“If I can create some space that people haven't experienced before and if it stays with them or gives them a dream for the future, that's the kind of structure I seek to create.”

(Tadao Ando)

It all began on one momentous day, 28th of January, 2003 when global design icon Issey Miyake submitted an essay Time to Create a Design Museum (Tsukuro-dezain myu-jiamu) to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The article spoke of the urgency to construct a museum that would be devoted to design in Japan, nurturing the present and the future. Receiving tremendously positive responses from all sectors, Miyake collaborated with top Japanese graphic designer Taku Satoh, industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, and world-renowned architect Tadao Ando to embark on the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT project in Tokyo. During artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition in New York, Miyake, Ando and Noguchi discussed about envisioning a space “where Japanese design could be discovered, promoted and shared.” Thanks to the creative direction of Ando, the low-rise concrete structure, consisting of a giant steel-plated roof sloping gracefully down to the ground, and immersed with the open garden of the Tokyo Midtown complex in Roppongi, was finally built in 2007 and has since served the purpose of design motivation and promulgation of novel ideas by designers, architects, artists, students, and all explorers of creativity.

To celebrate the tenth year of its establishment, the exhibition Tadao Ando Construction Site of 21_21 'A Hard-Fought Process’ is currently being held at the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT itself until the 28th of October this year that showcases the architectural groundwork and conceptual history of the edifice.

My association with Issey Miyake probably stretches back at least 35 years. I recall a discussion between myself, Miyake, and Ikko Tanaka (graphic designer), who used to say he was ‘totally committed to the aesthetics of design,’ in which we talked about some day building a design museum in Japan; this project represents the fulfillment of this dream,” Ando relates.

In March 2007, a 78,000 square meter commercial complex was erected in Roppongi, the Tokyo Midtown complex. The vast greenbelt of four hectares of open space behind the 54-floor glass skyscraper, beautifully landscaped with more than 140 cherry, camphor trees and other variety, and a running creek, soon stood as the foundation for the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. Ando’s free flowing design was inspired by Issey Miyake’s A Piece of Cloth ideology—the harmonious unity of the body, the cloth that covers it, and the space created between these elements. This is illustrated by the sloping roof that slides like a single piece of steel, bent and folded. The low structure, as though in parallel to the garden level, is Ando’s statement of weaving architecture with nature.

Our aim was to design a structure asserting itself as a design museum without disturbing the ambience of the natural environment surrounding it. In order to achieve this, we decided to place 80% of the floor space of the museum underground. We wanted to erect a building that would be embraced by the cedar trees standing side by side at the back of the site,” Ando further explains.

Reflecting on the evolution of Japanese design, its ancient roots had been planted on traditional crafts mastered by forefathers and passed on to family members, who have often been compelled to perfect the craftsmanship using orthodox inherited philosophies and methods. Over 150 years ago when the road to “modernization” was paved for developing industrial sectors in Japan, design gradually and bravely looked to the West, studying the methodologies of many influential names in design, art and architecture: George Nelson, Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, Henry Moore, and others. The adoption of materials has, likewise, broadened its scope to include concrete, plastic and other unconventional media, while at the same time not forgetting the Japanese wood culture and indigenous forms. At last, with the construction of 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, the designers of the new era have found a refuge for projecting their fresh perspectives.

Tadao Ando externalized this perception to shape design into a product that not only injects novelty of ideas, but more so, an entity or space “where the old and new coexist in fine balance.” The term “21_21” is a set-off from the 20/20 perfect eyesight terminology to indicate a vision that transcends beyond 20/20. The architectural theme, therefore, of the museum is based on open, airy and continuous space with sloped walkways from first floor to ground floor, including a reception area, two mezzanine floors and a triangular, sunken courtyard that is also often used for installations. The roof’s large steel sheets stretch diagonally down to the ground to disallow the distraction between the structure and its natural surroundings.

“The concept of 21_21 is that we should have an insight into the power of ‘design’ that enriches our daily life and I thus, aimed to create a new place of culture for the new century in Japan. Here ‘design’ means the activities that discover new sights and thoughts and express surprise and emotion, in an effort to convey them to the general people. This building is required to house an impressive space for these activities as well as for new encounters and dialogue.”

(Tadao Ando)