Exhibition at London’s Japan House shows how cultural intervention is reviving a small post-industrial island in the Seto Inland Sea
Culture-led regeneration does not have to be about attention-seeking ‘iconic’ buildings. On the Japanese island of Inujima, the opposite is true, as demonstrated in Symbiosis:Living Island, an exhibition at Japan House London.
The project is part of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, an initiative funded by the Fukutake Foundation to regenerate three islands in the Seto Inland Sea through cultural intervention.
Rather than the big bang of the Bilbao effect, the Inujima Art House Project seeks to provide a gentle stimulus through modest, sometimes barely-there additions, co-created with the local community.
‘It’s very subtle, very small and very beautiful,’ says artistic director Yūko Hasegawa, director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and who has worked with architect Kazuyo Sejima, co-founder of SANAA, since 2011 on the experimental, ongoing endeavour.
At 0.54km2, Inujima is the smallest of the three islands. Its number of households dwindled to just 30 or so of mainly elderly residents yet the tiny island once had a population of 5-6000, many working in the now-closed copper refinery. That industrial activity, along with historic stone quarrying, took a toll on the island’s landscape, which is now recuperating. With that in mind, the interventions seek to work harmoniously with both the built and natural landscape to incrementally create a more sustainable future for the remaining inhabitants. In doing so, the whole island becomes a venue for art, with visitors encouraged to experience both art and landscape together.
Hasegawa has clearly relished the chance to work in this way. On Inujima, the art project takes the form of five Art House pavilions providing venues for temporary exhibitions as part of the triennial art festival – which attracts day tripping visitors by ferry from the mainland – as well as additional interventions to encourage exploration of the whole island. These include Stay 02, a couple of glamping cabins to enable overnight stays designed by the Office of Ryue Nishizawa. This is located in the garden of a previously uninhabited house, which the same architect has renovated to provide additional visitors’ lodgings.
Everything is low-key and respectful.
Where possible, existing redundant structures are repurposed, such as T-House, once an important community shop, which was renovated and turned into an art venue by Ichio Matsuzawa Office. For the F-Art House (Kazuyo Sejima & Associates), a small house was dismantled, relocated and refurbished for its new purpose. Another unoccupied house was renovated and expanded to became a Hoppy Bar by Tetsuo Kondo Architects and Kazuyo Sejima & Associates.
An abandoned greenhouse has been repurposed as the Inujima Life Garden, a botanical garden co-developed by architect Kazuyo Sejima, who has also designed an unobtrusive extension to the structure. A café in the garden (by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates) is clad in stainless steel to reflect the garden landscape.
Where there are new builds, these take care not to overwhelm. A-Art House, designed by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, is a ring-shaped structure with transparent, 30mm thick acrylic walls. This ensures that both the art works and surrounding landscape are visible through the clear walls. A partial replica of Beatriz Milhazes’ Yellow Flower Dream, which was created specially for this venue, is shown at Japan House London to coincide with the exhibition.
The project is still ongoing – there are further plans for artworks within a playground, and a solar energy system.
Appropriately for the values of the project it conveys, the exhibition design by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates is beautiful and delicate. The exhibition’s central installation uses a slim metal band to trace a model of the 3.6km outline of the island, with its interior populated with infills of key art sites.
Around the perimeter, the rest of the exhibition includes architectural models of the main interventions along with footage capturing the sleepy atmosphere of the islands, including interviews with locals and images of the art venues and installations. The exhibition also requires careful attention to understand the context of the island and its place within the larger art programme, which could perhaps have been made easier to grasp.
The project’s success clearly owes a great deal to both the long-term backing of the Foundation and the sensitive vision of the creative team.
Japan House London director of programming Simon Wright describes the art project as having the same calm effect as watching a Japanese film, and gradually appreciating its slow, subtle depths.
Low-key and patient, this slow burner of a project nonetheless leaves a strong impression – and may hold valuable lessons for culturally-led regeneration elsewhere.
Symbiosis:Living Island is part of the London Festival of Architecture 2022 in June
Symbiosis:Living Island, until 4 September 2022, Japan House London, 101-111 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SA