Chichu Museum: Darkness Before Light

Architect: Tadao Ando | Date completed: 2004 | Location: Naoshima island, Japan | Travel year: 2016


It all started with a two-way ticket from Okayama Port Terminal to Naoshima island. The boat rides lasted for about 20 minutes but the scenery was expectacular, something I had never even imagined I would see. Everyone on the boat either looked like they were going to the islands to work and/or visitors from other parts of Japan. Greenery surrounded us in between mountains. It was an incredible 20 minutes.

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After arriving, we all took a bus ride to the top of the mountain, although they left us at the start of a really long journey up ahead, we were happy to walk by foot instead and appreciate all the scenery. And so we walked for about 30 minutes up hill. We passed by Benesse House by Ando. Until we reached a small tourist center/office. In fact, by this time I was wondering where the museum was. We had walked so much and still I couldn’t make out any concrete structure for the next 3 miles ahead.

Still, we waited at the reception. The office workers told us we had to go in groups of 6 or less, to fully appreciate the site. Excited, I got on the second group with my favorite professor. We waited for about 20 more minutes, until finally we were called to go in. We left our belongings in the amazingly technological lockers they have there (to this day I’m still amazed at how technology plays such a key role in their lives even in the islands). And we walked, through a beautiful garden filled with scents from many distinct flowers and entered through a mistakingly tall Ando wall.


Chichu Museum, known as the best museum for contemporary art in the world was shocking. Shocking in a good sense. The sensations, sights, feelings I had inside this place will not compare to any other. Although I walked with a group of 6 people we didn’t talk the whole way in. There was nothing to talk about, the individual was making the journey alone, everything was so beautiful to describe.

It starts off with a long shadowed corridor. A tunnel, where you can see only a bit of light at the end. You don’t know what is coming, the only thing you hear is silence and the occassional birds flying by and singing just outside.

After the tunnel, you enter an extremely lit space. Surrounded by just four walls and stairs going up. You are inside of an exterior space. Confined in between grasses and flowers, a transition from the light-shadow experiences Ando is so known for. And the most amazing thing is that there is not a single predictable moment as you walk through the building. He refuses to bound by convention, instead by feelings.

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And so the transitions from darkness to light become more apparent as the individual travels to and from all these spaces following the path. When talking about Ando, it is very important to have the “journey” as I like to call it, in mind. Everything is about a fixed path in the building that will give individuals certain types of perceptions. Each has its own moment and space in time. It is essential to go through it in these terms. His buildings are all set up this way: different entrance/exit routes and different spaces for this purpose.

The next open space was a courtyard-like angular confinement with a ramp around it. It might be a space similar to others you have been in before but when my teacher pointed me to the wall that had a gap through it, it hit me. A gigantic wall, with a gap in the middle, and no apparent support. Minimal details such as these are the reactions one must have in these types of spaces: shock and a little side grin.

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After going up the ramp, you are found with museum workers pointing at your shoes. You have to take them off and transition while feeling the cold concrete on your feet. Monet’s artworks was the first thing to the right. Entering this space was like no other. Keep in mind, I have seen Monet before, in New York City at the MoMa, but this space they were in felt magical. Once again you arrive from the dark salon just outside to a space where light was coming from above the walls, from the ceiling. It was all natural light, but it was the right amount of light, not too much, not too little: perfect. The paintings looked differently, softer, with more pastel colors, more emotional. And it was just me and 2 others inside the room, but I was alone. I swear I was alone, the space felt immense and I submerged into its waves of calmness, and I was alone, but profoundly happy.

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The next space was a sitting area we were ushered into. Where we wondered if there was no ceiling at all. I could see the light just outside, I could see it like a window to the exterior and to the sky. I heard birds pass by, I saw clouds move by. Tadao Ando has the ability to frame views without it looking like there has been a change from the architecture to the outside. And he does this with the use of the angled wall. By creating an angle at the edge of these openings it looks like there has been a disruption in the architecture. Just a hole, it looks like a hole, no edges, nothing. I could have stayed in this room for hours just looking up. So simple, yet so astonishingly exciting. So different.

The next thing that happened took me completely by surprise. We went into an orange-lit space with a projection-like light on the wall, it was blue. And with a museum worker next to us, explaining that we had to follow orders. To walk over to the stairs and stand there. Look into the blue projection on the wall that was emitting this color and to wait. We were to go up the stairs and go inside the wall.

“INSIDE THE WALL?” Hold on… I was not prepared for this. Did I hear “inside” the wall?  After thinking this for about 4 miliseconds, I was already following the 3 people around me, going up the stairs and inside the wall. The light around me changed from orange to blue.

Jame’s Turrell is a designer that works with light. His exhibitions are all about exploring the relationship between the architectural space created by light. Architects have been trying to deal with space by displacement or massing form, but Tadao Ando and Turrell have created this as a form of art and created an atmosphere. Turrell believes that what architects do, that is: “…make a form and then stick the lights in” is not architecture at all. Light has to be placed in the space to understand it and have a completely new perception.

We were in the wall. All of the sudden, after that last stair, we entered another dimension. The blue took over us and we were actually inside a space. The projection I was looking at on the wall was not a projection, I was totally wrong. It was Tadao Ando’s use of the angle wall to create this “projection-like” opening into another space. The edges are so thin, you do not see an actual wall for the edge, just a transition. Inside, I was touching the walls, everything was so cold and smooth. There was another brighter light coming from the very back of the space. The space was also a ramp, we were not all in the same level and we could feel it. Then, there was another opening in the back, which looked infinite. Another hole in the wall. I put my hand in front of me, scared to put my hand through this aperture. I was afraid, not afraid such as “there is an alien attack, run for your lives,” but afraid of what I was going to feel. I reached inside the hole, the wall, and this coldness ran through my arm, to my body. I really was in a different world. I could put my hand through the opening, but I couldn’t see the dimensions of this opening. Maybe there was a wall in front of me, I didn’t know. I couldn’t touch anything. Just a vastness. I reached over, not really wanting to find out, and I let my arms wander through thin air. Nothing, I moved them up, down, a little bit more, but it was impossible. I looked back into the other space I had entered through, and that one also looked like a projection. A part of the wall had been painted orange, and I still couldn’t believe I had come from there.

The crazy thing is that the space we were in was completely typical. If you put the same space, let’s say in a part of the Whitney Museum, without the light, individuals will feel nothing. But put the light in, and the different colors, and you have emotions and feelings running through your body. Light affects us in so many ways, but we do not make use of it. Architects have all these tools at their disposition and yet experiencing museums and every day life seems boring. But think about hat you want your visitors to feel and experience, and you already have a beautiful idea.

The next exhibition space was for Walter De Maria, I believed this one was not as shocking as the others, only for the fact that it also had a skylight and you could see that depending on the hour of day, the illumination on the room was to turn different. The entire space, containing a sphere of about 7 feet was situated in the middle. And around, 27 gilded geometric forms sat on the walls and on the floor. It was also beautiful because everything around us was lit in natural light. The museum is all about natural light, but how can varying the light exposure and entrance to the space affect the viewer’s appreciation and experience?

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After this, we went through other tunnels to finally end up at a gift shop inside of the museum, which then led us to a cafe. Walking into the cafe, from a dark tunnel, was a nice experience as well. The cafe had a huge window on the back, where you could see out into the ocean and the vegetation. We really were at the top of the mountain. I left to the outside of the cafe through a door on the right side and went down to some valley where I could see the whole island.

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As you can tell, I had no idea the museum was underground. I had no idea hat I would see inside and I had no pre-conceived notions and judgments of my experiences. I went in as a blank slate.

Maria Flores