Inujima, Japan

An isolated island amid many that dot the Seto Inland Sea, Inujima once helped fuel Japan’s early industrialization. Close enough to Honshu, the country’s main island, for easy transport yet far enough to keep noxious fumes at bay, Inujima reached its productive pinnacle in 1909 when a copper refinery opened on its rocky shores. But after a mere 10 years, the factory was abandoned and its brick edifice left to crumble until its rebirth some 80 years later as the site of the first of several planned Inujima Art Projects.


Aptly named the Seirensho, or “refinery,” the new facility follows the path set down by Tadao Ando’s Chichu Museum on the neighboring island, Naoshima [record, October 2005, page 116]. Having successfully resurrected one forgotten factory outpost as a flourishing center of art and architecture, the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation decided to take on another. This time they invited conceptual artist Yukinori Yanagi to create a permanent installation, and the Hiroshima architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, known for his ecological buildings, to design a structure that would memorialize Japan’s industrial past without adding to its energy expenditure.

“I thought it was incredible that a landscape like this still existed in Japan,” mused the architect upon seeing Inujima. Accessed from Hoden Port on the outskirts of Okayama city, the island is a five-minute ferry ride from Honshu, but feels worlds away. Home to just 64 elderly residents, the 0.21-square-mile island is distinguished by the haunting remains of the refinery’s six chimneys and the mazes of brick wall fragments fanned out around them. Though mellowed after years of exposure, the stark, man-made forms contrast elegantly with the gentle swell of the land and its wild overgrowth. Partially buried in the ground, Sambuichi’s building barely stands out against this dramatic backdrop.

But that was precisely the architect’s intention. After taking stock of the refinery’s remains, Sambuichi designed his building around the tallest of the smokestacks. “I always look for the site’s ‘sleeping energy,’ ” he explains. Despite its advanced age, the 98-foot-high brick funnel was intact enough to draw air in at the bottom and expel it out the top. If he exploited this function, Sambuichi could ventilate his building without any machines. Enlisting the help of the sun and earth, he could naturally heat and cool it, too.

Consequently, air movement and energy exchange inspired Sambuichi’s T-shaped plan. Aligned with the opening at the chimney’s base, the Seirensho’s unmarked entrance admits people, as well as wind, into the foyer. A square vestibule at the intersection of the building’s axes, it unites the tunnel-like Earth Gallery where air is chilled, and the greenhouselike Sun Gallery, on the opposite side, where air is heated. Perpendicular to that, and past the vaulted Energy Hall and sun-drenched Chimney Hall, the smokestack draws out the naturally conditioned air. Interspersed between the galleries, internal doors and windows act as dampers that modulate the flow.

Unsurprisingly, the rooms required different materials and structural systems to fulfill their respective thermal roles. The subterranean Earth Gallery is encased with welded ½-inch-thick steel plates that withstand the weight of the surrounding soil and conduct its coolness. To slow the speed of the air and increase its contact with the frigid earth, the labyrinthine corridor bends and turns along its 262-foot length. Angled mirrors in each corner reflect the sun’s rays from a centrally placed skylight, the corridor’s only illumination.

By contrast, the Sun Gallery is a glazed, wood-framed shed whose floor and rear wall of karami brick soak up solar heat. Salvaged from the sea, the metallic blocks were produced from refinery waste but today are one of the Seirensho’s most beautiful, as well as functional, treasures. Because of the smokestack’s potential instability, it had to be isolated in a shed of its own and the Energy Hall blanketed with a protective 7-foot-thick layer of soil that could shield its cedar-lined steel vault from falling debris.

Yet that was a small price to pay for recycling the antique tower—Sambuichi reused or sourced local materials wherever possible, and the completed building runs without man-made power (aside from electricity for emergency lighting). To eliminate the effect of wastewater on the surrounding sea, Sambuichi planted hardy grasses and citrus trees to filter harmful chemicals from the polluted effluence—yielded primarily by the restrooms—and then reused the purified water to irrigate new landscaping.

Taking root above, below, and around the Seirensho, the orderly plantings help blend the architecture with the old growth. Keen to let nature continue on its course, Sambuichi left the indigenous greenery in its untamed state and the ruins untouched, except for the pedestrian paths that tie the site to the Seirensho.

Inside, the Seirensho comfortably accommodates Yanagi’s installation, largely composed of artifacts from the Tokyo home of the controversial author Yukio Mishima, who criticized Japan’s rapid modernization in the 1970s. Most of the galleries hold three-dimensional collages of doors, windows, and stairways accompanied by disturbing quotations from Mishima. Together, the art and architecture remind us to slow down and appreciate the past as we contemplate the future.