Well, it’s over. The whirlwind 17-day tour of central Japan went even better than expected, thanks to our excellent driver, and to the kindness of the many Japanese folks who let us into their buildings when they could have easily turned us away, and especially to the students who came along, contributing essential research to the program book in advance of the trip, and bringing their insights to each building presentation and to our bus discussions (not to mention excellent karaoke skills).
I’ve been on a number of these trips, through Europe, China, and now Japan, and I can’t overstate how important these tours have been for my own education as a designer. Seeing buildings in-situ may seem unnecessary in these days of rapid digital communication and ubiquitous imagery, but there is still immense value in the unmediated* experience of a building – or city – that imagery cannot alone supply.
*unmediated; not counting my prescription glasses, or ever-raised camera, ready to frame views, or the carefully-curated itinerary…
This Japan tour, in particular, has been incredibly rewarding, personally, as it covers a culture and a set of architects and buildings that I was only vaguely familiar with before I began I started planning the itinerary a few months ago.
Japan, I think, may be unique in its development of a contemporary style that draws equally on traditional culture and global movements – and an architectural culture that continues to have a global impact perhaps because it remains somewhat isolated, free to develop in interesting and innovative ways – perhaps the best example of Frampton’s “critical regionalism”. I’m struck by the absence of foreign designers in Japan: key commissions seem to have gone to Japanese designers, nearly every time. While such an insular culture is not necessarily a good thing (tendencies toward violent nationalism, for one), in Japan there is a sense of national pride in architecture and design, and a sense that Japan’s contemporary state of modernity is largely home-grown, rather than imposed by a more ‘advanced’ culture (if there exists a culture more advanced, today, than Japan, please let me know).
In my years casually studying the history of Asia, the balance between tradition and modernity is an ever-present theme. For perhaps thousands of years, East Asia was home to the world’s most advanced civilizations, with the greatest technologies and scientific skills. The industrial revolution shifted the global center of power to Europe and, later, the Americas, and by the 1800s countries in Asia were feeling the often violent effects of European technology. In Japan, the Meiji “restoration” was a conscious attempt to modernize through westernization, and the self-conscious adaptation of western models of governance and social structure are reflected in the Beaux-Arts and neoclassical architecture of the era. As time marched on, and as Japan mastered European weaponry, the architectural style shifted to a more eclectic mode, and ‘oriental’ elements began to reappear.* This shift in style corresponds roughly in time to the Russo-Japanese war, ending with a Japanese victory in 1905, the first time post-industrialization that an Asian power had beaten a “European” one.** Following this win, Japan’s confidence grew, as did her imperial ambitions, culminating in the annexation of Manchuria and eventually the invasion of China and the Second Sino-Japanese War, which soon merged with/became the Pacific theater of WW11.
*Not mentioning Frank Lloyd Wright here, as his influence on Japanese modernism seems to be fairly minimal. The Tokyo Imperial Hotel was a big commission, and the formative project for Arata Endo and Anonin Raymond; both would go on to long and influential careers, but Wright’s obstinate use of his California-Maya style in a country so perfectly suited for his Japanese-indebted Prairie Style seems like a real missed opportunity. In the end, Japanese modernism owes much more to Le Corbusier than to Wright, despite the latter’s long presence in the country.
**counting Russia as Europe, I suppose, as its center of power lay to the west, and was more aligned culturally with European civilization than with, say, the Chinese.
So, in post-war Japan, defeated and under American occupation, architects again struggled to define their national style. Nationalistic appeal to traditional style was clearly out, for the time being, and as reconstruction proceeded, foreign models were embraced, especially those of Le Corbusier, who, while building little in Japan, had a huge influence on post-war architectural production through his apprentices and global influence.
Kenzo Tange, of course, was hugely influential, and clearly indebted to Le Corbusier. The relationship between the two architects is unclear –they may have met at CIAM meetings, but it’s unclear if they had a personal relationship. Nevertheless, Le Corbusier’s influence on Tange is clear: the Hiroshima Peace Park could easily be a fragment of Chandighar’s urban planning, and later on, at the Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall (1958), the sculptural forms on the ground level could have easily been lifted from, say, Le Corbusier’s Brasil Pavilion, or any number of projects – but the façade details indicate a keen appreciation for Japanese traditional architecture (perhaps too explicit: at the time it was criticized for being too traditional). Tange’s Kurashiki Prefectural Office Building (1960) is even closer to Le Corbusier – echoing the Chandigarh Secretariat, and stripped of historical reference, aside from the ‘dropped grid’ in the lobby – a technique cribbed from traditional Japanese homes. Later on, Tange’s Corbusian brutalism would morph into Metabolism – the transitionary Yana an exciting movement propelled mainly by Tange’s students. Tange would dabble with metabolist ideas, but by the 80s and 90s his office had moved on to largely banal corporate architecture like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower – with the excellent Fuji Television HQ as the exception that proved the rule.
Another key figure in Japanese modernism, Kunio Maekawa, was an apprentice of Le Corbusier, and, later, of Antonin Raymond, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s key designers on the Tokyo Imperial Hotel. Less known than Tange, I found his work only slightly less compelling, with several projects representing an excellent synthesis of European modernism and Japanese traditional architecture – like the merging of the garden and architecture at the 1955 International House of Japan, or the legible transition from early-modern planning to Corbusian brutalism at Yokohama’s Kanagawa Concert Hall and Library (1954), and Prefectural Youth Center (1962), two buildings by the architect, eight years apart. Maekawa lived into the 1980s but his office produced little of interest in the 70s, as Metabolism dominated the discourse.
For me, personally, the work of the immediate postwar period – 1950s and 1960s holds the most interest. This was a hugely experimental time in Japan’s architectural circles, when most architects struggled with the challenge of merging tradition with modernity. By the 1970s the Metabolists were engaged with global issues of production – and while some major buildings were constructed with their theories in mind, for the most part their work has become a historical footnote, as most of the Metabolists transitioned into fairly comfortable work for corporate clients or local governments.
One blind-spot for me is 1980s postmodernism, though we did manage to visit a few Shin Takamatsu buildings, which were surprisingly well-detailed, and seemed to take Otto Wagner or Antonio Sant Elia as their primary referent, rather than the generic “classical.” Kengo Kuma’s M2 Mazda Showroom – its façade featuring a broken pediment and giant Ionic column – is surprisingly still intact.
Though there is a slight break inmy understanding of the history of Japanese architecture between the 70s and 80s, seeing Kuma’s early work at least gives me a rope to pull, to bring me back to the present. Though the M2 building looks laughable today, Kuma continues to work in a subtle postmodern mode – an indication to me that a PoMo revival is in the works. Kuma’s best work makes explicit reference to traditional Japanese craft traditions, as in the wooden lattice at the Prothso Museum, or in the Minka-geometry of his Outdoor Training Center, or in the stacked houses of the Asakasa Tourist Center. None of these stray too far from the impulse behind M2: that is, finding a way to merge aspects of traditional architecture with the technologically-modern lifestyle of contemporary Japan. When Kuma eventually wins his Pritzker (I give it a few years, since we just had Ito), his M2 may be purposefully culled from the project list, or it may be included as the first of many thoughtful projects that engage history while attempting to search for a contemporary architectural language. Kuma, more than any other contemporary Japanese architect, seems to recognize the country’s search for a modern architecture that engages longstanding traditions. To my eyes, Kuma alone, of today’s generation, seems poised to take Japanese architecture to the next level: the architect’s work will be essential research material for the current crop of neo-post-modernists!*
Ito, Ando, and SANAA – all a bit harder to place into the historical narrative, and all worthy of longer consideration, but frankly, I don't have much to say at the moment. Maybe after further reflection...
Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.