An aerial view shows Tadao Ando’s Chichu Museum to be an unobtrusive scattering of rectangles, squares and triangles cut into the top of a mountain. Inside, a labyrinthine sequence of gallery spaces, austere gardens and connecting passageways are bound together in an underground system of geometric forms over three levels. Intermittent zenithal light reminds us of the sky above while dim passageways invoke feelings of transcendence and quiet contemplation.
The building was opened by the Fukutake Art Museum Foundation on the island of Naoshima in 2004, housing just eight works by three artists: James Turrell, Walter De Maria and Claude Monet. The Monet room was built according to the size and dimensions of the Fukatoke family’s five Water Lilies paintings. With white plaster walls and a floor of 700,000 milky white marble cubes, filtered daylight enters through the high ceiling and the water lilies – some of the most reproduced icons of Western art from the last century – find new life amongst the softly glowing, muted atmosphere.
As in the traditional Japanese home, the courtyards connect exterior with interior, and James Turrell’s Open Sky works on a similar principal. An empty room with seating built into the walls, the space invites visitors to sit and look at an aperture in the ceiling – only it’s unclear whether or not it is just a hole. The framed open sky appears to be a screen or some form of sophisticated artificial light; unless of course you’re there when it’s raining, in which case the water comes straight through and drains away into discreetly designed grills in the floor.
The museum runs night viewings (bookings required) of the Open Sky where visitors can watch the subtly evolving tones of the blue yonder as the sun sets and the stars gradually appear. The artist – who has degrees in perceptional psychology and mathematics – controls the appearance of the outside sky with subtly evolving coloured lighting on the interior walls and ceiling to manipulate perception. The disorienting experience is highly recommended; a meeting of Zen-like understatement and high theatre that is right at home in Ando’s building.
Two other disorienting light works from the Los Angeles Quaker are also on display; the immersive perception-warping installation Open Field (2000) and his early ‘sculpture’ Afrum, Pale Blue (1968), a projection of light which appears uncannily to have mass and weight. As a child, Turrell mimicked the stars by cutting holes in his curtains and letting the light shine through them, and his introspective works have found strong resonance in many private collections and museums around Japan.
The De Maria commission is a room with 27 gilded wooden pillars along the walls and a highly polished 2.2m diameter basalt orb that seems poised to come crashing down the imposing concrete staircase at any moment. The room is aligned east to west so the reflection on the heavy black sphere’s surface under the open skylight is constantly evolving from sunrise to sunset, and the overall effect is that of all-in-one cathedral, Shinto shrine and sci-fi movie set.
Out of consideration for the pristine landscape, the architect’s earlier constructions on Naoshima had been partially buried, but Chichu (literally meaning ‘within the earth’) marked the first instance of submerging the entire structure, moving from the idea of inconspicuousness to that of invisibility. The radical move to start burying his buildings came from a desire to remove their weight and monumentality, which is in contrast to the aspirational impulse of the chapel’s steeples or the their modern day incarnation, the skyscraper.
To take us into the ground is to return us to our origin, as well as our ultimate destination, and the architect has said that his hope for Chichu is that it will eventually disappear entirely under a blanket of native plant life, ceasing to interrupt the scenery at all.