Nissei Theatre, Tokyo, 1963, Togo Murano

Architecture Misfit #21: 村野藤吾

Some of Tōgō Murano’s work is incomprehensible and indescribably beautiful at the same time. It makes me want to believe in architecture as Art. My personal cynic tells me that positing the existence of a higher logic is primitive human response to anything resisting easy comprehension, but still …

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Some of Togo Murano’s designs resist not only easy comprehension but sustained rational analysis as well. In the end, no framework for understanding presents itself other than one person’s will for it to be like that. I’m used to saying that in a bad way for things I dislike, but I’m not accustomed to saying it for things I’m drawn to.

Murano’s aesthetic sensibility is connected his mastery of Japanese architecture’s sukiya style. We can think of sukiya as classical Japanese architecture that’s been loosened-up to admit idiosyncrasies.

桂離宮 – the very same Katsura Imperial Villa that impressed both Wright and Gropius alike is of this style. Example. Look at the path in the image above. There’s a bit of fancy stonework and some irregular stones laid irregularly but also three square ones and an oddly shaped fourth one with corners touching in checkerboard fashion. What’s going on? I have no idea. There is no explanation other than somebody decided to make it like that. And it’s fine.

Think of sukiya as a Japanese Louis XVI but one for which Louis XV never happened. It’s not about the forms but the attitude to them. It’s the combination of refinement and simplicity that Pawson’s and Ando’s minimalism lacks and it‘s this very combination that places it very squarely in the realm of art. Sukiya allows the superfluous and the flawed if they heighten awareness of the overall perfection – it’s the geisha’s single hair contrivedly yet perfectly out of place. It’s a hard act to pull off but Murano does, mostly.

Murano’s buildings are about buildings but his most valuable contribution is this unique combination of art and artifice. As such, it would normally preclude him being considered an architecture misfit but what makes him one is his attitude. I will set out my evidence.

1) There is no Murano style.

He had no theory or ideology but he wrote two books, the first in 1919. Its title, 様式の上にあれ [Yoshiki no Ueniare, Staying Above Style], says it all. 775 There are about 300 built Murano projects and few are alike. His career spanned seven decades but his approach never differed even as his stylistic and technical resources increased. He embraced new materials and new technologies but never as one-liner showpieces as a Jean Nouvel or a Herzog de Meuron might. In place of consistent style or materials, Murano relied on his sense for what he felt the brief demanded. He wasn’t afraid to design a traditional building if the brief suggested it. Here’s his New Osaka Kabuki Theatre from 1958. He didn’t see why a traditional art form needed a modernistic building.

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Murano did not treat every commission as an opportunity to further his personal brand. Hero.

2) Murano believed buildings should be true to the present, not the past or a future. 

His first building is from 1918 but one of his more famous early ones is the 1936 SOGO Department Store in Osaka.

In 1936 Japan as well as most other places in the world, this building was as modern as modern could be. The logic is easy to see: department stores were a new building typology and suggested this style that represented newness.

3) Murano admitted the role of the client. 

Murano said the client was responsible for designing 98% of a project and that the 2% remaining was sufficient to make any building into one of his. This is interesting. What if this were true of all architects? If we assume that, then the situation we have today is one where that 2% gets presented and evaluated as 100% of the building and, what’s more, that 2% gets designed before the other 98%. Our idea of architecture as art has little in common with Murano’s.  

4) Murano had no craving for international fame

Until the end of his life Murano made it a point to take time off every year and travel to look at buildings. Despite this interest in what others were doing, he did not court international media attention like the boyband Metabolists. He wasn’t interested in visionary proposals, had no wish to design everything everywhere, and no appetite for being internationally understood or appreciated. He did not expand into global masterplanning like Tange, or hawk his back catalogue around the Middle East like Isozaki is still doing.

Prior to the opening of Expo ’70, Kenzo Tange was asked for His Thoughts and said something like “the only pavilion that really angers me is the Matsushita Pavilion” [that’s it in the middle]. He continued, “Tradition is like a millstone around our necks. Our job is to smash it and reassemble it …” etc. etc. In 1969 I admired this but, in retrospect, he sounds like someone who’s used to being listened to… who speaks in quotes – which, before soundbites, was all there was.

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There are no Murano buildings outside Japan. It was never Murano’s intention to 1) update Japanese architecture, 2) create a modernist Japanese architecture, or 3) synthesise east and west or propagate any of those usual narratives that play so well in the west. For not putting himself in a position for us to discover him as one of us, Murano is little known or appreciated outside Japan. 

5) Murano never went along with theories of the moment

Murano believed buildings should be of the present but his view of the present involves more than whatever new technologies or ideologies were around at the time. Despite living through both the birth and death of modernism, Murano never went in for that modern affectation of inside and outside being one and the same thing called space. The contrast between the insides and the outsides of his buildings is striking.

Nissei Theatre, Tokyo, 1963

Notice how there is no attempt to design or otherwise hide light fittings, air conditioning outlets, lighting rigs and all the other necessities? See how ventilation outlets have their own pattern superimposed in a pattern and onto another pattern? It’s exciting and not overcooked. Sukiya’s acceptance of the artful anomaly makes it a very useful aesthetic for accommodating different logics. It’s the exact opposite of the total design. Wright and Gropius may have thought sukiya important and reference-worthy, but they never understood it.

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And yes, that’s inlaid mother-of-pearl on the ceiling. A difference between an inside and an outside is perhaps understandable in a theatre but the outside of Nissei Theater doesn’t suggest a theatre within. The lobby is something else again.

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Murano’s refusal to see the inside and outside as the same thing is eminently sensible. If you want to be outside you go outside and sit on a seat and enjoy being outside. And when you’re tired of that you go inside or – if you wish – gaze outside through a window.

Hakone Prince Hotel, Hakone, Japan 1978

The weather on Lake Ashinoko is very changeable and nearly always chillier than you expected when you boarded that train from Shinjuku.

The message is: When the weather is fine, enjoy the weather being fine. The question is: why should there be a distinction between inside and outside? Nobody has ever told us why that should be a good thing. OK but what’s with the extruded volutes? The petalled roof? The steel columns supporting inverted brick buttresses? We fixate on the outdoor furniture because it’s the only thing we can form an opinion on. The rest is unknowable and disturbing.

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One lingering question is where did our fixation on this inside-outside merge thing come from? IT’S NOT JAPAN. Sure, the walls can slide away and all that but you’re still on the inside looking out. Fresh air and light enter as physical sensations. Space stays firmly put.

Hakone Jumokuen Rest Pavilion, Kanazawa Prefecture, Japan 1971

The relaxation that comes from inside being inside and outside being outside is evident in this pavilion amidst a very walkable forest. Stylistically, it’s what you’d hope to encounter when you realise you’ve forgotten your umbrella or feel like a sit-down.

Inside is a different world. This is not some Thoreau cabin in the woods.

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6) Idiosyncrasy

I’ve mentioned the stone paving as an example of the idiosyncrasy sukiya admits and the lighting fixture above is another example. The branching lamp with its petalled shades is Calder and cherry blossom combined, and meant to be appreciated for what it is. Murano paid special attention to the design of light fittings. Here’s two more examples from the Hakone Prince Hotel.

Those horses have been disturbing me for decades but I can’t think of anything else I would rather see tied together garlanding that ceiling.

Of all the Murano buildings I know, I thought Takarazuka Catholic Church perhaps my least favourite for the wilful expressiveness of its shape

until I saw this photograph.

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I mentioned the geisha’s one hair out of place drawing attention to the perfection. Here’s Murano’s Japan Lutheran Theological Seminary from 1969. Check that detail.

Is it unnecessary? Is it borderline kitsch? I don’t know, but other architects’ attempts are heavy-handed by comparison.

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I do believe such a thing as a Japanese design sensibility exists and I do believe it derives from sukiya sensibility. You can see it here in this image of the hydraulic dampers on the roof of Tange’s 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium Complex.

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We can see the red as proto–High Tech but we do Tange an injustice and overrate the High-Tecchies when we do. The logic behind the shape of that hole is inaccessible to us. It’s unresolvable yet perfect and, as such, expressive of nothing else but someone’s desire to make it so. Whilst never forgetting that Japan is also the country that gave us Hello Kitty, for something to be expressive of nothing else but someone’s desire to make it so is a very sophisticated and dangerous aesthetic concept. I wouldn’t trust it in the hands of any architect who wasn’t Tange or Shinohara or Murano and, even then, not all the time.

Even though he had no personal style or styles, Murano’s attitude towards design was the most consistent of the three. He let Modernism and Post-Modernism run their courses without becoming enamoured of structural or construction expressionism yet, on the other hand, some of his buildings are about just that. This is Tanimura Art Museum of 1983.

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It’s easy to appreciate the structural and construction logic of posts and beams but Murano coaxes a moody materiality out of sprayed concrete. He had an instinct for materials and how to use them. 

1946: World Peace Memorial Temple

Here, 37 years earlier, we have structure expressed yet unexpressive, and materials with an immaterial materiality. I’ll try to explain.

The brick relief pattern I understand a little. In the world of graphic and textile design it’s called a step-and-repeat when identical motifs form a larger pattern and, with this building, a greater pattern of diagonals floats across the facade and the concrete frame. What I find difficult to imagine is 1) conceiving it and 2) detailing it. The brick relief and the windows are the main external decorative inputs and both have no meaning other than somebody wanted them to be that way. As for what it all means as a whole, this building is in Hiroshima and its construction began within a year of August 6, 1946. That is meaning enough.

Hiroshima has no need for buildings laden with meaning, least of all churchy ones with stained glass. By comparison, Tange’s 1955 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a blank slate

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and probably better for it as the international face of a national grief. People invest it  with 100% of whatever meaning they want and completely on their terms. It’s easy to like. Murano’s World Peace Memorial Cathedral is a more private affair. It’s a church for remembrance and make you remember it does.

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And there’s no doubt about what. It’s easier to focus on the dappled golden light rather than on that intensely disturbing slash of gold mosaic displacing, distorting and disfiguring the icon in the apse. The stability of those red and blue stained glass windows is very comforting and life-affirming. 

• • •

This site (in Japanese) has the most complete list of works I could find. There are many buildings I haven’t mentioned here but there is much more to discover. For example, Murano had a special gift for staircases.

Of Murano’s three hundred buildings, I selected the ones I did because they best illustrated the things I wanted to draw attention to but [confession time] I’d never known until last week that he was also the architect of the Industrial Bank of Japan – a building I’ve admired for decades. This building was an existence I just accepted – it never occurred to me someone might have designed it. 

Here’s an idea! We currently have a big problem with media management and too much information about too many buildings. This makes us unable to determine what is of any worth, let alone art. So how about we have some standards, reset the bar high and narrow the field by only considering buildings that have an existence independent of their creator? If you need to know who designed it before you have an opinion about it, forget it.

1974: Industrial Bank Of Japan (now Mizuho Headquarters)

All mechanical spaces are in that portion cantilevered over a reflecting pool (now replaced by planting). The pool, which you can see here,

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originally had a whirlpool in the far corner. It was eerily and profoundly impressive. It had depth. The entire building has gravity. See how the building meets the ground with that fillet of polished granite?

The sidewalk was paved in the same stone, unpolished. It’s an astounding level of thought and care. I’m as impressed now as I was in 1974.

• • •

Togo Murano

村野藤吾
1891 – 1984

for solving the same problem three hundred times

misfits’ salutes you!

• • •

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