Starting from Zero

Famously private fashion icon Issey Miyake adopted a very public role in the course of his latest undertaking, which was decades in the making. Earlier this spring, a $3 billion megadevelopment, Tokyo Midtown, containing housing, offices, boutiques, restaurants, and—at 54 stories—the city’s tallest building, opened in the Japanese metropolis’s Roppongi district. Nestled in the north corner within a ten-acre park—a luxury for Tokyoites—is Miyake’s pet project: 21_21 Design Sight. With a gunmetal-gray triangular roof that looks like the wings of an origami crane, the Tadao Ando–designed building houses Japan’s first cultural institution devoted to design research.

Since the 1980s Miyake and three of his friends—artist Isamu Nogu­chi, legendary poster designer Ikko Tanaka, and Pritzker Prize–winning architect Ando—had argued that Japan needed a museum devoted to the national design legacy. Tanaka’s sudden death in 2002 spurred Miyake to action, and he penned an editorial in one of the country’s largest dailies outlining that vision. He criticized Japanese corporations for retreating from cultural support, the government for lacking a cohesive policy on art and design, and the public for participating in a culture of excessive consumption. “Nothing comes of simply chasing after brand names,” he wrote. “We should remind ourselves that merely to consume is not enough. It is important to create.”

Energized by the response the article generated, Miyake began to pull together a team of his friends to help realize the project. He recruited Ando, whom he has known since 1972, to create a building, and industrial-design star Naoto Fukasawa and graphic designer Taku Satoh to be codirectors. Through Ando’s brother, he met Tokyo Midtown developers Mitsui Fudosan and Kitayama & Company, which decided to include the project in their 25-acre site on the grounds of the former Japan Defense Agency headquarters. The ultimate location of the space, however, meant that the plan for an archive and permanent collection had to be shelved indefinitely. Ultimately, the new institution was transformed into something more like a laboratory—“a place for thinking about design.” It is a metamorphosis that Miyake em­braces. “Build­ing an archive might end in a mere journey to the past,” he says. “We should instead turn our eyes to an approach to creating things that focuses on the actual problems of today.”

Honored to be brought in as the architect, Ando believes Miyake exemplifies the project’s forward-looking values. “Miyake is different from other fashion designers,” says Ando, whose own clients include Karl Lagerfeld, the Benetton family, and Giorgio Armani. “Miyake is the only one who tries to make a bridge between art and fashion. There’s nothing wrong with Armani’s clothes, but he imposes on his customer a certain type of design. And they like it—that’s why they buy Armani.”

Using his signature elements—reinforced concrete, steel, and glass—Ando created a structure, 70 percent of which is underground, that includes technical feats such as a 177-foot-long roof made to look like a seamless sheet of stainless steel, and the longest double-glazed window in Japan, measuring more than 37 feet. The inspiration for the space came from Miyake’s innovative A-POC (an acronym for “A Piece of Cloth”) line, which features a patent-pending process that allows people to cut custom clothes, without sewing, from a roll of knit fabric. “Like Miyake’s piece of cloth, I took a sheet and bent it—that’s the rooftop,” Ando says. “The ground floor is pretty much the restaurant and the entrance to the museum, but the rest of it is underground, invisible, and very flexible.”

That spatial flexibility mirrors the directors’ own open definitions of design. “The word is used very frequently in Japan today, but in most cases it is merely a means to sell things,” Satoh says. “To rectify that misconnection, we must do more to communicate what design really is about.” It’s about more than a beautifully styled product, argues Fukasawa, who points to Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer by way of example. “Design like that is easy to understand immediately, and that is also quite boring,” says Fukasawa, whose own iconic products are in museum collections around the world. “Design has to think of different things—water, the environment, medicine, all the things of daily life.”

In a culture where the industry is driven by big corporations, and consumers by intense brand scrutiny, the directors of 21_21 Design Sight particularly hope to challenge the emerging generation. “In order to be a designer, students have to enter big companies like Sony, which has about 300 on staff,” Satoh says. “It’s very hard to be young and to make real things.” Even Miyake—who has been in business for more than three decades overseeing a company that sells luxury goods, including perfumes and the technology-driven Pleats Please and A-POC clothing—feels that the safe attitude of corporations needs to change. “Except for a few, Japanese businessmen are very, very conservative,” he says. “They don’t move forward.”

At 21_21 Design Sight you won’t see run-of-the- mill retrospectives. Instead, the directors program the space thematically and hold performances like the one in April by dance choreographer William Forsythe. The first exhibition, organized by Fuka­sawa, featured 30 explorations of a popular foodstuff. “Chocolate is something people are familiar with, and it is part of life,” Fukasawa says. “We wanted to use chocolate like a filter to see the world.” The results ranged from Naoko Tone and Atsuyoshi Iijima’s miniature confectionary city to James Mollison’s larger-than-life photos of cacao pickers displayed with comments about their low wages and harsh working environments. The current exhibition—an examination of water through the five senses, organized by Satoh and running until January 14, 2008—is a perfect illustration of the kind of platform for thought that Miyake and his friends want the space to become. Satoh chose the theme after he was asked how much water went into the making of gyudon, a Japanese fast-food beef-and-rice dish. “I realized you need more than 2,000 liters to make one bowl,” he says. “It’s not just to heat up the bowl, but it’s the water needed to grow the rice and the cattle feed, to raise the cow, and to bring the beef from overseas to Japan. It’s almost like flying in over 2,000 liters for something you eat in less than five minutes. That’s the kind of question I would like to answer using the power of design as a tool for communication.”

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: November 2007

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