Is there a place like heaven on earth? Well, if you are enamored by modern architecture, minimalist art and the most beautifully finished slabs of concrete on the planet, then there might just be — and its name is Naoshima, off the coast of Honshu, Japan.
This tiny isle — known as Art Island to many — is a hidden gem of epic proportions, located some way from the well-trodden tourist trail between Hiroshima and Osaka on the south coast of Japan’s mainland. It is the result of a long-running collaboration between the rich and politically influential Benesse Corporation, local councils, a number of extraordinary artists and the unrivaled, all-conquering King of Concrete himself — Tadao Ando.
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Upon disembarking the boat at Miyanoura Port on the western edge of the island, one is greeted immediately by cutting-edge, big-name Japanese architecture: SANAA designed the crisp, super-minimal Marine Station and visitor center, and its uncompromising simplicity is a sign of things to come. Naoshima’s unique brand of quirkiness is also apparent from the outset — a curvaceous, poker-dotted pumpkin sits at the end of the quay, the first in a series of joyful outdoor sculptures dotted around the island by the superb octogenarian artist, Yayoi Kusama.
Image via Helen Walters
A half-hour stroll to the northeast of the island brings you to Honmura, the largest village on the island. Even this quiet residential area has been infiltrated by the threads of contemporary art weaving throughout the island: The Art House Project has seen half a dozen traditional Japanese houses transformed into modern art installations, many hidden down tiny side streets and behind noren (Japanese entrance curtains). The architectural treasure hunt that began at the port recommences here, as well, with James Turrell’s surreal Back Side of the Moon — a pitch-black space within a timber-clad cuboid (painstakingly detailed by Ando) that warps every sense imaginable.
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As if this weren’t enough, Honmura is now home to The Ando Museum, designed by the man himself and dedicated to his series of projects on Naoshima and further works in Japan, including a stunning model of a much-celebrated ode to modernism: The Church of the Light. As with the Art House Project, the subtleties of this site are notable: Ando’s signature concrete plains dissect and frame the internal spaces of the museum, yet all signs of modernity are hidden within a traditional Japanese house of timber and tiles. This concealment is symptomatic of Naoshima, a curiously understated location whose primary visitor demographic remains dominated by those who tend to know what they are looking for — namely artists, designers and, of course, architects.
The biggest surprise at this stage is that the main attractions of the island are still to come, in the form of Ando’s trio of hillside galleries. If ever there was a physical embodiment of perfect minimalist concrete construction, this is it: Each gallery is full of the gray stuff, finished with Ando’s typical attention to detail and a perfect foil for the contemporary artworks adorning each space.
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First, the Benesse House Museum comprises a dramatic cylindrical volume with further galleries radiating outward, and installations that overflow from the museum and down the hillside to the rocky peninsula below.
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The boundaries between guesthouses, galleries and open parkland are continuously blurred across Naoshima, with the whole island acting as a huge, incredibly scenic exhibition hall — all as a result of the incredibly close relationship between the artists, the architect and the Benesse Corporation itself.
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Another unusually close collaboration led to the creation of the second gallery along the southern coast, where Ando worked with Korean über-minimalist Lee Ufan to create a museum in the artist’s name. The two men have similar philosophies in their respective fields — ‘less is more’ could only be described as a massive understatement here — and an alleged argument about the color of a wall within one of the gallery spaces sums up the overriding aesthetic rather well. Ando wanted the wall left gray, while Ufan demanded that it should be painted … pure white, naturally.
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Finally, the coastal route arrives at Ando’s pièce de résistance — The Chichu Art Museum is Naoshima’s crowning highlight, an enormous, sunken sculpture of a building that defies a host of architectural conventions to provide the perfect environment for displaying the works of three extraordinary artists. Ando set himself a seemingly impossible task during the concept stage of the museum’s design: The architect insisted that the entire building should be buried within the hillside, but that every piece of art would be lit by natural light sources.
Image via Blogspot
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The resulting gallery comprises a series of chambers lit by meticulously positioned roof lights, with a series of beautifully simple, geometric courtyards carved in between. Each space was designed with specific artworks in mind, and it shows: Thousands of tiny, pearlescent tiles cover the floor of the Monet Room, creating a hallowed atmosphere fitting of the French Impressionist’s masterpieces, whilst a soaring, cathedral-like cavern contains Walter De Maria’s eerie granite sphere and gold-leafed timber mahogany forms.
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Finally, James Turrell’s Open Field and Open Sky — architectural installations that frame voids as artworks in their own right — are an exhibition of both artist and architect’s simple mastery of light and shade.
Wandering back along the waterfront to SANAA’s Marine Station, one would be forgiven for wondering if the whole experience was some kind of wonderful architectural dream, but no: Naoshima is a very real mecca for fans of Tadao Ando’s brand of modernism. Heaven on earth? Maybe, just maybe.
The Angry Architect