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April 02 2014


July 09 2011

Museum peace: Japan's Naoshima island

The "art island" of Naoshima is dotted with calming concrete installations a world away from Tokyo's frenetic pace. Pico Iyer enjoys a moment of serenity

Japanese cool has, for decades now, been associated with everything fast, hi-tech and jangly; it's the TVs on taxi dashboards, the control-panels on toilets, the underground universes around major train stations that keep buzzing even after a natural calamity that stunned the rest of us. And if you're looking for a world-defining Japanese art form, you're more likely to turn these days to anime and manga than to any of the country's classical painters or mock-European forms. So it was shocking for me to go to the sleepy, faraway island of Naoshima – now turned into an "art island" rich with museums and installations – and find the coolest thing I've seen in my 24 years of living in Japan. It was, in some ways, the reverse of technology.

The structures around Naoshima are super-hi-tech, 23rd-century constructions of grey reinforced concrete, with every next-generation innovation; but they take you back to the principles of spareness, simplicity and concentration that graced the haiku, brush-and-ink paintings and Noh dramas of old. Where technology makes you speedy, up-to-the-minute and all-over-the-place, Naoshima so calms, grounds and slows you that you feel as if you've stepped into a meditative shrine.

The journey to the old fishermen's haunt in the Seto Naikai, or Inland Sea, is like a journey through the past. I set out from my home in Nara on a brilliant late-autumn afternoon, the trees blazing red, gold and radiant yellow all around me. To get to the remote island involved a bus, a train, another train to Kyoto, a bullet-train to Okayama and then another local train, a slow ferry and a bus before, five hours later, I arrived at Naoshima's Benesse House, the showpiece hotel where I was staying. With each change of vehicle, modernity seemed to thin out a little and I was closer to the old. By the time I left Okayama, I was in the middle of a much earlier Japan of unmanned ticket offices and deserted piers. The faces were simpler here – two local girls, swathed in grey earmuffs, had the countenances of Noh masks – and there were few signs in English.

The train from Okayama clanked along, the opposite of a bullet train, stopping at an empty platform every two or three minutes, and as we inched past, I could see regiments of uniform houses, with grey tiled roofs, bunched against a hillside, smoke rising from the rice-paddies in front of them. By the time we arrived at the ferry town of Uno, I could hardly recall the Godiva coffee-shops and high-rises of Kyoto.

When I reached Naoshima itself, I began to feel as if I'd stepped out of time altogether, in a world so deep in the past – and so far ahead in the future – that I lost all sense of when I was. Benesse House is a stylish and sleek construction, with Bose CD players on every desk – but no TVs or internet reception – and each room individually designed by the self-taught Osaka architect Tadao Ando. Its corridors are full of original contemporary canvasses and eerie light sculptures projecting classic Japanese landscapes through the near-dark. And the effect of all the modern art is, oddly, to take you back to the transfixing simplicity of an old ryokan, or traditional inn, where simply watching the sun make stripes across the tatami mats, or figures cast silhouettes against the paper windows, becomes so absorbing you never want to leave your room.

After the Benesse Company, a publishing firm centered in Okayama, took over the southern half of the island in 1985, working with the then-mayor Chikatsugu Miyake, it called in the minimalist Ando and invited him to design a huge swatch of natural park to be an international centre of art. Rising to the opportunity – surely any architect's dream – he opened Benesse House in 1992, then created a Benesse House Museum (with hotel rooms on the second and third floors) up the road, and then built what is now known as the Oval, a James Bondian series of six more rooms for guests on the top of a mountain behind the museum, reached by private monorail. In 2004, he completed the Chichu Museum which is a 20-minute walk away.

In all my 50 years I've never seen a place as pure and elevating as the Chichu, and it speaks for the pristine futurism that makes Naoshima such a unique place. There are five major pieces – a set of Monet water lilies, a large chamber with a reflecting 6ft granite sphere at its centre by the American land artist Walter de Maria and three light installations by the American James Turrell. Rather than observing these pieces, though, you more or less inhabit them. In one Turrell piece – Open Field – you walk into a room flooded with an unearthly orange light. Then, one at a time, you step up some stairs and into another large room suffused in soothingly deep blue light. Turn around, and the people in the room behind look like art works. Turn back, and you're in a kind of dream state.

Ten minutes walk from the Chichu, I came upon a new museum, opened only last year, to show off the works of the Korean-born Lee Ufan, again in a tall, grey, windowless Ando construction in a field. One of the pieces there, a single rock placed in front of a great earth-coloured slab, with a light shining on it, looked like a moving representation of a figure praying. Walking back from there towards Benesse House, I passed 88 buddhas along the side of the road made from industrial waste. A huge cube sat on a beach, and a "Cultural Melting Bath" hot tub on the cliffs above. At one point, on the silent road framed by glowing trees and the Inland Sea, I realised I could hear water lapping against the shore from two different beaches, each in a different key.

The protected spaces and air of discerning clarity mark every detail in Naoshima. There are no pachinko parlours on the small island of 3,600 people, no video arcades, no clamorous department stores. Cars are rare and you can walk from one site to the very farthest in about an hour. If you look out to sea, you can watch the fishing boats slowly drifting to one of the quiet neighbouring islands; when you head into one of the museums, sometimes slipping off your shoes before entering a room, you're in a prayerful hush again.

While Benesse House is clearly the classic place to stay, budget-minded travellers can sleep in one of 10 Mongolian yurts on the beach 10 minutes' walk away, for less than £30 a night, or in various family-run minshuku, or guest houses, among the island's villages.

In one 18th-century village, Honmura, 30 minutes' walk from Benesse House, six old wooden houses showcase the most contemporary of modern art works. Everywhere you look in Naoshima, the locals, and visiting artists, are coming up with new projects. There's the "I ❤ YU" bathhouse in the port town of Miyanoura – where you bathe surrounded by a zany, eclectic "scrapbook" of work, including an aeroplane cockpit and a collage of erotica – and the Miaow Shima café in Honmura where you can sip coffee among a dozen sleeping cats.

Naoshima is not like anything in the west, but more an ultra-cool reference and homage to what Japan has been doing all along, in cutting away distraction and using frames and light and silence to still the mind and train one in attention.

And at a time when the modern nation has absorbed such a series of shocks, and is thinking about what grounds and steadies it, it makes more sense than ever to seek out this forward-looking shrine to the past.


Doubles at Benesse House (00 81 87 892 2030; benesse-artsite.jpen/benessehouse) cost from £246 per night. Yurts on the beach (Tsutsuji-so Lodge, 00 81 87 892 2838; cost £28 per person per night. To get to Naoshima, take the bullet-train to Okayama and a local train to Uno, followed by a 20-minute ferry ride

Pico Iyer is the author of The Lady and The Monk, a novel about the first 24 years he has spent living in Japan © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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February 28 2011

Move over, Sydney

The world's most spectacular opera house has just opened in China – but it could have been built in Cardiff. Jonathan Glancey reports on Zaha Hadid's stunning new project

In pictures: Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

I walk up the ramp of the new Guangzhou Opera House, and suddenly it seems like Chinese New Year. The brand new skyscrapers that surround it, each named after some global finance corporation, burst into neon life, flickering and flashing in a way that makes Las Vegas seem like a mere twinkle. By contrast, the opera house seems almost serene – remarkable given that it's the latest design by Zaha Hadid, an architect celebrated for buildings that shoot across the urban landscape like bolts of lightning. Yet, while the pulsating lights disguise what are regular office towers, once inside, Hadid's opera house reveals itself in all its complexity, at once highly theatrical and insistently subtle.

Set in Haixinsha Square, a brand new stretch of south China's ever-expanding trading city, the opera house takes the form of what appear to be two enormous pebbles that might have been washed up on the shores of the Pearl river, on which Guangzhou stands. Rough-shaped things sheathed in triangles of granite and glass protrusions, one houses the main auditorium while the smaller encloses a multipurpose performance space. There's no question, though, that the opera house is best experienced at night. As darkness falls and the foyers fill up with people, the building magically comes to life.

The opening-night audience has come to experience Akram Khan's cacophonous dance piece, Vertical Road. Yet all eyes are trained on the doors as the architect makes her entrance. Tonight, Hadid is architecture's Queen of the Night, making stately progress through a phalanx of photographers. For the British contingent in the wave-like foyer, there is something special in seeing Hadid inside the building she should have built in Britain years ago.

Ah, yes, the Cardiff Bay Opera House. In 1994, Hadid had designed a magical theatre for the Welsh coast. It would have become the most radical and compelling building in Britain, but an alliance of narrow-minded politicians, peevish commentators and assorted dullards holding the Lottery purse strings ensured it was never built. More than a decade on, Hadid has built her opera house. Of course, it's not the same design, yet the building embodies the spirit as well as something of the presence of the great theatre we could have had in Britain rather than here, 6,000 miles away.

The Chinese had been thinking of an opera house in Guangzhou as early as 1993, when mayor Lin Shusen championed the new commercial and cultural quarter by the river. "It was incredible," says Hadid. "When I first came to Guangzhou in 1981, it seemed such a hard and dour place with everyone in Chairman Mao uniforms. By the late 90s it had begun to grow very fast indeed, but where we're standing now [in the foyer of the opera house], there was nothing whatsoever."

Even in a city famous for building at breakneck speed, the opera house has taken more than five years to complete. But then, this was never going to be an ordinary commission. The main building comprises a freestanding concrete auditorium set within an audacious granite and glass-clad steel frame. The exposed frame is a stunning thing, a kind of giant spider's web protruding in several unlikely directions. It seems to challenge the laws not just of conventional geometry, but of gravity itself.

The Chinese state engineers charged with the project were pushed to new limits. "The magic, though," says Simon Yu, the Scottish-born project architect, "is in the joints that hold the structure in place." We look up at them. Here are star-like, cast steel junction boxes that keep the adventurous structure in tension. They look spectacular. "We made them the same way they made great medieval bells. They were sandcast in an old fashioned foundry in Shanghai where the sparks flew like . . . fireworks."

Between this exposed steel skeleton and the auditorium lie the foyers. Here, you are hard pressed to find a straight line. They waltz around the auditorium, twisting, turning, ducking and weaving. Grand stairs slope and twist majestically from the black granite floors of the foyer up to the balconies and upper tiers of the auditorium. Audience members will find it hard to break away from these spectacular vistas and take their seats.

The auditorium proves to be a further wonder, a great grotto like a shark's mouth set under a constellation of fairylights. The space is asymmetric, but despite its unusual shape, the acoustics are perfect; the work of Harold Marshall, the veteran New Zealand acoustician. Intriguingly, he says that the strange angles of Hadid's auditorium work to produce an acoustic perfectly suited to both western and traditional Chinese opera. "There are very, very few asymmetrical auditoriums," says Marshall. "But asymmetry can be used to play with sound in very satisfying ways; it's more of a challenge tuning it, but the possibilities are greater, and this one has a beautifully balanced sound." Could it have been done in Cardiff Bay? "Of course it could."

"Next year," says Yu Zhang, the president of the opera house, "we will be putting on Chinese versions of Cats and Mamma Mia." No one can accuse the Guangzhou Opera House of elitism. In fact, the aim has been to shape a building, and an institution, open to all talents. In the backstage areas, lucky schoolchildren as well as professional musicians and dance companies will rehearse in stunning mirrored rooms set under rippling ceilings, calling to mind underwater caverns and grottoes.

Outside, the experience of strolling between and around the two "pebbles" is an extension of this architectural performance. The narrow crevice between the two structures reminds me a little of the enchanting entrance to Petra in Jordan through high walls of narrowing rocks. Local people clearly enjoy it. One boy runs up a sloping wall and tries to perform a somersault. Another seems to wonder whether he might race his bike up the opposite slope; but, with so many unsmiling security guards about, he decides, wisely, to pedal on.

An even greater performance lies above. Here, by night, the surrounding towers appear to grow out of the tops of Zaha's "pebbles", creating ever more surreal skyscapes at each turn of the head. These views can be experienced from inside the lobbies, too, lit from end to end by windows cut into the roofs and ceilings. Through these, you can see the drama of the city even while strolling through the depths of the opera house. "The idea," says Hadid, "is that the building is really a part of the city and you're aware of the city even when inside. It doesn't just go away."

A post-opera stroll

Hadid has long talked about the idea of buildings as landscapes, of shaping structures and spaces within them as if they might meander like a river. This is a beautiful idea very nearly realised in Guangzhou. If I have a criticism it is this: instead of dropping down to meet the Pearl River, the landscape of the opera house ends abruptly with further developments, including a viewing stand built for the 2010 Asian Games, and a concatenation of lumpen apartment blocks. It would have been so very special to have stepped out of a performance of Billy Budd or The Flying Dutchman and to have walked down to the river without having to think about which way to turn.

Even then, Guangzhou has to be applauded for giving Hadid and her team such a free hand with the design, when such a building has yet to make its debut in Britain. Despite building on a grand scale around the world, in the UK Hadid has just a school in Brixton, Maggie's Centre in Kirkcaldy and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics to her credit. For, here is an architect clearly in love with the arts, and who is an artist herself. A performing one, too, as she receives the adulation of Guangzhou walking slowly and yet so proudly through a building that she had been thinking about for almost 20 years. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 27 2011


September 15 2010

March 27 2010

The Virtual Choir: Technology, Collaboration and Music

music texture by karenthephotog cc-by

music texture by karenthephotog CC-By

Composer Eric Whitacre , after seeing a Youtube video of a young soprano singing his song “Sleep” wondered: What if he could get people, regardless of where they were in the world, to record themselves signing all the other parts of his a capella choir piece? So he did, and following, you will be able to see the various results of this great experiment of online collaboration with the Virtual Choir.

In How We Did It he explains not only the process for the last iteration of his project but also the preceding experiments in conforming a virtual choir. For the first time around, he asked singers to buy a specific music track and just sing along to the a capella (without instrumental accompaniment) recording. Scott Haines, whom he had met only once before, volunteered to edit the piece. Here is the result:

Thrilled with the result, he decided to do it once again, but this time making it even more like an actual choral experience:

So this time, I made my own conductor track, filming it in complete silence, hearing the music only in my head. Then I watched the video and played in the piano accompaniment part to my conductor track… Then I offered the sheet music as a free download. As singers began posting their individual tracks, I called for ‘auditions’ for the soprano solo.

This next video shows the instructions Eric Whitacre posted for all participants. It includes recommendations on how to perform the piece, explanation about the recording dynamic and the conducting track where he directs the choir:

For the virtual choir, 128 people representing 12 different countries including Argentina, New Zealand, The Philippines, Singapore and Spain sent in the 243 tracks that compose the choral piece Lux Aurumque that Scott Haines once again helped produce.

This is what Mr. Whitacre wrote about the finished product:

When I saw the finished video for the first time I actually teared up. The intimacy of all the faces, the sound of the singing, the obvious poetic symbolism about our shared humanity and our need to connect; all of it completely overwhelmed me. And it must be said that a lot of the credit for it’s beauty should go to Scottie Haines, who spent untold hours editing and polishing the video. (BTW, Scottie and I have never met only met once in the ‘real world’, unlike 99% of the Virtual Choir, whom I’ve never ‘met’).

Lets hope the Virtual Choir continues growing strong!

Reposted bynibblerscottytmtowovvh

February 05 2009

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