Subterranean Homesick Blues

This Spring my wife and I visited Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum (literally, “art museum in the earth”), a subterranean museum built into the island of Naoshima in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. The museum is part of an ongoing cultural initiative to “rethink the relationship between nature and people,” and is one of several arts-related installations and sites on the island. It features permanent installations by Walter De Maria and James Turrell, as well as large-scale painted works by Claude Monet.

The trip to the island was something of an odyssey itself. From Tokyo we took a bullet train to Okayama in central Japan; then another train to Takamatsu on the Island of Shikoku over the eight-mile Seto bridge, a marvel of engineering that arches miraculously above the volcanic islands of the Seto inland sea; then a ferry ride to the port of Minoura on the island of Naoshima; and finally an hour-long hike to the museum through the weathered fishing villages of Naoshima, past rice farms and houses built of wood and rusty corrugated metal.

Though the museum is modern in terms of vocabulary and materials, the approach, entry, and exhibit sequence owe much to traditional Japanese temple and garden design, in the way the visitor paths are cranked or zigzagged to allow spaces and features to be be revealed gradually rather than all at once.

From a bird’s eye view you can see the genius of Ando’s “building-less” design, with its abstract composition of geometric concrete lightwells punctuating the craggy outcropping into which the museum is embedded. But of course from inside you don’t experience it this way.

The museum’s day-lit voids and exhibit spaces are unveiled in a series of discrete poetic moments between dark passages, lending a sense of wonder to the experience. 

I was naturally reminded of the gently ramped descent of DBB’s September 11 Memorial Museum, another underground museum with a similarly poetic interplay of dark and light, of time and space, of mystery and discovery.

Of course, where the discoveries at the 9/11 Museum involve excavating painful memories, the mysteries revealed at Chichu are distinctly more pleasurable. For me the most breathtaking of the museum’s many “poetic moments” was the approach and arrival from a dark concrete passage into a sky-lit room of paintings from Claude Monet’s proto-psychedelic Water Lilies series. I’ve always had a thing for Monet (dude was born on my birthday, a few years before me), but in this space, suffused with natural light, the riotous brushstrokes and splashes of violet, blue, gold and green jumped off the canvas, reflected off the walls and the tiny white ceramic tiles of the floor, and came to life for me in a way they had not done before.

My wife and I were so mesmerized by the experience that after a visiting the museum’s other exhibits (striking installations by Turrell and DeMaria that I don’t have time to detail here) we felt compelled to return. This time the sun had lowered, the sky had clouded over, and the works looked different — less dramatic than the first time — perhaps because the daylight had dimmed, perhaps because “there’s no time like the first time.” But that’s the cool thing about daylit spaces: how they change throughout the day, depending on time and weather, making each moment unique.

Back in NYC after the trip, I thought more about what I like about the 9/11 museum, and what I dislike about the Snøhetta visitor pavilion that rises above it. The Snøhetta building, with its self-consciously angular lines, tromps heavily upon the land, barging into the quiet empty space between the site's two reflecting pools, making a loud “architectural statement” where none was required. Meanwhile, right across Greenwich Street, Calatrava’s $4 billion stegosaurus snarls back at it: “I’m bigger, weirder, and pricier than you!” Neither of these behemoths is without artistic merit, but the question arises: do either of them have to be on top of the land at all? In terms of function, both are little more than entries into underground spaces. Both could be more like the Chichu museum — a series of quiet, stealthy portals and skylights that bring light and people into the spaces below, while sitting lightly and respectfully on the land above them.

Yes, this is New York City, land of bold overstatement, not a remote fishing village in rural Japan. But I think it never hurts to question the heaviness of our hands as architects and designers. The Memorial Plaza was meant to be a peaceful expanse for quiet contemplation amid the daily grind of downtown New York; and I suspect a lighter, humbler approach to the structures on and around it might have given the plaza more of the quiet poetry of a place like the Chichu museum.


Dylan Jhirad, Director of Graphic Design, Davis Brody Bond