned exhibitions, exhibitions in collaboration with art organisations, exhibitions of collections of works by the general public, and special exhibitions where you may view well-known paintings from both Japan and outside are held annually. There are close to 300 shows in total. The museum also participates in the Art Communication Programs project, which sponsors several workshops and programs for appreciating art. The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which aims to serve as a “Doorway to Art,” welcomes visitors of all ages. Throughout the building, there are cafes and restaurants where you may relax and eat a satisfying meal. Even the structure, created by the famous Japanese modernist architect Kunio Maekawa, is fascinating.

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Entrance of the Museum_©TokyoUniueVenues

Original Museum Building | Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

Formerly known as the Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum debuted in 1926. After Tokyo Prefecture became the Tokyo Metropolitan Area in 1943, the institution’s name was later changed to its present one, “Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum”. The museum reopened in its current configuration in 2012, following a second refurbishment in 2010.

The original structure was created by architect OKADA Shinichiro, who also taught at Waseda University and the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts and mentored many aspiring architects. The museum designed by Okada was a European classicist structure with entrances on all four sides. In front of each entryway was a row of columns.

Guests entered the building through the main door, climbing the steps and gazing at the columns. They came across some stairs that led down to the sculpture hall, a huge open area with a high ceiling and plenty of natural light. The remaining areas were set up around this space, with the art galleries on the main level and the offices, cafeteria, and crafts showroom on the ground floor. Together with the Tokyo School of Fine Arts Museum and KURODA Memorial Hall, OKADA Shinichiro conceived and built this “temple of art” in Ueno Park in the late 1920s. These three structures were the forerunners of the Western art institution in Japan. Okada was praised for his expertise in Western design.

Okada took on the challenges of building the first significant art museum in Japan with the design of the Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum. Lightning was one of them. He installed windows in the walls for the café and the crafts showroom’s many display cases on the ground floor. But, on the main level, he used skylights to create painting galleries with warm natural light and secure enough wall space for hanging paintings.

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Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum_©TimeOut

He had originally intended to install rows of ornamental columns along the four walls of the sculpture hall in the centre of the structure. But, he was instructed to remove the columns because they would obstruct the sculptures Fumio Asakura and other sculptors created. Okada made the necessary adjustments to his plan, and work started. The art community warmly welcomed the construction of the new art museum building, which regarded it highly as a museum understanding artists’ objectives and laying weight on practical usage when it opened in May 1926.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum prides itself on being a “doorway to art” where anyone may view and appreciate famous works of art. The museum even conducts special events for individuals with disabilities, where artworks can be examined in a secure and comfortable setting to ensure the variety of its guests. The museum also offers a variety of artistic tastes. For instance, well-known international artists like Munch, best known for his masterpiece “The Scream,” coexist with Japanese classical art, such as the Edo Period painting showcase and the retrospective of French, Japanese artist Leonard Tsugouharu Foujita, unveiled to mark the 50th anniversary of his passing.

New Museum Building

The new Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum structure was finished in September 1975. When developing public buildings, MAYEKAWA Kunio, one of Japan’s greatest contemporary architects, gave special attention to providing open areas, lobbies, and restaurants. Mayekawa employed architecture to create cosy urban areas to elicit a sense of urban satisfaction in visitors to his buildings.

“Tokyo streets have no order,” the critic Shuichi Kato once penned. MAYEKAWA By arranging a variety of building volumes on the site, Kunio has repeatedly attempted to create compact urban areas within this chaotic environment. The building’s courtyards and voids serve as passageways and public gathering places where people can gather and converse. To put it another way, his buildings have harmonised, scaled-down urban areas.”

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Interior of the Museum_©Getty/Olivia Hampton

The current museum building contains three functions: (1) a permanent and thematic exhibition function, (2) an exhibit function for art groups, and (3) a cultural activities function. Due to a statute restricting building height to 15 meters in scenic zones and other park laws, the museum was given a less building area than the original building on the site. Despite this, planning was planned for a building with a floor area almost twice as large as the original. Hence, it was necessary to bury around 60% of the floor space subterraneously.

Mayekawa Kunio Associates created his basic composition in response to these site conditions and those above three necessary functions by establishing a large open area in the centre and dividing it into three sections: a public entry exhibition block, a block for thematic/permanent exhibitions, and a block for cultural activities.

Then, Mayekawa established three themes that would serve as the design’s guiding principles: “(1) providing a “quiet, neutral” backdrop for the on-display works, (2) maintaining the connection with the exterior environment, and (3) using materials and construction methods that ensure optimal durability and thereby “produce remarkable results utilising ordinary materials.”  He then came up with the specifics of the design on this premise.

These three themes were used as indices for the entire project, from the initial design phase to the final design phase, design and supervision, and building completion. Furthermore, theme (2) made sure that the building would be thoughtfully planned to retain a relationship with the enormous ginkgo, elm, and zelkova trees that make up the woodland portions of Ueno Park.

The main floor and entry hall are located on the B1 level, and the design centres on the open space of the B1 floor from esplanades around the various function blocks, including the public entry display block, thematic exhibition block, and cultural activities block. Its configuration creates a strong connection between the interior and the park’s outside areas while giving visitors a clear path through the museum.


Hetvi Jadia is an architecture student and a dancer, born and brought up in Surat, Gujarat. She started developing interest in writing since a long time.