The enigmatic emergence of a museum that is in principle "empty": a true sensory experience created by Ryue Nishizawa and Rei Naito.
The blob is not only a recent phenomenon; the contiguously curving building is not merely the result of parametric manipulation on the computer. Twentieth-century modernism was imbued with many wantonly non-orthogonal forms, from Kiesler's theoretical Endless House to Niemeyer's sensuous concrete gestures in Brazil and other sunny climes. Such proposals blur the quantifiable, fuse the in-between, and appeal to our emotions. The Teshima Art Museum may not automatically reveal the authorship of its architect Ryue Nishizawa. It certainly seems unconventional when first discerned amid the stepped green fields of Teshima, an island in Japan's Inland Sea. The museum billows upward as a white, bulbous and irregular excrescence. This note of irregularity – its gently shifting morphology – marks the structure as being somehow different from any generic shell or strictly rational building. The first-time visitor may also be surprised by how big or, more correctly, how extensive the project is – it stretches over 60 metres along its longer axis. As you move across the landscape, adjusting to changes in elevation, the building appears to change volume, inflating and deflating like some seamless dirigible. And then you notice an aperture puncturing this smooth carapace, a dark circular opening like the blowhole of a static beast. It's a strange thing this Teshima Art Museum. There's no immediately obvious point of entry. The use of exposed concrete suggests an industrial facility amid the bucolic if highly tailored nature of the island; yet the concrete also assumes a mysteriously soft shape (what could be inside?) and is unusually white (the absence of colour or the blending of all colours?) surrounded here by the verdant fields and a stand of trees towards the Inland Sea. You next notice a second and smaller blobular pavilion – a shop and cafe. You spot a dainty ribbon of raised concrete path. Then you discover a ticket office tucked into a hillside slope. This latter location is the starting point for a rather wonderful promenade.
The concrete path loops away from the architecture into the trees, offering glimpses of sea and snatches of sound from the water below – the put-put of a distant boat – before circling back to the enigmatic white concrete shell. It's unlikely that visitors come here entirely unprepared, without expecting some sensory, cultural or artistic experience. The Teshima project follows on from Tadao Ando's halfdozen buildings on Naoshima, an adjacent island where Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima built the skeletal and orthogonal ferry terminal. Sejima is also inserting several jewel-like pavilions into the village fabric of Inujima, a second neighbouring island. All exist thanks to the patronage of the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation.
So you find yourself on a comparatively remote Japanese island, enjoying the village life and ocean air, trying to understand the entirety and indeed the full purpose of this unapologetically contemporary and unusual structure. You continue along the narrow concrete path, dipping slightly, to discover the Teshima Art Museum re-emerging between the trees, its low white curve holed now by a second dark oculus sinking towards the ground plane. Then you observe a protrusion morphing out from the main body of the building as a stretched, contiguous surface. This limb is cropped close to the footpath to permit access, through a tunnellike entrance, into the belly of the mysterious beast. If the building is unorthodox, its name is also strange, perhaps even disingenuous. The Teshima Art Museum is almost completely empty, devoid of contents. Its interior is fluid, a concrete membrane carpeting the ground and wrapping up from shadowy edges to span as a low unobstructed dome overhead. Neither columns nor beams interrupt the organic singularity of the total volume. Similarly there is none of the clutter normally associated with museums.
It's a strange thing this Teshima Art Museum. There's no immediately obvious point of entry.
Nishizawa designed the Teshima Art Museum in association with the artist Rei Naito, cognisant of her methodologies and of her interests in natural phenomena of water, light and air. A decade ago, Naito reworked a traditional house on Naoshima, incising a linear void beneath opaque clay walls and placing an inscrutable ring of smooth stone to hover, it appears, above the earthen floor. On Teshima her work is even more immaterial – there is, essentially, nothing. In the 20th century, architects and engineers such as Félix Candela in Mexico and Heinz Isler in Switzerland determined the design of concrete shells through pragmatic research. Like those masters, Nishizawa has striven for optimal thinness (his concrete structure is in total 250 millimetres thick) and to allow such thinness to be legible without the visual intrusion of beams, in particular edge beams about exposed openings. However, Nishizawa is also thinking metaphorically. He likens the shape of the gallery to a drop of water, a blob complete with a small protrusion (the entryway) suggesting that it has only just landed or become solid. For now Naito's installation is for the collection of rainwater, allowing nature into this novel structure through the two large, unglazed openings. The water simply ponds or coagulates on the concrete floor. From the interior, you experience the outside in slightly strange ways. Through one oculus, you see foliage moving in the breeze. Up above, you see the sky as a disk: blue, grey, white, black. You may well have hiked a considerable distance to come to these islands, having heard of the famous architects and the famous artists, only to be re-presented with – and be surprisingly inspired by – the elements that surround us all. Nishizawa's building evokes a faith in the ability of architecture to make the world seem somewhat strange yet simultaneously a little bit better. Raymund Ryan