Architecture and art of a Setouchi summer

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

In 1988, Soichiro Fukutake, then president and representative director of Fukutake Publishing (now Benesse Corporation), approached architect Tadao Ando and told him that he wanted to create a “utopia” in Japan. He explained his idea of transforming the neglected, economically poor islands of the Seto Inland Sea in Kagawa Prefecture into a “paradise” that would host world-famous artists’ work for everyone to enjoy — and in doing so revitalize the area. He asked Ando to join him in his vision.

“No,” the architect said. “That’s impossible.”

Twenty-five years later, Ando still laughs about his initial response, “At that time the Seto Inland Sea was ravaged,” he explained at a Setouchi Triennale press conference in Tokyo in May. “There was a dark mood among the people of the islands. They were despondent. To reinvigorate the community, I thought, was an impossible dream.”

Yet this year, the Setouchi Triennale, which includes the work of renowned artists displayed in locations across 12 islands, celebrates its second incarnation. And the architect who said “no” now finds himself introducing his eighth creation for the island of Naoshima — the Ando Museum, a celebration of his commitment to Fukutake’s project.

“(Fukutake) used a phrase I had never heard before: ‘Economy is subordinate to culture,’ ” said Ando, recalling how the philanthropist eventually persuaded him to change his mind in 1988. “And as a result of his passion and courage I decided to join him.”

The new museum, which opened in March, appears to be a humble addition to the island. Housed in a 100-year-old traditional Japanese building in the town of Honmura, it is indistinguishable from similar nearby structures aside from a cream noren curtain illustrated with large green leaves, that hangs at its entrance. Being a former family home, it’s also merely 114.43 sq. meters, something that Ando later explained by email makes it all the more accessible to the public.

“On such a human scale, we can create work that is more delicate and with a pure sense of architecture, because we humans can really relate to it.” he said. “We can feel and understand it with all our five senses.”

But, as is always the case with Ando’s work, the museum’s appearance is deceptive in its simplicity. As a project conceived to not only double the life of the century-old building but also pair Japan’s traditional aesthetics with modern design, the construction involved renovating the original exterior of the house while completely re-building its interior.

“We gently dismantled the entire house piece by piece so that we could create a whole new world of concrete (inside it),” he said. “We then reconstructed the house with the exact same pieces and engineering methods that were used more than 100 years ago.”

Even unavoidable replacement parts, such as roof tiles, had to be as close as possible to the original in material and age.

“I believe that architectural Japanese technology is unsurpassed in the world,” Ando said as he explained his insistence on using traditional woodwork alongside his innovative concrete construction. And, just as he said, the compact space allows visitors to appreciate such skills upclose — the seamless carpentry of wooden beams contrasted against smooth reinforced-concrete slabs and pebbled floors.

As has become expected from Ando, natural sunlight is used to illuminate the exhibits, which for the inaugural show trace Ando’s work in Naoshima — from his initial involvement in the creation of a children’s camping ground in 1989 to the museum itself. Sunshine seeps in through a long skylight and bounces off angled walls to illuminate documents, diagrams and models in a gentle, intimate hue.

The exhibits on display not only illustrate Ando’s commitment to the island but also reveal the history of Naoshima, with photos of periods when saltworks and later copper-smelting foundries brought it prosperity, through its decline and Fukutake’s involvement in its revival.

It is in the two basement floors, however, that the concept behind the museum becomes particularly apparent. A model of Ando’s 1989 Church of Light in Osaka, one of his most famous works, underscores his commitment to bringing humans together with nature and spirituality, while the model of Row House in Sumiyoshi, one of his earliest concrete buildings, set in the middle of a row of dilapidated Osaka townhouses, reminds visitors of Ando’s ability to draw attention to and harmonize his work with local architecture and culture.

The exhibition culminates with a small darkened space, lit by a halo of natural light that glows from the ceiling.

“The roof is circular to represent a globe,” Ando said when describing the meditative room. “(It reminds you) that you are in this world and on the planet.”

This is perhaps a manifestation of the “utopia” Fukutake had hoped for. A world-famous artist’s work that not only involves visitors intimately with Naoshima, physically and culturally — but one that also reminds them of the island’s, and their own, significance in the world.

The Ando Museum is open from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mon. ¥500, or free with a Setouchi Triennale passport. www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/ando-museum The Setouchi Triennale runs till Sept. 1, with a fall session from Oct. 5-Nov. 4. A passport costs ¥4,500 and provides free access to festival works as well as discounts for related museums and projects. For more information, visit setouchi-artfest.jp/en/tickets.


For more on the Setouchi Triennale 2013, see:

Recommendations for Setouchi Triennale island hoppers

Film, music and Moomins: events at Setouchi Triennale 2013