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

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    KSA Japan Day 15-17: Kanazawa to Tokyo

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 24, '13 7:38 PM EST

    Day 15: Kanazawa to Takayama

    Rainy and miserable, we trudged through Kenroku-en, one of "japan's top three landscape gardens" - it may have been the weather, it may have been garden fatigue, but few of us could really appreciate the garden's charms at this point. Too bad (and maybe worth revisiting). We stopped breifly at Kanazawa's Higashi Chayamachi historic district, and visited the Shima House (Edo-era Geisha house) in small groups. Again, nice enough but at this point in the trip many were feeling burnt out on these historic sights....

    From here, we went on to one of the most highly-anticipated items on the itinerary: SANAA's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is organized as a number of gallery boxes, serarated by large corridors, and wrapped at the perimeter with a circular enclosure (housing... milling-about space, apparently). The basic organization is similar to the traditional japanese house, with the galleries taking the place of the dwelling spaces, and similarly wrapped with exterior circulation. The major difference here is that the galleries are all accessible at only one or two points, whereas the traditional home is permeable throughout via sliding screens. The museum is impeccably detailed, and the planning seems fine on paper, but as a functional museum it doesn't quite work. They apparently have a huge problem separating the gallery space into public versus paid-access, especially when they have separate exhibitions accessible with different tickets. We purchased the full package, giving us access to all galleries, and we were frustrated at every turn, as numerous corridors were blocked, eitther with full-height glass doors, or with knee-height partitions, overseen by posted guards. With this arrangement, to see the full exhibit, we had to backtrack quite a bit, and with no inherant directionality to the 'world of cubes' within the circular enclosure, it was a disorienting and frustrating experience. (I'm still not entirely sure I saw every gallery space.)

    The exhibit, however, was quite good, especially the permanent instalations: Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool (2004), in which visitors see the pool from above from the main lobby (wondering if they've stumbled upon one of Japan's famous Onsen?), and then, later, from below, where the 'underwater' portion is accessible via an underground passage, and visitors get the unique experience of traversing the sloped floor of the pool, and looking up at the sky through a suspended layer of water, rippled by the falling rain. In another gallery, a James Turrel "Skyspace" framed the ash-grey sky, and the falling rain described a cubic volume in space. As usual, Turrel details the opening with a knife-edge, and proportions the space (and perimeter bench) so that it's impossible to truly appreciate without craning one's neck - demanding a bit of effort and drawing the viewer physically into the artwork. (While these Skyspaces are everywhere now, they're still impressive, and worth visiting in as many weather conditions are possible).

    From Kanazawa, we drove on to Taiagoaka, where Kenzo Kuma has build a small childrens academy. The friendly staff let us explore the grounds and interior, which seems to have been designed with the three-foot occupant in mind. Windows are cut at knee-level, and several of our students discovered that the space was more compelling from the floor than from standing height. While this could be attributed to a design meant for small occupants, it's worth noting that most traditional homes we're visited were esigned to similar proportions, with rooms proportioned vertically so their midpoint datum is at roughly eye level when kneeling or seated on a tatami floor....

    From here, we drove onward into the Japanese alps, stopping briefly at the Minka farmhous village Shirakawa-go, before continuing on to our hotel in Takayama: a charming traditional inn with tatami rooms and shared onsen bath. Students all changed into the provided robes, and our excellent group dinner evolved into Karaoke night before the staff shut us down and ordered us all to bed.


    Day 16: Takayama to Kofu

    From Takayama, we drove through the incredibly scenic Japanese Alps, passing snow-topped pine forests, mountain lakes and massive dams, eventually descending onto the plain around Matsumoto. 

    Our first stop in the city was the Ukiyoe Museum, 1982, designed by Kazuo Shinohara, an influential architect who worked primarily on private residences (difficult to visit with a group of 37people). At first glance, the building appears to be a silly excercise in supergraphics, but there's more at work here. The Concrete cladding (non-structural) and glass panels are sized to the same grid, indicating an equivalence between the two materials. The stark contrast seems to be a not-so-subtle reference to the works of art contained within - woodblock prints with similarly high contrast. Shinohara is said to have had a hugh influence on today's generation of Japanese architects, and we can clearly see some tricks here that later practices picked up on. See, for example, the thin cornice line, no thicker than the typical mullion, and the thickness of the true roof structure beyond: we've seen this exact detail in SANAA's 21st Century Museum and elsewhere. The 'dishonest' use of concrete as graphic treatment, rather than structure, predates (by nearly 30 years) a similar use by Toyo Ito at the Tama Art University library which we'd see the following day. 

    From here, we stopped breifly at Ito's Matsumoto Performance Hall before proceeding on to Matsumoto Castle, one of the best-preserved in Japan. Though we've seen other castles on the trip (Osaka Castle, for one). Unlike most castles of this era, Matsumoto Castle is constructed on the plain, with no natural defensive geography. We speculate that this is an indication that by the time of its construction, the castle typology had been largely codified, to the point where one could be constructed anywhere. (Largely conjecture, it'd be interesting to compare the dates).

    A long drive took us to Kengo Kuma's Momofuku Ando Outdoor Training Cneter (2010), another great example of Kuma's evolving post-post-modern aethetic, mobilizing hte steep roof form of a minka farmhouse to enclose the program of a outdoor training center (what we assume is a boyscouts-like organization). 

    From there, we drove to Karuizawa and Ryu Nishizawa's Hiroshi Senju Museum. The museum is impressive - a sculptural form deposited on a sloping site, with the floor following the contours of the topography, with circular courtyards cut into the roof plate, enclosing small groves of trees. The museum is dedicated to one artist, and the paintings are supported on vertical planes, some structural, some not. The minimal columns, and disguise of the bearing walls as lightweight gallery partitions give the building an incredible lightness, emphasized by the play of late afternoon light streaming through the courtyards into the enclosed gallery space. Though comparable in plan to the 21st Century Museum, the experience of the space is much more free and comfortable - you can literally see across the floor, so there's no question as to how the space can be navigated. Rather than feeling enclosed and limited by a grid of endless boxes, here the feeling is akin to stepping into a forest clearing.


    Day 17: Kofu to Tokyo, and Home...

     From our hotel in Kofu, we drove a quick kilometer to Kenzo Tange's Yamanashi Press & Broadcasting Center (1966), a major work by the architect, and one that sees his unique take on Corbusian brutalism begin to morph into the metabolist style he and his students would become best known for. Here, we can recognize the mass of the brutalist wall becoming differentiated into apparantly-movable parts. Framing a single core and bay, we can imagine a piece of this breaking off, to become the freestanding Shizuoka Press building (1967, Tokyo).

    From there, we drove back towards Tokyo, stopping at Toyo Ito's Tama Art University Library. Mentioned earlier, here the concrete on the arches is only a surface treatment - the structure consists of steel plates. As in the Ukiyo-e Museum, the concrete is a graphic. While Japanese architecture is generally lauded for its honest use of materials, it's interesting to see Ito pressing against that here --- though the (mis)use of material here seems in line with his earlier work in 'digital' architecture and dynamically changing facades (as at the Tower of Winds, Yokohama).

    Continuing on to Tokyo, our last stop was the Tokyo-Edo Open-air Museum, a collection of mostly Meiji-era structures, moved here from around the country. Among the usual collection of farmhouses, merchant's homes and storefronts, there is a bathhouse - a typical 1900s onsen, similar in typology to the many urban baths still in operation today (an unmissable experience in Japan - though we couldn't force students to strip down with their classmates...). This particular bath house features the typical seated showers, plus several pools and a large mural of mount Fuji. Like most onsen, the building is divided down the center, perpendicular to the road, divided into mens and womens sections, mirrored across the center line.

    THe most notable structure at the open-air museum is the Maekawa house, designed by the architect Kunio Maekawa, apprentice to Le Corbusier, and major player in Japanese post-war modernism. One of his first built works, the small house-turned office is modern in layout and traditional in detail, an interesting and ecclectic mix of international modernism with local craft traditions, two forces that would continue to shape the architect's work throughout his career.

    From the Tokyo-Edo Museum, we drove on to Narita ariport, said our goodbyes,  and departed. I'm now back in Seattle, recovering from jet-lag and copying over the 6000+ photos I took on this trip, looking forward to the daunting task of editing...

    Next post - post-trip wrap-up and some final thoughts on Japanese architecture.


    • toyama was my home for some time. glad you made it through the japan alps and that you made it to kenrokuen. it is by far the best of the 3 great gardens in japan and the villa in the middle is almost as good as katsura rikyu. Its very nice that more people will see it because of the 21 c museum.

      the meiji museum back in tokyo is a favorite too.  That bath house is supposedly the inspiration for the bath in sprited away. Ghibli studios is just down the road so it could be true.  looks about right.

      cant believe you did that whole tour japanese style. look forward to reading your thoughts after settling back into the real world.

      Dec 27, 13 9:38 am  · 

      The Japanese Alps were amazing. (If I had planned a little better I could have gotten a day of skiing in.... next time...)

      What are your thoughts on Kenrokuen? We didn't really give it a fair shake, because it was cold and raining...

      Dec 27, 13 12:15 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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