When a piece of cloth inspires architecture | Shikoku

Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture (Exterior). Photo: ©Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture

A furoshiki is a kind of large handkerchief. In fact, the word means “bath spread”. Already during the Nara period 1,200 years ago, the people of Japan would go to the public baths and wrap their clothes in a furoshiki before taking to the waters. Modern Japanese still use this piece of cloth as a carryall in everyday life. Or as a way of wrapping presents. Or a lunch box. Or even as inspiration for modern architecture.

“For me, the furoshiki is the epitome of Japanese functionality and aesthetics – and symbolic of the way we build,” says Ryue Nishizawa. In 2010 the 51-year-old and his 61-year-old partner Kazuyo Sejima were awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize – essentially the Nobel Prize for architecture. To suggest that a simple piece of cloth may have inspired some of the most spectacular Japanese designs of recent decades may seem a little far-fetched. And yet far-fetched is just what we have come to expect from this design duo, who in 1995 together founded a company with a name that sounds like the capital of Yemen: SANAA, Sejima And Nishizawa And Associates, currently one of the most sought-after architecture firms in the world.

Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa. Photo: © Roland Hagenberg

That they also left their marks on Shikoku – the smallest of Japan’s four major islands – comes as no surprise. Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum is a giant concrete shell in the shape of a water drop on the island of Teshima, whereas the Naoshima Ferry Terminal stands in stark contrast to the massive concrete fortifications and tetrapod armor that protect Japan’s harbors and shores. From afar its pillars resemble toothpicks, and the flat roof a sheet of paper that both look fragile in the face of a big storm, though of course they always survive. The successful couple creates buildings under three separate names, but only the projects they work on together are given the official SANAA seal – like the Naoshima Ferry Terminal.

Naoshima SANAA Ferry Terminal. Photo: Courtesy of SANAA

“A furoshiki is a bag that does away with handles, buttons, side pockets and zips,” Nishizawa explains. “It’s an ingeniously condensed, multifunctional object. But a furoshiki only takes on shape when the ends of the cloth are tied together. Our architecture is not dissimilar in the way it works. Although the walls and roof are important, the essence of our style of construction is in linkages, the ties that bind the living room to nature, for example, and to the world outside.” At the terminal, glass walls and mirrors allow nature to pass through freely. A concept, that Sejima had refined, after she left the practice of her mentor Toyo Ito to become independent. He too was drawn to Shikoku’s clouds, shores, and winds. Overlooking the Seto Inland Sea the Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari is a reminder that great architecture is not only confined to great cities.

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