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Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa, Teshima Island, Japan

An enigmatic concrete bubble houses an equally enigmatic art installation. Photography by Iwan Baan

Get on a plane. Go. Soon. If you are reading this in English, it’s unlikely that you are in Japan - if you are, you already know that an important little bubble of a building is awaiting you in the middle of the Inland Sea. Which airport? Doesn’t matter; international flights don’t arrive anywhere near your destination. You’ll need to cover many miles by road. Or rail. And then take a ferry.

When you arrive at Teshima Island’s pocket-sized ports - there are slightly more than a thousand people living on the whole island, spread across five tiny towns - you might discover, as I did, that the lazy local bus schedule means that your best option is to rent a motorised bicycle for the hills. Yet incredibly, 11,000 people made the trip to Teshima Art Museum in the first two weeks after it opened last October. And for what? Almost nothing.

More precisely, ‘Almost nothing’ translates the idea of Beinahe Nichts, which we associate with Mies van der Rohe, the son of a stonemason. Mies believed that the best materials to achieve airy emptiness are translucent glass and slender steel. Others today erect open structures in acrylic and aluminium, or even forge environments out of ethereal fog. Concrete surely never suggests itself to most as the best media to accomplish ‘almost nothing’, to inspire awe with empty, open space. But SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa, who with Kazuyo Sejima received the Pritzker Architecture Prize last year, is known for audaciously ignoring the obvious.

In 2004, Nishizawa, working with the acclaimed structural engineer Mutsuro Sasaki, was invited to propose a structure for a site on nearby Naoshima, where there were already a handful of popular art museums designed by Tadao Ando. Sasaki had earlier explored softly swelling undulations in concrete in the 1996 Nagaoka Lyric Hall, designed with Toyo Ito, a trajectory that continued in a set of small, curvaceous concrete structures peppering Ito’s 2005 Island City Park and in the elegant 2006 Forest of Meditation.

Sasaki was also working on a flatter, sprawling topographic slab with SANAA, the architectural partnership that Nishizawa simultaneously maintains while also managing his independent practice. The Rolex Learning Centre at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne was awarded to SANAA in a 2004 competition and ultimately completed last year (AR May 2010).

But unlike these examples, Nishizawa’s initial proposal for the isolated art museum was coolly autonomous and object-like, with the pregnant, rounded shape of a water droplet poised lightly on a sheet of glass. The curve was unlikely to be constructible until engineers were able to fine-tune the form into infinite numbers of analytic iterations, and contractors could accurately and cheaply set out 3,500 points for an unusual and non-orthogonal profile.

Nishizawa faced other challenges at the Rolex Learning Centre: how to smoothly incorporate hard-edged architectural elements, such as windows, doors or handrails. At Teshima, he simply eschewed them, thanks to his relationship with a cooperative client: the Fukutake Art Museum Foundation, which has been developing Naoshima, and more recently, Inujima and Teshima, into international art centres. Edges, he also knew, would be an issue at the building stage. There are none: the concrete shell was poured continuously over 22 hours, set on a mortar-finished earth formwork, the corner between floor and wall concealed in a curl.

Even though the museum’s initial intent had been to create a flexible space that could accommodate a range of artworks, it ended up housing a single, sublimely subtle installation by the artist Rei Naito, inspired by Nishizawa’s architecture. Beads of water percolate here and there through pinholes in the floor, and then skim along its imperceptibly sloping surface. Droplets absorb droplets and puddles pick up speed, racing one way or another until suddenly popping down a different hole. That’s it. The scene is unbelievably engaging.

The landscape is also awfully forgiving. Two unglazed oval openings, both about 7m across on the long axis, introduce wind and rain within. They are the only source of light in the uninterrupted 1,958m2 space. People pool underneath the oval openings, laughing lightly as silvery water slips snake-like across the floor. Enthralled, many simply sit at a dry spot, dotting the shoes-off surface.

Minimalism may at times be austere and off-puttingly erudite, but Nishizawa’s 250mm thick slab of white cement arcs 4.5m high over a sensual, softly lit space that is winningly engaging, all the more surprising in its understated simplicity and small sense of scale. The museum is the best building that Japan has seen in many years and worth the effort it takes to arrive at these green slopes that overlook the Inland Sea, a long, long way from anywhere.

Architect SANAA

Project team Ryue Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima

Structural engineer Mutsuro Sasaki

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