Off the coast of the Japan’s southerly Kagawa prefecture, in the Seto Inland Sea, lies the island of Naoshima. Accessible only by boat and more than five hours from Tokyo, the small island is an unlikely pilgrimage site for art tourists. However, spaced all along its picturesque coastline is a series of world-class museums designed by legendary Japanese architect Tadao Ando – as impressive as any institution you might find in a major urban centre.
Benesse House Museum (1992)
An art museum-meets-luxury-hotel, Benesse House Museum sits on the southern coast of Naoshima island. Inside, an impressive array of works by renowned Western and Japanese contemporary artists – from Andy Warhol to Jannis Kounellis and Hiroshi Sugimoto – is exhibited in the white gallery spaces and sparse concrete rooms. Outside, polka-dot pumpkins by legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma border the scenic shoreline.
Ando collaborated with US artist James Turrell for Minamidera, his third project on Naoshima. The building looks, from the outside, like any other traditional charcoal-charred house on the island – albeit a little larger than normal. Inside, you are plunged into what initially seems like total darkness but, as your eyes adjust, the faint glow of a blue twilight – Turrell’s Backside of the Moon (1999) – becomes clearer with each passing minute.
Chichu Art Museum (2004)
It’s difficult to see Chichu Art Museum when you’re not inside it, since the structure is mostly buried underground. The museum’s footprint is clearly visible from a bird’s-eye view, however, which also reveals the enormous skylights – its sole source of light. The interior, in typical Ando style, is characterized by clean concrete lines and tricks of perception: a counterpoint to, and inventive framing device for, the idyllic blooming gardens that surround the site. The museum houses works by artists Walter De Maria, James Turrell and Claude Monet, five of whose ‘Water Lilies’ paintings (1914–26) are displayed in a superb, naturally lit space that visitors may only enter after donning a pair of white slippers.
Lee Ufan Museum (2010)
The Lee Ufan Museum was opened in time for the inaugural Setouchi Triennale in 2010, which is held across 12 small islands in the Seto Inland Sea, including Naoshima. Composed of three square rooms, the museum was built specifically to house works by the Korean artist Lee Ufan, whose cerebral natural sculptures and minimalist paintings complement Ando’s stark architectural style.
The Ando Museum (2013)
Successfully marrying old and new, The Ando Museum is a 100-year-old timber house that has been converted into a minimalist concrete structure. With its burnt-wood exterior topped by a jumble of low-pitched tiled roofs, The Ando Museum passes for a standard Japanese home even more convincingly than Minamidera. The atmospheric location provides the perfect setting to learn about Ando’s architectural practice in Naoshima, and across the world.