Knowlton School of Architecture (2005-2009) (Evan)

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    KSA Japan Day 4-5: Yokohama to Nagoya

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 17, '13 4:57 AM EST

    Day 4-5 Tokyo to Yokohama to Nagoya

    From Tokyo, we drove to the Yokohama Port Terminal, which  is looking even better than it did when I visited in 2010, as the wood decking continues to age to an ash grey. While still impressive in concept and execution, the building does now seem a bit a pre-recession relic, it's formal exuberance completely unnecessary for the program (though we did see a few wandering locals, using the roofscape as intended, a public park with a spectacular view of the bay.). (In a few days, we'll see SANNA's Naoshima Ferry Terminal, a minimalist response?)

    Passing Toyo Ito's now-unimpressive Tower of the Winds, we speculated on the state of the industry in 1980s Japan, and the impact of responsive, digital architecture that we now take for granted. After visiting Tod's, Mikimoto, and ZA-Koenji Theater, we're left mostly cold on Ito, questioning the architect's place in the canon of Japanese architecture.

    At the Kanagawa Prefectural Youth Center, we were able to see two buildings by Kunio Maekawa: the 1954 concert hall and library, and the 1962 Prefectural Youth Center. In the former, post-war international modernism merges with traditional vernacular ideas of screening and layering of space, to quite nice effect. In the latter,  these qualities are subsumed by a monolithic Corbusian Brutalism, still an attractive building to connoisseurs, but lacking the subtlety  of the earlier work. The two are arranged to create a civic plaza, unfortunately occupied by surface parking.

    After a drive, we wandered through Itsuko Hasegawa's Shonandai Culture Center (1990). Ostensibly an urban renewal project, the complex today is desolate, giving the impression of an abandoned amusement park. First impressions aside, the building was still open, and we passed a group of locals doing exercises in the central plaza. Urbanistically, it seems to work, somewhat, though the style (giant spheres!) is now hopelessly dated.

    Finally, we ended the day at Fumihiko Maki's Keio University Shonandai Fujisawa (1992), an expansion of the urban ideas we saw Maki dealing with at the  Daikanyama Hillside Apartments (1968-1998), on a slightly larger, suburban scale.

    From there, we drove on to our hotel in Toyota, near Nagoya.

    The following day, we started with Sejima's Aizuma Hall before continuing on to Kengo Kuma's Prostho Museum, an office building an gallery fronted by a gridded matrix based on traditional wood craftsmanship from the area. The wooden grid is carved away to create interior space: the result is, I imagine, like crawling inside a Sol LeWitt sculpture. The grid here seems to represent Kuma's sophisticated engagement with traditional vernacular architecture. The joinery method is, frankly, hard to check, but we noted that the ends of the wooden members were painted white where cut, a technique we've seen at several shrines and temples.

    Continuing, we drove to Meiji Mura, the open-air architecture park where the lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel has been reconstructed. Given Wright's debt to Japanese Architecture, it's somewhat surprising to see Wright in California-Mayan mode here in Japan, where his (albeit, earlier) Prairie style would seem more appropriate, both climatically, and stylistically given its potential resonance with Japanese culture. In our discussion of the building, we considered the role of Wright's ego: given his self-promotion as a solitary genius, perhaps acknowledging a debt to Japanese traditional architecture was unthinkable. The hotel is worth studying in detail, especially when one considers that the designers Arata Endo and Antonin Raymond both worked on the project, and would go on to help define Japanese modernism, both pre- and post-WWII.

    From Meiji Mura, we drove to the Meiso-no Mori Funeral home by Toyo Ito (2006), which did a lot to improve our opinion of the Pritzker winner. The undulating roof sits remarkably well in the landscape, occupying a zone between ground and sky, reflected like a cloud in the adjacent pool. The glass walls add to the sensation of weightlessness.

    The next and last stop of the day was the Ise Shrine, which deserves its own post.


    • great list.

      I'm teaching at the Keio Shonan Campus. Pity didn't think you would venture out so far, as the project architect is now a professor here and could have given some candid and critical commentary about the design.

      For myself I like the FLW hotel and especially the full on Mayan drag.  It must have been amazing when it was all there. Its incredibly small scale though like all his buildings in Japan.

      Out of curiosity are you talking with students about the generic landscape as well? I find it is more interesting than the high end architecture in many ways. The context is completely unruly and eats all the great architects for breakfast in a way that is maybe not unique in the world, but impressively one notch up in comparison with other world cities like london or Paris, NY, etc.

      Dec 18, 13 3:50 am  · 

      We've made quite a loop so far, down to Hiroshima and back. I couldn't post the full itinerary in advance, unfortunately (safety concerns). Our schedule is so packed, but we could have theoretically made time for a chat/round table discussion. Maybe next time, if I ever run the Japan tour again.

      On the generic landscape, we've talked a bit. In general, people have been pretty critical/dismissive of the sprawl, but I've found in general that the exurbs seem to maintain a pedestrian-scale urbanism  in a lot of ways you don't see in the US or Europe or China (few tower blocks, for instance, and even on major highways there seems to be some sense of a separated pedestrian zone at the street edge. Plus the extensive rail network...). What are your thoughts? Or did you mean the generic stuff within the major cities?

      Dec 18, 13 10:59 am  · 

      either way actually.

      zoning is in the building code not the planning books, and there are only 12 zones for the entire nation, so technically it doesn't matter if you are suburb or city center, the same rules apply.  It's all form-based code too, which means land use is barely a concern. It means suburbs are new urbanist dreamscapes without any trouble taken to plan them at all...which I find immensely powerful vindication for the idea while also knocking it down several pegs. In the centers, you can build Zaha's massive stadium and it will hardly be noticed in a city for 30+ million. Anything smaller than roppongi hills is just  a blip. 

      In which case what is an architect supposed to do? All the above makes all of the experimentation you can see possible and also all of the horrible urban scumble too. I think it's a fair trade, much better than European urbanism-as-tomb approach. Hard to appreciate though if looking for rules that make sense from aesthetic point. sidewalks are also pretty rare except in proper new suburbs, and yet the lack does not get in the way of a good life, which is more amazing. None of the rules we think of apply, nor do they need to, which is a fantastic lesson to take away from Japan. I think that helps to explain why architects here are so open-minded.

      A few days just walking around the urban typologies and ignoring the star architecture is highly recommended. Pocket parks, height trade offs, form-based code, elevated highways, subterranean bicycle parking, street minimums and grandfathered ancient roads create so many variations on the standard urbanisms we get in the west. And it can all be seen in a short walk from shibuya, which is even more remarkable. The architecture is cool, but the context is even more amazing, in my mind. All "generic", but differently so...

      Dec 18, 13 6:44 pm  · 

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Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.

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