Big ambition from a small island: Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari
The Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari is located on a small, historic island called 大三島 (Omishima), Ehime Prefecture, which is part of the Seto Naikai Inland Sea, Western Japan. While it may seem unexpected that Ito’s museum is located in a remote, rural town far from Tokyo, he is heavily invested in Omishima because he sees the future for architecture in this hidden treasure that has managed to conserve abundant natural resources, local heritage and a traditional life style, avoiding the massive modernization that has swept away the past elsewhere.
Ito and his NGO team have been leveraging this museum as a hub to plan/implement various activities to re-invigorate the local community, by closely working with residents and by re-discovering almost forgotten local assets and values. If modern architecture was about large-scale, big-ticket urban projects, Ito believes that architecture “beyond modernism” could emerge from local communities like Omishima. His “beyond-modernism” architecture is also a “back-to-the-roots” architecture. On an island where the communities still preserve their natural, humane and resilient way of living, Ito is re-discovering fundamental roles of architecture, which is to connect people with nature seamlessly, and people to people organically by embracing the unique local environment. (READ about Toyo Ito’s Omishima project)
In his recent book “「建築」で日本を変える” (meaning “transform Japan leveraging architecture”, Shueisha, 2016), Ito recollects his encounters with Omishima island, which date back to 2004. A local business leader, Atsuo Tokoro, who had just opened a museum for modern sculpture on the island, asked Ito to design an extension to it. As they discussed the plan, Ito floated one of his wishes, which was to create private workshops to support students and young architects. Tokoro responded: “Then let’s make the new annex ‘The Toyo Ito Museum’ so that you can host your workshops there.”
That’s how it got started.
In 2011, seven years after its inception, the museum opened as a facility operated by the local government of Imabari City. It is located among terraces of tangerine groves that overlook the Seto Naikai Inland Sea in Urado district, in the western area of Omishima. On a pretty steep slope right next to a cliff, Ito installed two relatively small buildings: the Steel Hut and the Silver Hut. Ever since, the museum has hosted various local projects.
The Steel Hut
From the entrance, you go down the slope towards the ocean. The Steel Hut is at the end of the cliff, overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful Seto Naikai, like a Sphinx overlooking a vast desert.
You enter the building from the higher side of the slope, and walk through rooms 1, 2 and 3. At the end of the room 3, there are steep stairs leading down to the “basement,” which is actually still above the ground because of the steep incline. It shows that the building was designed to take account of the natural landscape that drops sharply away towards the edge of the cliff. It was achieved by combining four hexagonal units that came in different sizes. (It’s difficult to tell how each of four units was designed and connected to each other. Can you?)
Since rooms 1, 2 and 3 are isolated from the outer environment and from other rooms by slanted, hexagonal walls, you may feel as if you are in a cave or a womb. But when you go downstairs, the room is suddenly open to outside world – and you can enjoy stunning ocean view. The phase/sense of dimension/perspectives change quickly. As the name “hut” suggests, this place is relatively small for a museum (about 2,000 square meters), but because of the sequence of tilted walls that change their openness/closeness rapidly, you are naturally focused on the exhibits in front of you.
It is also interesting to see that the interior of the building is “closed” from the surrounding environment, whereas the exterior is completely exposed to raw nature as the Hut sits on the edge of the cliff.
The Silver Hut
In order to access the Silver Hut, you make a big left turn from the Steel Hut and go further down the slope. As people traditionally used the terracing system for agriculture on this island to overcome the lack of flat land, it is as if this museum was built embracing the terracing system.
Originally, the Silver Hut was Ito’s own home built in 1984 in Tokyo. Received with great praise, it won the Prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan for Design in 1986. It is a collection of small residential units connected by a patio, and the entire building is covered by vaults that come in different sizes. At a seminar titled “The temporariness in architecture” in 1987, Ito talked about his peculiar house: “First, I thought about various activities that happen at home, such as cooking, eating, relaxing or sleeping. For example, a kitchen is a work space that offers utilities needed for cooking. I wanted to envelope each of such work areas with something light and floatable like fabric.” He attempted to adopt something as rudimentary/fundamental as the floating houses on rivers in Southwestern Asia, or a teepee made by Native Americans, but placing it in the middle of urbanized central Tokyo.
After the house was decommissioned in 2010, it was reconstructed here in Omishima to become part of the museum – to host various events, workshops or classes. Here, nested in nature, the building looks as if it was built for this place. The lightness, temporariness, openness, neutrality and edit-ability seem to be what an event venue needs.
The Exhibition: Protecting = Creating the Sacred Island of Omishima (through June, 2019)
As mentioned earlier, Ito is invested in and committed to Omishima as if it were his second home. He is involved in various projects to re-invigorate local communities. The exhibition “Protecting = Creating the Sacred Island of Omishima (through June, 2019) showcases major ongoing projects.
It is critical to remember what Ito means by “protecting = creating the sacred island” – “sacred” is the keyword here. In his dream “revitalization” blueprint, conventional economic developments such as inviting companies to build offices/factories or shopping malls to create jobs, or develop touristic attractions to lure visitors, are NOT part of the plan. Not at all.
Instead, he vision is re-imagine Omishima leveraging its powerful natural heritage.
The powerful natural heritage is what he calls “聖地” in Japanese, which is translated as “sacred place” in English. Omishima has long been considered “聖地,” or the island of deities, because of its unique environmental setting. The aura of natural elements, such as mountains, seas, cliffs are so intense and powerful in Omishima that you vividly feel the spirit of natural deities. (It is hard to explain, but you’ll feel it once you arrive on the island.) “聖地” celebrates the power/spirit of nature itself, just like the spiritual places long cherished by Native Americans. Ito remembers his first visit: “I immediately felt the potential of the land. It was as if I heard the spirits from under the ground.”
The interesting thing about the Japanese “聖地” is that it’s not really about preserving the natural environment alone – it has also about a place for people to live. For thousands of years, people in “sacred places” have developed special channels to connect with nature that remains at the heart of their community. Such channels have been maintained through locally unique traditions, events, rituals or customs that honor a mutually-respectful relationship between humans and nature. It is that heritage that has made “聖地” culturally colorful and vibrant.
But heritages do not exist to be efficient. Everywhere in the world – including Omishima – traditions have been increasingly been swept aside by big money and state-of-the-art technology that make every single community look similar by installing the same kind of concrete-made, rigid infrastructure, buildings, facilities and standardized services.
The precious “聖地”are on the verge of extinction. In Omishima, its population, especially the younger generation, is steadily decreasing because there are not enough jobs to hold them on the island. However, the natural environment on the island has managed to survive mostly intact. Local communities definitely need future generations who can leverage their “creativity” to “preserve” the unique sacredness of the island. That’s why Ito says “protect = create the sacred island.”
Ito’s dream is to help support Omishima to become the “best island to live,” which is self-sustained. Thanks to the mild climate, Omishima is suitable for many produces including citrus. But since it lacks contiguous flat land, the products can’t compete with cheap imports. Many orchards and farms have been abandoned.
But if creative ways can be found to make Omishima products attractive again, the land has the potential to sustain local communities. Although it is positive to see an increase in the number of visitors to the island, Ito is more concerned about providing fulfilling and happy lives for the local residents. And he believes that reviving small-scale agriculture is critical.
In terms of architecture, Ito also designed the ”Ken Iwata Mother and Child Museum, Imabari City,” which is located right next to the ”Omishima ikoi no ie,” accommodations in a renovated elementary school that had to close down because it couldn’t secure enough children to attend.
Ito and his NGO team helped with the ikoi no ie renovation, and the place just re-opened in April 2018. They also renovated an old administrative office in downtown near the Oyamazumi Shrine. Named Omishima minna no ie (Home-for-All), the place offers food, a venue for local events and opportunities for people to mingle.
Ito’s team consists of a wide variety of professionals including architects, designers or carpenters. Even students from Harvard Graduate School of Design were involved. As part of the program at Harvard named “ITO STUDIO,” they came to Japan and visited Omishima to produce pieces of art.
If you came here to find Ito’s progressive and experimental works, you may feel that you didn’t find what you were looking for. But if you take a step back, you may realize that we judge architecture mostly within the context of modern architecture, which is almost always focused on design-centric, complex urban projects created by leveraging large amounts of money, state-of-the-art technology and well-known architects. What has happened is that Ito has decided to say good-by to the way modern architecture operates today, after decades of critical works that question what architecture means to our society. It is not that he has lost his progressive creativity, but he is now seeing the potential for such creativity at the heart of nature where each individual – not just architects or big companies – has to be proactive and creative to find his/her own way to live in harmony with nature, in order to make the most out of it.
On this small, remote island, Ito is now tackling much larger and more fundamental questions, which go far beyond modern architecture as an industry or a professional field. That is the reason why this museum focuses on peoples’ lives – which may look old-fashioned, simple and labor-intensive at first – rather than big-ticket, futuristic architectural projects. If the original goal of architecture was to help make people’s lives more rewarding and fulfilling by bridging the natural and the human in a mutually-respectful way, here in Omishima, Ito is attempting to reverse engineer architecture from the point of view of people’s lives and happiness. And the definition of “people” could definitely include you, if that’s what you want.
If you came here asking: “What did Ito do?” you may leave this place by asking: “What can I do?”