the chichu art museum

View of the Chichu nestled in the hillside as seen from the Benesse House hotel.

Abstract

Before my first visit to Japan a few years ago, I made a shortlist of buildings and gardens which I wanted to see and created an itinerary based on it. I decided to make what turned into a kind of art and architecture pilgrimage to Naoshima Island in Shikoku, Japan to see the Chichu Art Museum. As a Gesamutkunstwerke (complete work of art), the Chichu is a triumph, a skillful collaboration between artist James Turrell and architect Ando Tadao, and one of the few examples of a conceptually and physically integrated architecture. It deftly bridges art, architecture and landscape as a single, seamless entity, easily propelling it to the top of my archi-tour and favorite buildings list.

Essay

Before my first visit to Japan a few years ago, I made a shortlist of buildings and gardens which I wanted to see and created an itinerary based on it. On my list were the usual suspects in and around Omotesando: Dior, Tod’s, Omotesando Hills, Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari, Comme des Garcons, Prada Aoyama, and the redevelopment of CAT street. Further afield, I had been captivated by a the Yokohama Ferry Terminal and a few buildings by Ando Tadao, including the Church of the Light near Osaka, and the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island. Both of these projects required a significant detour off the Tokaido Shinkansen line, which I would be traveling along to get from Kyushu back to Tokyo. I also made plans to spend a few days visiting historic temples in Kyoto and Uji.

I decided in the end to make what turned into a kind of art and architecture pilgrimage to Naoshima, the trip taking nearly an entire day of travel with several transfers. I stayed in Takamatsu for one night as a starting point for the long ferry ride to Shikoku. It had been a hectic few days and the ferry provided the relief and a complete change of pace before arriving at the museum. The landscape of the Inland Sea with its humpback islands was a seemingly isolated world, sparsely populated and sprinkled into the ocean. It was hard to imagine an island with art installations and a museum to rival some of the best contemporary art museums in the world here in Shikoku.

I arrived at the SANAA-designed Ferry Terminal, a gleaming white roof floating over a collection of glass-enclosed spaces. The arrivals lounge was spare and minimalist, one of a series of beautifully composed transparent rooms which led out to the buses and taxis. The bus ride was along a winding road clinging to the hillside, densely overgrown with trees, sprinkled intermittently with cherry trees which had just started blossoming. The hotel appeared as a long stone wall delineating a ramp up to the entrance, obscured by the foliage and the steep hillside. Also designed by Ando, the hotel was actually a collection of buildings containing a second museum, the Benesse House. Apparently, this earlier museum was the first attempt at an architectural concept Ando continued to develop in the Chichu Museum. Ando speaks about this serial project in a recent monograph of his oeuvre:

“Based on the potential of this place and the unique program of a permanent exhibition of spatial art, I proposed here an “underground architecture” that pursues to perfection the “architecture merged into the landscape” attempted at Benesse House Museum.”

(Ando, p. 280)

Due to repeat commissions from the same client, the Benesse Corporation, Ando had the opportunity to take an idea with which he was experimenting through a few iterations until its final conclusion with the Chichu museum. The desire to integrate landscape and building as a continuous realm resulted in an excavation strategy with the museum being carved into the mountain. This strategy also dovetailed seamlessly with the works of contemporary artist, James Turrell, probably the most poignant art in the museum.

The approach to the Chichu museum is somewhat obscured in the same way that the Benesse Museum disappears into the hillside, but the Chichu is at the summit, commanding a spectacular position on the island. Only a series of concrete walls hint at the presence of an Ando museum of cavernous, interconnected spaces hidden underground. Since the artworks are spatially based (including the Monet paintings, which could be said to be spatial because of their scale and immersive quality), Ando designed massive made-to-measure gallery spaces which respond with the appropriate proportions for viewing, lighting, and circulation. An architectural promenade weaves a circulation route between the galleries, with moments of repose that act like palette cleansers.

The James Turrell galleries blur any distinction there may be between gallery and circulation because Ando uses his leitmotif detail in both spaces. The detail I’m describing is the knife-edge skylight which reduces the appearance of the roof thickness to a barely perceptible line. The detail effectively makes the reading of the skylight seem to be a paper-thin cutout, and without careful examination one can easily mistake the opening for an illuminated ceiling. This trompe d’oeuil is quite effective in the smaller gallery spaces, which are less like the larger circulation spaces and more like art galleries due to the reduced size of skylight opening, seating and singular entrance, allowing Turrell and Ando to closely control the viewing experience.

While I have seen similar Turrell installations in a few locations (PS2, Queens, New York; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas), the Chichu Art Museum is perhaps the purest conceptual space for his work that I have seen. The collaboration between architect and artist is seamless and also heightens the experience of both the building and the art. My sense is that the use of the detail in the other courtyard or circulation spaces is quite effective because it maintains the oscillating illusion between ceiling and opening.

Turrell’s work can be broadly categorized with the works of other landscape-scale artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Peter and Allison Smithson, and perhaps Anish Kapoor. Their work bridges the gap between art and architecture and further still into the realm of large-scale landscape works. While each artist plays with the dichotomy of nature and artifice in different ways, their mandate is to re-conceptualize our perception, destabilizing what we take as visual or physical evidence. Each of these artists needs the medium of a pre-existing shell or what could be called an exoskeleton from which the artwork his hung (as in Anish Kapoor’s case at the Tate Modern), installed in (as in Eliasson’s interior weather simulation at the Kunsthaus Bregenz) or constructed on (using the example of the Smithson’s Spiral Jetty). Turrell’s work at the Chichu is perhaps the most well-integrated into architecture, the two being indivisible and mutually interdependent.

As a Gesamutkunstwerke (complete work of art), the Chichu Art Museum is a triumph, a skillful collaboration, and one of the few examples of a conceptually and physically integrated architecture. It deftly bridges art, architecture and landscape as a single, seamless entity, easily propelling it to the top of my archi-tour and favorite buildings list.

Ando, Tadao, Tadao Ando 0: Process and Idea, TOTO Publishing, Tokyo: March 31, 2010

Copyright © 2011 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.

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