The museum is located on a hilly site overlooking the Seto Inland Sea in the southwest of Omishima, a small island blessed with abundant nature with its orange groves and beautiful sunsets.
The definition of the museum emerged only gradually. The project was originally the initiative of a wealthy art collector, Atsuo Tokoro, and his gallerist, Koji Hasegawa, who together had built a small museum on the island in 2004 to house Tokoro’s collection of contemporary sculpture. When Tokoro decided to build an annex to the facility, Hasegawa recommended that he approach Ito for the job. Ito’s initial proposal had a fluidly organic concrete shell roof, a “transparent jellyfish or sea cucumber” in the words of Tokoro. This version was never realised – changes to the local administration delayed the project for several years. Ito had set about articulating a new architectural vision, based on structure, nature and the body. As his educational mission burgeoned and rubbed off on his clients, the project metamorphosed from an annex for sculpture into a space for architectural exhibition and discourse – with the star exhibit being the work of Ito himself.
The Museum Design
The resolution is a museum split into two separate buildings, each described as a “hut” – a moniker that signals the presence of a primal architectural theme. 'The Steel Hut' and 'The Silver Hut' cater to the two distinct functions of the institution, one a space of exhibition, the other a venue for discussions and workshops. The paired naming of these two works reveals them as binary twins, embodying complementary qualities, principles, even chapters in Ito’s life.
'Silver Hut' is a reenactment of his own house, which is intended for workshop activities and events located in the valley of the site. 'The Steel Hut' is situated on the ridge part of a hilly site.
'Silver Hut' employs the the same methodology as the original house, Silver Hut, which Ito designed as his own residence in 1984.
The building features buoyant metal roof vaults and porthole windows which capture the qualities of lightness, artificiality and mobility that epitomised Ito’s influential reading of bubble-era Tokyo.
Generous, unaffected and inviting, barrel vaults arcing across the sea horizon in imitation of clouds or distant islands, it feels so suited to this setting that it is hard to imagine that it was originally wedged into a tightly built-up site in suburban Tokyo. The late-modern Japanese metropolis has been for Ito a second nature – his Tokyo is a world where gardens of microchips and forests of media sway in electronic winds, through which urban Tarzans swing and nomad girls graze – and this house proves it. But its reappearance on a site far from its native ground, however scenic, is deeply poignant. For the house is also a memorial, not just to the ideas that animated it, but also to the life that it housed – as it was the loss of Ito’s wife in 2008 that motivated its inclusion within the museum.
Faceted, dark and hermetic, the Steel Hut forms the tall dark stranger to the Silver Hut’s more familiar casual elegance.
Formed from combinations of four different kinds of polyhedral volumes, the nearly windowless structure has an impassive monumentality that resists casual reading. Its scale is hard to interpret and its overall shape is difficult to grasp, which gives it a vaguely alien quality, as if it had washed up like a giant shark’s egg.
Ito describes it as a “vessel, embarking on its own voyage, carrying a cargo of architectural visions: of buildings and cities everywhere, past, present, and future”.
Such marine associations have local resonance. Shipbuilding was once a major industry in the region, and the 6mm steel plate that clads the building is a deliberate nod to this heritage, and was fabricated by the descendants of local men who once assembled supertankers.
Four types of 3m-sided polyhedron modules, which can be freely assembled and closely packed, were used to create this building. Each unit has two kinds of slanted wall angles. Consequently, there are no clear definite planes for ceilings, walls or floors. The space has a centripetal quality that creates an experience similar to being within a sphere.
When visitors move from one room to another, the inclined walls unfold panoramically. This unique quality of the space enables unusual ways of exhibition completely different from the orthodox exhibition space based on a standard grid. A double-height polyhedral stack for the entrance hall, three chambers packed horizontally carrying the main exhibition spaces, and a four-storey tower serving as a beacon.
The opening exhibition fills the canted polygonal walls of the galleries with a microcosm of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. Each island bears an abstracted model of one of Ito’s buildings, like delicate coral skeletons on a beach.