Japan’s radiant architecture

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©Iain Masterton/Alamy

Japan’s development and influence have long been reflected in its architecture, and that influence is set to continue.

International architecture has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. There is presently no predominant school of thought, no one style that can guarantee an investor success, no visionary who
can singularly lead an architectural movement and no one building that sums up the zeitgeist as was so often the case throughout the 20th century.The 21st century has begun with a greater emphasis on the ecological footprint of buildings and their sustainability, rather than just aesthetics.

Japanese architecture not only reflects this change, but is in many ways beating a path for the rest of us. Japan understands it must deal with the regional climate and risky environment, and express its traditional culture in a contemporary architectural language that is appropriate to its citizens’ needs. From the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 which marked an awakening to the issue of climate change, to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, not only have architects begun questioning costs, but the decisions of past generations. There is a new holistic rethinking about genius loci, privileging the right concept for the right place. The involvement of local citizens in discussions, the development of their 24/7 living, working and recreation quarters,  Japan’s ageing society, and its seismic exposure compel architects to seek better answers that are acceptable to all citizens, young and old.

Architecture has always developed through cross-fertilisation, and the import and export of techniques around the world. This “copy and paste” has produced some of the great architectural wonders of the world–in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, for example, the national museum was built during the Meiji period in 1894 and designed by Katayama T ¯o  kuma in the French Renaissance style. Or take Tokyo central train station, designed by Tatsuno Kingo and built in 1914. Though recently renovated by the renowned Japanese lighting designer Kaoru Mende, it could easily fit into the present-day urban fabric of London. Perhaps the most influential western architect to espouse the Japanese way of thinking was Frank Lloyd Wright, who built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, (1913-24). Wright predicted future difficulties when he wrote in 1931 that “the Japanese house, a perfect expression of organic architecture, is being made over into a western garage, instead of being organically developed into a suitable place for the same life rising from its knees to its feet”.

Japan’s architectural styles stretch back over two millennia: the 2nd century wooden buildings of Nara, the Buddhist-style Asuka buildings a few centuries later, and the earthquake- and rain-resistant Zenshuyo style structures of the 12th century still stand today. This long tradition of indigenous responsive design dominated until the 19th century when international business and cultural exchange with the west increased dramatically. For the Japanese, the local traditional approach to building for the regional climate and local cultural identity was out of fashion. Moreover, the Second World War, which brought destruction and defeat, increased the longing to make a break with the past.

A new start was sought in the fast building processes of the day, while copying architectural styles from the United States and Europe. But by the 1960s Japanese architects Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki had started to rebel against this “boring” globalised style, and experimented with a fusion of megastructures and biological systems, known as the “Metabolism movement”. This in turn inspired students in the west, as reflected in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in 1977, and Norman Foster’s Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong-China in 1985. Parallel to this demonstration of muscular, skeletal and machine architecture there was a softer, more poetic movement growing in Japan, led by “local” architects such as Tadao Ando, who were rediscovering their cultural roots while fusing Western and Eastern thinking.  In this energy-crisis era, simple things began to be attractive again.

Tadao Ando’s writing traces this development. He describes his intention to establish in his houses “a human zone where the individual can develop in the midst of the standardisation of the surrounding society”. These compact microcosms of urban space for human life in the modern anonymous cities of Japan inspired countless designers, writers and filmmakers throughout the world. It was a political and a poetic statement. Small is beautiful, but also private and shareable, atomised and communal.

As Mr Ando writes, “the architectural materials do not end with wood and concrete that have tangible forms, but go beyond to include light and wind which appeal to the senses”. Or as Kaoru Mende puts it, “light is a building material”. Mr Mende became famous among western architects, designers and students after his collaboration with the architect Toyo Ito on the “Tower of Winds” building in Kanagawa in 1986. This small building is the stuff of science fiction.

Today a new generation of architects reflects an increased sensitivity to democratic, community-based dialogue. Zhao Yang’s “Home for All” is a beautiful, light-filled, almost timeless space that was developed with the local fishing community that had suffered severely from the tsunami in 2011. The work and ideas of Yuko Nagayama, a young woman born in Tokyo, embody the change of emphasis in Japan’s hitherto rather male-dominated approach to city planning and urban living. Having worked in Japan and abroad, Ms Nagayama collaborates with artists, writers and filmmakers, as well as planners and engineers, and is as at home with high-class new-build commercial projects, such as her Louis Vuitton Kyoto Daimaru, as she is with revitalising old buildings, such as the traditional Inn Kiya Ryokan in Uwajima. She uses what is there to achieve what is not there by exploiting the spaces between, filling the gaps and using the “leftovers” in inclusive and people-oriented ways. She is currently in discussions in the Roppongi area of Tokyo about encouraging artists to “use the town itself as a place for expression”, by creating works for insignificant walls, for instance.

If Japanese architecture in the last century could be seen as an expression of fast growth, destruction, rebirth and expansion, today’s Japan promises to deliver a new hybrid of high and low tech to shape a responsive, citizen-oriented contemporary architecture. In this sense, in the century to come we can look forward to Japanese architects weaving their answers to important city planning questions from their own roots as well as from our common history.

*Ruairí O’Brien designed and led the “Travelling Micro-museum Exhibition” on German literature to Tokyo for the Deutschland-Japan year in 2005. He runs his own interdisciplinary urban planning, architecture, light and art studio in Dresden, Germany. He teaches architecture and light at universities around the world. Visit www.ruairiobrien.de


Ando, Tadao (1977), in “New relationships between space and the person” in The Japan Architect, October/November. Ando, Tadao (1981), “Koshino residence,” in Space Design, June.

Clarke, Rory, and Lamia Kamal-Chaoui (2006), “Making city sense”, in OECD Observer No 255, May 2006.

Frederick, Gutheim (1941), Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Selected Writings (1894-1940), The UNIVERSAL Library, Grosset & Dunlap, New York.

Mende, Kaoru (2000), Designing with Light and Shadow, Images Publishing, Australia.

Nagayama, Yuko (2013), Tokyo Midtown Interview No. 30.

Search “sustainable buildings” at www.oecdobserver.org

See also www.oecd.org/japan

©OECD Observer No 298, Q1 2014

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