The Tadao Ando-designed building itself is the main draw and the recipient of quasi-religious awe. Though I’m not Japanese, I’m able to experience a profound sense that here is a modern marriage of Japanese expertise and Japanese values that borders on perfection. For the Japanese around me, the experience must be emotional.
Of all the self-sacrifices made by Japan in the pursuit of economic goals, architecture ranks very high. Ever since most major cities succumbed to the ruthless efficiency of concrete over craftsmanship, Japan has been left groping blindly for a native architecture able to meet the demands of modern existence.
Enter Tadao Ando, an architect who doesn’t trample the profound sensitivity for nature and seasonal change that informed the traditional Japanese way of life. Rather than clear nature out of the way for his buildings, his buildings make way for nature. Often partially or wholly buried underground, they take their cues from the landscape and the availability of light. This framing and savouring of nature creates a special quality which can be said to be uniquely Japanese while sounding no nationalist sentiment. That all this is achieved with steel-reinforced concrete, a material usually considered antithetical to nature, is quite something. (Photo: Jean Snow).
Strongly reminiscent of his Chichu Art Museum buried in an island in Kagawa Prefecture, albeit on a far more compact scale, 21_21 Design Sight is a signature Ando creation: at ground level little is visible bar the origami crane-like, double-winged steel roof. This unobtrusive exterior – almost a garden feature – provides access to a dramatic multi-stage underground with a passage between open and enclosed spaces. The characteristic surface regularity of exposed concrete blocks that would invoke Brutalism in less sensitive hands is tempered by unexpected plays of natural light and unorthodox perspectives that taper off into acute corners.
In the main gallery space, an assortment of models and drawings have been put on display in order to inform visitors about the building’s construction, as well as other Ando works like the Omotesando Hills Regeneration Project. It’s all a bit ramshackle. There’s plenty to pore over here but not quite enough insight to satisfy architecture junkies while, for newcomers to Ando’s work, the poor quality of the images fails to convey the drama of his other projects. Above all, it doesn’t feel right that the building should so openly celebrate itself. It feels, well, a bit uncool, like a breathless Oscars speech by an actor whose aloofness you once admired.
The exhibition, titled A Hard-Fought Process, is described as a tribute to the craftsmanship and dedication of the Japanese construction workers who overcame obstacle after obstacle to see the building through to its completion. A generous idea, but exactly how ‘hard-fought’ these obstacles were – as compared with those faced by Medieval cathedral builders, say – is a matter of opinion above all else and, if the tribute is meant to be Ando’s, why are the general public funding it to the tune of ¥1000 a head?
We should be entitled to ask why 21_21 Design Sight hasn’t started life with a prestige exhibition. If the purpose is to allow for appreciation of the shell, then why fill it with anything? Why throw in the distraction of a pile of models, drawings and concrete samples that together look like they’ve been scooped up in a hurry from the architect’s workspace? Why not allow those prepared to queue to wander in the unspoilt interior for free? Or throw in a world-beating exhibition to get global critical voices purring? Commercial considerations could be the reason. It makes better short-term economic sense to ride the ‘Midtown Effect’ guaranteed to bring in thousands of visitors every day during the opening season; visitors who might, upon finding out that there is a challenging design exhibition inside, think twice about entering.
This could tell us a lot about the project’s actual goals versus its proclaimed goal of becoming “a place where many people can come together to discuss” the role of design in society. Ando’s becalming bunker may be meditative and contemplative but could hardly be described as interactive. The notion that 21_21 Design Sight is a place that design-conscious Tokyo residents will return to again and again to engage in discussion seems far-fetched. It’s more likely that the design crowd will, like the crowds of shoppers milling in Midtown, come here once and once only to soak in the grandeur of another sunken Ando treasure. It will certainly be interesting to watch the project develop over the coming twelve months, if only to see if it can live up to its self-image or if it throws in its lot with the new commercial agenda being piloted across the grass in the Tokyo Midtown complex. The inaugural exhibition proper, being about chocolate, doesn’t bode too well.