By Robert Such. Published in mondo arc.
The Minamidera Art House Project guide, standing at the entrance to the rectangular wooden building that houses James Turrell’s lighting installation, politely instructs each visitor to keep a hand on the wall when inside the building. It’s not clear why we need to do this, but it soon makes sense – it’s pitch black inside. Only after a few minutes do my eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and a faint rectangular light starts to appear out of the gloom. It’s some distance away across the dark interior, but it’s hard to tell how far…
Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the Minamidera Art House Project building that houses Turrell’s lightwork stands on the island of Naoshima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Naoshima is one of a number of islands on which stand museums, art spaces and outdoor artworks.
Admired by Ando, the American light artist James Turrell is one of many architects and artists that have influenced the way that Ando has worked with light throughout his life. Ando has joined forces with Turrell on projects numerous times, and Turrell’s work continues to be an inspiration. Turrell also has lightworks in the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima – a museum also designed by Ando.
“It is particularly important,” said the 1995 Pritzker Prize winning Ando, “to take steps forward when building a museum for contemporary art. Artists are very courageous. They are stepping forward all of the time. Architects must do the same.
“We must share the fear of challenging the unseen world. We are all humans, and we can be courageous, but we cannot escape fear when taking risks. As long as you dare to step forward, and have some experience, you are not likely to fail.”
As for architects that inspired him, it was Le Corbusier that had a strong influence on Ando’s early career. He first became aware of the Swiss-French architect’s work while perusing the bookshelves in an old bookshop in his hometown of Osaka.
“I first laid my eyes on a portfolio of Le Corbusier in the art section of that bookstore,” Ando explains. “Immediately, I felt in my bones – this is it.” At that time he was, he says, “very passionate about life, but my destiny was yet to be defined.” It was a life-changing turning point for the 20-year-old would-be architect who was then working part-time at an architecture firm.
The Le Corbusier book was too expensive to buy straight away though, so Ando saved up and was able to buy it about a month later. Then he read it “page by page, every night until I grew tired of it”, he says.
“Even though my knowledge was not extensive enough to understand the intricacies of modernism, the contents of the book were utterly fascinating. Each page was beautifully laid out with close-up and wide-angle architectural photographs in addition to attractive plans and sketches.”
Wanting to be able to design in this way, he “traced Le Corbusier’s floor plans over and over again”.
Born and raised in Osaka in a traditional residential neighbourhood, Ando’s home was a small terraced house. He describes it as “a dark place with little light and small windows”.
“In the dim interior, I appreciated what little light we received. I would often fill my cupped hands with light coming into my room. Since then, this is the type of architecture I’ve wanted to build: architecture that values light and reminds me of the same feelings I experienced as a child.
“Nature in the form of light, water, and sky restores architecture from a metaphysical to an earthly plane and gives life to space. A concern for the relationship between architecture and nature inevitably leads to a concern for the temporal context of architecture. I want to emphasise the sense of time and to create compositions in which a feeling of transience or the passing of time is a part of the spatial experience.”
Another book that had a profound influence on the young Ando was a thin, but influential book called In Praise of Shadows by the well-known Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The book details Tanizaki’s thoughts on light and shadows in various aspects of Japanese culture. “The balance of light and shadow is always difficult. Without shadow, one cannot fully appreciate light,” says Ando.
Inside another of Ando’s well-known works, the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church in Ibaraki, just outside Osaka, light and shadow also play a key role in a visitor’s experiential appreciation of the building interior. More commonly known as the Church of the Light, the building’s most striking feature is a cruciform opening, cut out in the concrete, in the wall facing the congregation.
It is also a project that Ando returned to time and again to try and convince the client to remove the glass that was installed to keep out the rain and wind. When Ando first designed the Church of the Light in 1989, he proposed that the cross be open to the elements in order “to introduce pure and natural light into the space,” he says. The client refused to remove the glass.
Ando eventually gave up, so he did the next best thing: make a life-size replica of the church, for an exhibition. In his version there was no glass, just as he wanted it to be. “In comparison to the original church, the experience of light had significantly intensified,” he says.
When Ando thinks of great uses of light in architecture, it is monasteries that come to mind, such as the Thoronet Abbey and the Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey in France. “The light found inside these religious buildings create space and carry life.
“When I first entered Abbaye du Thoronet, I encountered a feeling of great power. In the profound silence of the place, I became aware of the light transcending the severity of religious precepts. In order to appreciate the beauty of light and the spaces it illuminates, darkness is absolutely necessary.”
Necessary, yes; yet in the Minamidera Art House Project, where there is no light at all at first, the complete darkness in the building is unnerving. But the mystery and the eventual surprise revelation make Turrell’s light artwork, and the islands in the Seto Inland Sea generally, well worth visiting – just like the architectural works of Japan’s most famous architect, whose thoughtfully designed and beautifully made works can be found all over Japan and in many other locations around the world, and who believes that although shadows are necessary, “light is pivotal for the livelihood of humankind”.