The lovingly restored former Buddhist temple that houses the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo is among downtown's quirkiest and most charming corners, but it's about as authentically Japanese as the Egyptian Theatre.
In fact, some columns on the 1925 red brick facade are distinctly Cleopatran, while the Oriental touches in the oddly trapezoidal main exhibit hall--the former sanctuary, which was once used as a movie theater--evoke old-time Hollywood movie sets rather than historic Kyoto.
By contrast, a couple blocks down 1st Street, the more recent building where the temple has moved its congregation is seriously Japanese, with tile roof and austere rectangular shape. No Mann's Chinese Theatre exuberance there.
Members of the immigrant generation may not have minded the slightly off-key fantasies of the American architect who did the old temple because they did not have to prove their Japanese cultural identity to themselves. But their grandchildren, less sure of their heritage, probably wanted more accuracy. "(The new temple) seems to reflect the sixties and seventies longing for authenticity and ethnic identity," said museum curator Karin Higa.
Now, the 9-month-old history museum is planning a major new addition in a modern cosmopolitan style, strikingly different from these two buildings. The design seems to reflect changing attitudes within the Japanese-American community as it enters its second century in the United States.
The building is aimed at helping take the search for identity--and outreach to other ethnic groups--to a new stage, beyond the quest for old-country roots. Instead of inventing Far Eastern atmosphere or dogmatically imitating Japanese architecture, the expansion will evoke the deep American roots of the community.
The 65,000-square-foot addition will aim to convey the universality of the Japanese-American experience, and its relevance to all Americans, said its designer, Gyo Obata, a San Francisco-born Japanese-American.
"It's not just an ethnic museum," said Obata, but a museum about the American Constitution and the need to defend its ideas. "It tells how one group of people through ignorance and prejudice were incarcerated (during the World War II relocation of Japanese-Americans). . . . If this can be made visible we could be more aware of our freedoms."
The museum has displays on the participation of Japanese-Americans in the black civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, including a famous Life magazine photo of Malcolm X's assassination, with his friend Yuri Kochiyama beside his bleeding body. But more space will help the museum expand these themes, said Nancy Araki, director of community affairs.
"The building itself has to be very clear. The space and materials have to give the aura that this is an important institution," said Obata, who unveiled the designs Saturday.
The five-story, C-shaped addition will triple the size of the museum to nearly 100,000 square feet. Its strong horizontal and vertical granite forms will evoke elements of Japanese design, and some walls will be made of translucent white onyx, evoking shoji paper screens.
But its overall design is contemporary and international. Obata hopes that the openness of its curved glass and stone face will be as broadly appealing as his airy, mall-like building for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, one of the most visited museums in the world.
Curators hope it will be as friendly as his firm's design for Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened last year to rave reviews from fans for its turn-of-the-century, industrial age funkiness and eccentricity, which people compared to classic parks such as Boston's Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum--the largest architecture firm in the United States--is noted not for a single architectural style, but for adapting designs to the needs of clients and sites, whether it's King Saud University, set on a stunning desert plain in Saudi Arabia, or the corporate headquarters of Burger King in Miami.
As chairman of the St. Louis-based firm, Obata has used that flexibility to build it from a small Midwestern company with two dozen employees into a worldwide force employing 900. Its mark is visible in massive public spaces from the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport to the restored St. Louis Union Station to the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.
In Los Angeles, the firm is designing a new Los Angeles County-USC hospital, to be built near the monumental art deco edifice, and a new county jail near the Los Angeles River.