On my first evening in Tokyo I looked out from the Mori Art Museum, on the 53rd floor of Mori Tower, and saw only the city, stretching to the horizon in every direction. Tokyo doesn’t seem to have any periphery, from this vantage point, but instead has multiple centers—and highways hinting at other centers unseen. The best known of these is Shinjuku, the area that dominated discussion of Japan in the late 20th century, and certainly in 1976, when MoMA held an exhibition of the same name. Shinjuku sought to display and explain Japan’s densest commercial district to New Yorkers, with fake food, signs, maps of Shinjuku station, and photographs, describing the city as “chaotic to eyes accustomed to the clarity of pure form.”
But Japan isn’t just Tokyo seen from a skyscraper, and the country’s recent architecture seems to turn away from the city, aspiring to support small communities and encourage closer relationships with the landscape. I was in Japan, thanks to a research grant from MoMA, to examine this trend, and so I left for the Seto Inland Sea, where art and architecture are being used to revive island communities and economies as industry declines and villagers gravitate toward urban centers.
I went first to see Kazuyo Sejima’s Art House Project on the island of Inujima, which is included in MoMA’s A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond exhibition. This ongoing project consists of a series of pavilions in a small village, arranged to facilitate appreciation of the town itself. The structures, delicate in appearance and around the same size as the houses that surround them, serve as places where art can be displayed or where visitors and locals might rest. I found Sejima’s art houses often served as a means of redirecting my gaze—through transparent or mirrored surfaces, open walls, and chairs placed nearby—to the older wooden houses and the island’s topography, plants, and port.
On the island of Teshima, half an hour from Inujima by ferry, is one of the region’s most dramatic spaces. The Teshima Art Museum, a collaborative project by architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito (which also features in A Japanese Constellation), stages the visitor’s encounter with nature, beginning with a looped path that leads away from the museum. This path curves around a hill and through a forested area overlooking the water, turning back through trees toward the main structure’s narrow entrance. Inside, under a concrete shell that stretches into one large, rounded, and edgeless room, water bubbles up from the floor and sometimes falls from the sky through two large round openings, gathering in trembling droplets and puddles before streaming across the floor. The light, coming through the openings, draws the eye to two thin strings, alternately blown by the wind and weighed down by gathering beads of water. The curve of the concrete causes strange echoes. It’s a hypnotic space, and most visitors are silent and reverential, in thrall to both architecture and nature.
The use of architecture to bring us closer to nature reaches an apex in Tadao Ando’s most recent project on the island of Naoshima. Tadao Ando is known for his use of concrete, and for buildings—including a number on Naoshima—that burrow into the earth as a means of engaging with landscapes without disrupting them. In Labyrinth of Cherry Blossoms, however, Ando avoids building almost completely, planting rows of cherry trees with circles of rhododendrons at their roots. Here, plants are architecture—or will be once the trees grow large enough to blossom.Elsewhere on the island, Sou Fujimoto’s Naoshima Pavilion is a little more artificial, constructed of white stainless steel mesh on a concrete base. It is illuminated at night, though, and the artificial glow—which reflects in the water—causes the structure to resemble a cut diamond. In such a setting, against wooded hills and the small town and port of Miyanoura, even this jewel seems a rebuff to Tokyo, signalling to visitors as we arrive on the ferry and lingering in the memory after departure.
These islands inspire pilgrimages from cities—including, of course, my own pilgrimage from New York—but their management is largely in service of a greater rejection of the city. The organizers and supporters of the Setouchi Triennale, with which all these projects are linked, often speak of the event as a way to promote rural life, contrasting the creative freedom given to artists and architects on these islands with the constraints that exist in Tokyo. The difference in architectural development is clear when thinking back to the Mori Art Museum’s observation windows, from which highways block the sight of rivers below them, and green spaces are pressed between clusters of skyscrapers.
But it’s easy to want to live on one of these islands, and far harder to actually do so. The buildings I visited are among a number of initiatives intended to instill community pride and encourage visitors and locals to talk together, and they seem, thus far, to be successful. Nonetheless, most visitors return to cities after a few days, and the architects designing the structures I visited are based in Tokyo and Osaka. Those living on the islands are generally older and poorer, having worked in industrial refining or as farmers for most of their lives. One volunteer, stationed near the ferry, told me she longed to see the lights and shops of Shinjuku. The Seto Inland Sea is often described as dreamlike by tourists, but it’s worth remembering that the city, too, can be a dream.