MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale

MAD architects restores the kiyotsu gorge tunnel with artistic spaces for this year’s echigo-tsumari triennale in japan. ‘tunnel of light’ draws on five elements of nature — wood, earth, metal,fire, and water — to transform the historic space through several architectural installations and artistic atmospheres. each one of the installations demonstrates how art and nature can come together to reinvigorate a community while forming a poetic space where visitors transcend the role of observer, and become active participants.

all photos by nacasa & partners inc 
header image by osamu nakamura



as part of the 2018 echigo-tsumari triennale, MAD architects was invited to revitalize the historic, 750-meter tunnel that cuts through distinctive rock formations, offering panoramic views over one of japan’s three great chasms. japan’s echigo-tsumari is a mountainous region, home to a satoyama, an agricultural expanse, where traditional ways of farming are still being practiced. while rich in nature, the region has slowly been suffering from an aging and decreasing population – a serious phenomenon that has seen many young, rural people moving to big cities for work or education opportunities.


the echigo-tsumari triennale was founded in 2000 by fram kitagawa as a means of restoring the cultural energy that was lost in the region, and now spans more than 760 sq.m that host approximately 160 artworks, across 200 villages. while viewing artworks realized in collaboration between internationally renowned artists and locals, visitors must physically traverse the terraced rice fields, or walk through the beech wood forest, presenting a new model for how humans can relate to nature, and cultivating the land with art and cultural works as an ongoing process of urban reactivation.



led by founder and principal partner ma yansong, MAD architects has completed the restoration of the kiyotsu gorge tunnel, which sees the installation of several permanent artistic spaces along the historic lookout tunnel, with the intention of bringing back the cultural energy that once empowered the region. rethinking the relationship between humans and nature, and seeking to re-connect locals and visitors alike with the beauty of the land, the installations are divided in five parts, according to the five elements of nature.

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale



first is ‘periscope’, a small wooden hut that serves as the café and souvenir shop (with locally made crafts) on the ground floor. on the upper level, inside the pitched cedar roof with a circular aperture, is a hot spring foot spa. encircled by mirrored lenses that reflect the nature of the surroundings inwards, the subtle intervention gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy the outdoor scenery while having a foot bath and relaxing within the warmth of the wooden interior.


next is ‘expression of color’, an installation relating to the earth element, which takes over the tunnel’s entrance. a newly renovated passage has been outfitted with a series of different colored lights that each define a lookout point along the tunnel. captured as ‘the expression’ of the space, their vibrancy, in combination with mysterious music, sets a subtle but dynamic ambiance that sparks a certain curiosity of the unknown for those who are wandering through.

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale



first of the lookout point renovations, ‘invisible bubble’ draws on the metal element for the creation of a capsule-like structure that, as if landing from another world,  mirrors the silhouette of the tunnel and reflects its surroundings. the transparent wall that faces towards the gorge functions as a toilet, while the exterior window is covered in a metallic film that only allows one-way views from the inside out, playing with the notion of public and private. the intimate space provides visitors with an ideal corner for contemplation and a quite escape, whilst putting into question the ways people react when they think no one is watching.



a series of reflective openings acting as ‘windows of uncertainty’, ‘the drop’ links to the element of fire. scattered along the curvature of the second lookout point, the drops appear like molecules of water, suspended from the ceiling and walls. as one looks into these convex mirrors, backlit by fiery, red light, they experience an alternative connection with nature – one that is at once mysterious and warm.



the restoration culminates in the ‘light cave’, a semi-polished stainless steel surface outlining the lines of the tunnel, and reflecting the distinct rock formations, lush greenery, and turquoise water of the treasured terrain, into the enclosed space. a shallow pool of water gently ripples with the breeze of the wind while the images of the gorge reflected from the cave cast themselves onto the water, creating ‘an infinite illusion of nature’. the ‘light cave’ brings both a lightness and stillness into the once dark, dewy tunnel, invoking a feeling of everlasting solitude.

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale

MAD's architectural installations transform historical tunnel for the echigo-tsumari triennale


site map, courtesy of MAD architects




project info:


name: tunnel of light
location: echigo-tsumari, japan
design team: ma yansong, yosuke hayano, dang qun, hiroki fujino, kazushi miyamoto, yuki ishigami
executive architect: green sigma co., ltd.

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