Hiroshima MOCA Enters a New Era

The Japanese city's museum of contemporary art reopens after an extensive renovation and expansion

Today in Hiroshima, Genbaku Dome (the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peace Memorial Park) and the Peace Memorial Museum draw visitors from all over Japan and around the world—many of whom take a train from Kyoto or Osaka and return the same day. And yet, there’s so much more to see in the city, including the recently reopened Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), also known as GENBI.

Courtesy of Hiroshima MOCA

On a recent spring morning, a classroom of kindergartners in their school uniforms stood under a “kusudama” celebration ball with local officials and the director of Hiroshima MOCA. Together they pulled the long ribbons that opened the golden ornament, revealing decorations and congratulatory messages. The museum staff stood alongside, joined by a miko from the closest Shinto shrine and the workers of a neighborhood supermarket, sending a clear message that this significant cultural site has been reopened for the people of Hiroshima and all who visit.

When it originally opened in 1989, Hiroshima MOCA became the first contemporary art museum in Japan. Architect Kisho Kurokawa designed the building to symbolize a reimagining of the future of Hiroshima—and The Architecture Institute of Japan Prize was awarded to Kurokawa for his visionary design.

Courtesy of Hiroshima MOCA

Reflecting his interpretation of the philosophy of symbiosis, Kurokawa chose aluminum, tile and irregularly shaped stones to symbolize the past and the future in a structure enveloped in the greenery of Hijiyama Park. An aperture in the circular roof points to the hypocenter located directly below (where the bombs exploded during World War II). The central pillars are surrounded by stone taken from the Hiroshima City Hall after the devastating blast. In 2015, a newly reformed Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates joined the civil engineering, construction and urban development company Nippon Koei Group to redesign and support the construction for the museum’s renovation.

Today to access the museum visitors can take the Hijiyama Skywalk, a series of escalators and moving walkways up the hillside from the Danbara Shopping Center on Peace Boulevard. The museum sculpture gardens inhabit meadows and walkways up to the patios that surround the main building. MOCA provides an outdoor sculpture map and information to explore the artworks in the park. Henry Moore’s “The Arch” sits on an expanse of grass below the museum, overlooking the city. Fernando Botero’s “Little Bird” is one of the many pieces of art that symbolize the theme of peace, which is so integral to Hiroshima today.

Koki Tanaka “everything is everything” 2005-2006, Courtesy of Hiroshima MOCA

Walking up to the MOCA entrance, a wide set of steps curve around the building leading to the circular patio where the five-year-old students stood on reopening day. It’s an impressive structure sliced open in one section to guide visitors to the front door. Once inside the lobby, a circle of marble on the floor is echoed by a massive skylight overhead.

The restoration of the museum honors the building’s original design. Each area was painstakingly assessed and repaired with as little new material as possible to work within a sustainable framework and preserve the many high-quality materials that were chosen for the initial build. Major projects included a restoration of the roof and re-piping to update the water systems. The museum shop was upgraded—and a new extension adds a glass-enclosed café and multipurpose space.

Kosho Ito “Red and Brown Works by Ochre for Hiroshima” 1988, Courtesy of Hiroshima MOCA

Updated signage pictograms were developed, which refer to architectural forms found around the museum, using Hiragino UD font that was chosen to prioritize readability. Typographer Yoshihide Okazawa and graphic designer Tsuyoshi Okamoto oversaw all of the character design and documents related to the museum on site and around the city of Hiroshima. For the new Rebirth Typography Project, they even utilized numbers from the museum’s original lockers.

Shirin Neshat “Land of Dreams” 2019, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery ©Shirin Neshat

The museum opened with a show aptly named Before/After, which runs through 18 June. The exhibit highlights the careful restoration but also looks toward the future through new technology and capabilities with works by artists from Japan and around the globe, including John Baldessari, Dara Birnbaum, Shirin Neshat and Nancy Spero. In many ways, the exhibition serves as a celebration of the reopening of the museum, highlighting what has been preserved and what has been transformed. It fills all of the galleries with artwork that explores the themes of deterioration and restoration, dreams and hopes, as well as disaster, rebirth and love.

Nami Yokoyama “LOVE” 2022,  Image by Hayato Wakabayashi

Koki Tanaka’s “everything is everything” fills a room with colorful objects and videos playing on screens in relation to household items like fans, buckets, coolers and step stools. The viewer becomes part of the art as they walk around the objects. For Komiyuki’s “Stand Up! Series/ Shimmering mud at the bottom of the bucket,” the artist’s pale creatures (which look like a small pack of vaguely canine forms) sit on the newly polished wood floor by two imposing center columns, surrounded by projection works and pieces in light boxes.

While the updates to the overall structure were being addressed, Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates added new spaces like KAZE, the café, a sleek minimalist dining area flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the sculpture gardens and park. The menu, presented in a magazine called Side By Side, highlights the many local purveyors. Each dish, featured on its own page, shares ingredient source information and includes drink pairing suggestions that range from natural wines from Uluru to non-alcoholic options. Salads, smoothies and desserts feature seasonal produce from Teruya. Herbs come from Kajiya Farm in Mihara in Hiroshima Prefecture and seaweed salt from Oda City in Shimane Prefecture. Coffee hails from Archive Coffee Roasters and Breath Hiroshima.

Yuichiro Tamura “His Serpentine” 2019 Installation view at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Image by Kenichi Hanada

Outside the café windows, diners can see “Little Bird,” as well as Kishio Suga’s “Enclose with Stones” and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Hiroshima-Space of Becalmed Beings” composed of bronze pieces shaped like human backs. Next to the café, a plywood house called “Toolbox” sits in the new multipurpose gallery, moca moca. This collaborative project by 2m26, headquartered in Kyoto, offered interactive workshops while the museum was undergoing the renovation. The newly refurbished museum shop features shelving also designed by 2m26.

by Julie Wolfson

In addition to visiting Hiroshima MOCA, Hijiyama Park visitors can explore the City Manga Library, Sakura Square, Rai Sanyo Buntoku-den Memorial Hall, a children’s playground and observation decks that overlook the city. Altogether, it’s a celebration of community, culture, creativity and peace above all else.

Hero image courtesy of Hiroshima MOCA