Imagine encountering five of Monet's monumental paintings of water lilies in an underground chamber on a remote Japanese island. Accessed through a dim passageway, the room features richly textured plaster walls and a floor made of 700,000 marble cubes. The canvases of shimmering purples and greens are illuminated by natural light filtering through an opening in the high ceiling. Before entering, visitors must remove their shoes. Silence is requested, but it's difficult to keep from gasping.
The Monet room is the centerpiece of the Chichu Art Museum, a privately owned exhibition space that opened last year on Naoshima, a rocky island in the Seto Inland Sea. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the museum is almost entirely underground, or chichu in Japanese. Paul Tucker, a Monet expert at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, compares entering the space to "descending into King Tut's tomb. You're in these darkened hallways and suddenly you come upon these treasures."
In addition to the Monets, the Chichu houses evocative installations by contemporary American artists Walter De Maria and James Turrell. In designing the settings for these works, Ando was determined to make the architecture as dramatic as the art itself. Inside one cathedrallike gallery, a large polished granite sphere by De Maria sits on the landing of a giant stairway, surrounded by gold-leaf totems—suggesting a secret shrine of some aesthetically precise religion. Three other rooms contain pieces by Turrell, which all use light to create seemingly tangible forms.
De Maria and Turrell, both famous for epically scaled artworks in deliberately out-of-the-way places, are in many ways the perfect artists for the museum. Their singular, quixotic visions fit right in on Naoshima, where the Chichu is the latest project in a unique collaboration between Ando and Japanese businessman Soichiro Fukutake, one of the country's more extravagant art collectors. Over the past 15 years the pair have been transforming the island into an idiosyncratic showcase for art and architecture. Featuring a half dozen (and counting) buildings filled with pieces by top international artists as well as numerous outdoor sculptures, Naoshima is turning up on the itineraries of cultural pilgrims around the globe.
Make no mistake: This is no Bilbao-style urban renewal scheme. The nearest major city, Osaka, is three hours away and the journey requires taking multiple trains, a ferry, and a taxi. But the destination is made all the more compelling by the difficulty in getting there. "No one comes here unless they're looking for something," says Ando. And Fukutake has described it as a place that is "spiritual without religion."
Ever since his father bought a large swath of Naoshima in the eighties and turned it into a retreat for his employees, Fukutake, 59, has been determined to leave his mark on the island. When he first decided in the early nineties to display his collection there, he called Ando and asked him to design a museum. The result is a strikingly modern building—tucked neatly into a hillside on the island's southern coast—that is at once a hotel and an exhibition space.
Opened in 1992, the Benesse House is reached from the shore by a long stairway that doubles as a sculpture garden, with large-scale works perched on several landings. The main building has ten guest rooms overlooking the sea, and there are six more in a dramatic annex on a steep promontory, reached by a private funicular.
Characterized by Ando's signature use of poured concrete in geometric forms, the buildings' architecture provides an evocative setting for the mostly minimalist artworks displayed throughout. Highlights include a huge neon sculpture by Bruce Nauman, which gets its own large cylindrical room; hypnotic sculptures of found stones and driftwood by Richard Long; and Jasper Johns's 1968 painting White Alphabets. A number of seascapes by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto hang on the hotel's outdoor terrace, where they mirror the water and sky beyond.
Following the success of Benesse House, Fukutake and Ando decided to take their partnership to the next level with the Chichu museum, which Ando designed specifically for the artworks it displays. He made the rather unexpected decision to put the building underground. This meant Ando could focus on creating dramatic spaces inside without having to concern himself with an exterior. Burying the museum also reflected the wish of both architect and patron not to disrupt Naoshima's landscape. Not that the area is entirely pristine: A copper refinery operated by Mitsubishi has marred the northern section of the island for almost a century, and tankers dot the surrounding waters. Ando says he isn't trying to perfect Naoshima. He wants, simply, to make it better.
To accommodate the growing number of visitors to the island, Ando designed a second hotel, this one with 49 rooms, slated to open next year. The architect also has been working with Fukutake on the Art House Project, which entails converting vacated homes in Honmura, a fishing village on the east side of the island, into spaces for art. As residents move away, Fukutake's Benesse Corporation acquires the properties and commissions artists to do site-specific installations for them.
Inside one beautiful old house, Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima created a dark pool filled with LEDs that blink out numbers at different speeds determined by local residents. The effect is mesmerizing. There's also a new building Ando designed for a compelling Turrell installation: a room so dark, it takes more than ten minutes to begin to see faint patches of light projected on a distant wall. Waiting for your eyes to adjust requires patience.
While the remoteness of Naoshima is part of its allure, even Ando sometimes has problems getting there. On a recent afternoon he arrived more than an hour late, explaining that he had fallen asleep on the train to Okayama and ended up in Hiroshima. (He had spent the previous evening watching sumo wrestling with French president Jacques Chirac, whom he has known for a number of years.)
Still wiry and energetic at 64, Ando is unusual among the world's top architects in that he never attended architecture school. He just learned by doing, he says. In 1995 Ando was awarded his profession's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, and today he is a celebrity in Japan, often stopped by fans seeking an autograph. He mingles with other international tastemakers—Tom Ford is a client, Giorgio Armani is a friend. (Ando frets about how he'll get Armani to Naoshima during an upcoming trip, joking, "He thinks it's in Tokyo Bay.")
When it is noted that a number of his peers—Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Renzo Piano—have major New York projects in the works, Ando mentions that he's doing a restaurant for "iron chef" Masaharu Morimoto in TriBeCa and a penthouse for Japanese soccer star Hide Nakata in SoHo. "New York is the greatest achievement of the twentieth century," Ando says. "So it's a great achievement to be working there." But then he adds, "On Naoshima, we have something that not even New York has."
Ando is probably best known for his museum buildings, with around a dozen in Japan alone. In the United States he designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, both of which have been hailed for their ethereal beauty. His two-building expansion of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, will no doubt emerge as a powerful presence in the Berkshires when it is completed in 2012.
But Naoshima may be the project closest to Ando's heart. Because the Chichu Art Museum was created for specific permanent installations, Ando was able to forgo the flexible walls, lights, speakers, outlets, and other elements needed in galleries for changing exhibitions—all functional details that make designing "pure forms" practically impossible. "Part of the reason they seem so powerful," Ando says of the Chichu's rooms, "is that people don't see the mundane things" found in most museum buildings.
Fukutake and Ando plan to take their collaboration beyond Naoshima. They are eyeing other islands in the Inland Sea, including one, Inujima, that Benesse partially owns. Someday there could be an entire archipelago of art destinations. After all, says Ando, gesturing toward the blue water, "when you start looking at the other islands, the possibilities are endless."
The best way to see Naoshima island is to stay at the BENESSE HOUSE hotel (Gotanji, Naoshima, Kagawa; 81-87/892-2030; www.naoshima-is.co.jp). Try to arrive on a Monday, when the CHICHU ART MUSEUM (www.chichu.jp) is closed and the island's other attractions are least crowded. Then you can be the first to arrive at the museum on Tuesday morning. (The hotel staff will suggest travel itineraries from Osaka.)
There are ten rooms in the main building of the hotel ($310-$660) and six in an annex ($365-$660), which provides some of the most dramatic views on the island. Every room features original art—there's a Christo in 304 and a Richard Long, painted directly on the wall, in 403. The hotel has a café, which is great for afternoon snacks, and a more formal dining room offers Japanese and Western-style cuisine. For stunning sunsets and after-dinner cocktails, try the bar at the annex.
Information on the art at the Benesse House and the ART HOUSE PROJECT is available on the Benesse House Web site. Naoshima also has a new Shinto shrine designed by the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto that is definitely worth a look. If you want to go for a soak in Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's hot tub installation near the beach, you must make reservations through the hotel.