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Architecture of the Noguchi Room at Keio University

In this article, we'll consider the architecture of the Noguchi room at Keio University and explore the ideas of the space’s creator.
The Noguchi Room was a work of spatial art, created through a collaboration by Yoshiro Taniguchi and Isamu Noguchi. In this Step, we cover topics like the artistic qualities that formerly the Noguchi Room have had and the intentions behind Noguchi’s design — while looking at contemporary documentation. The Noguchi Room was designed as a conversation space in a building called the Second Faculty Building, where the professors of the Faculty of Letters had their offices. The building was designed by Taniguchi. The design was based on straight lines, and had an appearance influenced by modern architecture, which was fashionable all over the world at that time. The Noguchi Room was created as a space with numerous curves that contrast with the building’s linearity.
This approach is also evident in the furniture. Here, you may notice the multi-level resonances within the space between the curves of benches, tables, partitioning screens, and other elements. Noguchi tried to incorporate his own personal background, and fuse Western and Eastern elements in the Noguchi Room. This is particularly evident in the floor design. There is a combination of an earthen floor allowing people to approach from the garden while wearing shoes, flooring that is easy to use whether standing or sitting, and an alcove where you remove your shoes and step up. The arrangement suits the customs of both Japan and Western countries. Also, the circular fireplace creates a center, stabilizing the space and resonating with the other curves in the room.
In this space, Noguchi tried to reconcile not only East and West, but also the conflicts between different materials. For example, he used organic materials typical of the time — such as wood, wisteria, and rushes — for furniture, while at the same time, incorporating concrete for columns and metal as the fireplace cover. Looking up at the original ceiling, you would have seen wood and concrete parts present together. These “clashes” between materials were transformed into dialogue and unity through Noguchi’s design. This creation of an environment through dialogue was also emphasized in the garden, which Noguchi designed at the same time as an element inseparable from the overall space.
In the garden which opened out from the Noguchi Room, curves were emphasized even more than inside the room, and the biological undulation created an appearance contrasting with the linear building. Three of Noguchi’s sculptures were also placed in the garden. These sculptures, each made with a different material, served as accents in the garden, both in terms of shape and materials. The garden was also designed with a strong awareness of its relationship with the inside of the conversation room. The difference in height between the earthen floor and part with flooring was small, and the openings for windows facing the garden extended all the way to the floor. In this way, there was a strong sense of continuity with the garden.
In this way, Noguchi created a comprehensive design incorporating not only the indoor space, but also the environment, including the garden and exterior sculptures. So, what do you think? I imagine you can now see that the Noguchi Room was an artistic work realized through relationships between the conversation room, architecture, garden, and sculptures. In the following Steps, we will look at how the Noguchi Room’s artistic qualities and Noguchi’s intentions were altered by the process of dismantling and reconstruction at a different location.

As a space, the Noguchi Room harmonized a conversation lounge with the surrounding architecture, sculpture, and gardens. Here we’ll consider the room’s characteristics, while exploring the ideas of Noguchi, the space’s creator. First, please watch this video. Further explanation is provided in the text below.

Embodying the ideals of Keio

The Second Faculty Building, like other buildings on the Mita Campus designed by Taniguchi, had a sharp, linear form with minimal ornamentation in the style of modern architecture. It’s vertically-long upper and lower windows were inspired by the Enzetsu-kan.

This building housed the research offices of university faculty. It was built on a site adjacent to the Enzetsu-kan, and therefore in designing this building—later called the New Banraisha—Taniguchi sought out affinities with the guiding principles of Keio, as exemplified in the Enzetsu-kan, the building with the longest tradition on the Mita Campus. Aside from structural form, the space allowed students and faculty to meet on an equal footing and learn from each other, thus realizing the hangaku hankyo (“half-learning and half-teaching”) approach that Keio aspires to.

The building labeled 11 in the map is the Second Faculty Building. The building labeled 1 is the Mita Enzetsu-kan. (Source: Keio University: 100 Years of History (in Japanese) Vol. 2, edited by Keio University, 1968)

Structural principles of the interior design

As shown in the video, the conversation lounge designed by Noguchi used many curves, in contrast to the building’s external form. Gentle curves responsive to the room’s shape were also used in the furniture created for the room, especially the benches, tables, and fireplace.

Elevation of Second Faculty Building. The linearity characteristic of modern architecture is clearly evident.Click to take a closer look
Floor plan of Second Faculty Building. On the west side of the first floor is the Noguchi Room. Click to take a closer look

Floor plan of the Noguchi Room. Many curves, including a perfectly circular fireplace, are used in contrast to the rectangular outer frame. Click to take a closer look

Noguchi tried to incorporate his own identity into this work, fusing East and West. This is particularly evident in the floor surfaces. The design integrates a stone floor section with chairs where people can wear shoes, a section with flooring where people can either sit or stand, and an alcove section with tatami. This diversity enables all sorts of activities in the space. A circular fireplace is positioned as the center, playing a centripetal role.

Circular fireplace
Circular fireplace at the center of the space (©Shigeo Anzaï (Source: Kajima Institute Publishing))

three floor surfaces
By providing three floor surfaces at different heights—a stone floor, a wooden floor, and a raised tatami area, Noguchi adapted the room to suit both Western and Eastern lifestyles. (Photo: Takeshi Taira Source: Keio University Art Center)

Sketches of furniture
Sketches of furniture. Benches and tables are drawn with gentle curves.

Noguchi tried to reconcile not only East and West, but also conflicting materials. In the Noguchi Room, organic materials such as wood and rushes are used in the floor and furniture, while concrete, an industrial material, is used for the circular columns flanking the fireplace and the square columns of the stone floor. These contrasts are especially striking if you look up at the ceiling where wood panels and concrete form a distinct boundary line.

steps on the ceiling
There are steps on the ceiling as well as the floor, creating a multilayered effect in the space. (Photo: Takeshi Taira, Source: Keio University Art Center)

Natural materials Natural materials like the rattan and rushes of the floor, ceiling panels and furniture, and the stone of the floor, coexist with the concrete of the columns. (©Shigeo Anzaï (Source: Kajima Institute Publishing))

Through Noguchi’s design, the conflicting materials entered into dialogue, forming a unified space with a tranquil flow of time. And that is precisely what he was aiming for. Noguchi tried to create an environment where people reflect, like Katsura Imperial Villa or Shisen-do in Kyoto, which he saw prior to this project.

The environment is created through a dialogue and fusion of natural and artificial materials. In Noguchi’s design, this dynamic extended beyond the interior of the conversation lounge. It was enhanced by the building’s front court and west court—designed in parallel with the interior by Noguchi—and the three sculptures he placed there.

Architecture, sculpture, and gardens

Like the Noguchi Room, the gardens designed by Noguchi employed curves. This created a pleasant contrast with the horizontal and vertical linearity of the Second Faculty Building. The juxtaposition of undulating, organic contours against the straight lines of the architecture gave rise to a characteristic look. Sculptures made from iron, an artificial material, were placed in the gardens as strong accents.

Positional relationships
Positional relationships of the Noguchi Room, the surrounding front court, and sculptures (Layout drawing of Second Faculty Building (Drawing published in the February 1952 issue of Shinkenchiku (New Architecture) with sculpture names and Noguchi Room indicated) Source: Fujio Maeda “The Problem of Preserving the Noguchi Room / Second Faculty Building” (in Japanese), Keio University Art Center Annual Report 10)

View of garden View of garden from second floor of the Second Faculty Building. Wakai Hito was later relocated close to Mu. (©Shigeo Anzaï (Source: Kajima Institute Publishing))

The gardens do not exist independently. Noguchi designed them to be related with the conversation lounge inside. That is, he designed the Noguchi Room to only exhibit its full effect through the relation and harmonization of each element—architecture, gardens, sculpture, and conversation lounge—based on calculations of the scenes visible from inside. This is evident, for example, in how Mu on the west side of the building sometimes captured the setting sun in its ring, creating a sight that looked, from inside, like a garden lantern. Also, the distinction between inside and outside is weakened, and continuity is emphasized, by reducing the height difference between the stone floor and wood flooring, and bringing the openings up to the floor.

Garden and Mu Garden and Mu seen from inside the Noguchi Room (©Shigeo Anzaï (Source: Kajima Institute Publishing))

The Noguchi Room was an extremely important work—not only because of these complex interactions between different types of art, but also because this was the first spatial design carried out by Noguchi. This was an example of what is known as “site specific” art—art which can no longer exist if one of its elements is taken away. However, as will be seen in subsequent Steps, this precious cultural property was lost.

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Invitation to Ex-Noguchi Room: Preservation and Utilization of Cultural Properties in Universities

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