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1965–1980 Japan

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Neighbours on Longitude 135° was the backslappy motto of Australia’s presence at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. An accompanying graphic showed longitude 135°E pleasingly spanning the middle of Australia and the expo’s location of Kansai still regarded by many as the heart of Japan. Many Japanese thought the Australian pavilion reminded them of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print Great Wave off Kanagawa, the best known of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. I thought this a happy accident. I didn’t know the post-modern era had begun.

The architect of the Australian pavilion was James Maccormick, principal of James Maccormick and Associates since 1988. His LinkedIn profile says he was an associate at Grounds, Romberg and Boyd 1960–1964 so he almost certainly designed the pavilion while working for the Commonwealth Department of Works in Canberra 1964–1970.

By 1979 when I arrived in Japan there had been an oil shock or two and the expo party was well and truly over. My first three months were spent at the Osaka University of Foreign Languages, a short bus ride from Kita-Senri station on the Hankyu Senri Line that passed by the former expo site at Senri Hills. From the train into Osaka I could glimpse the symbol tower that’s now the centrepiece of the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park. I never went there because, from the time Expo ’70 was first announced, I had eagerly followed all news and already imagined myself there. I wasn’t interested visiting a place something amazing had happened ten years prior.

Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan

I didn’t care about the Expo ’70 theme of Progress and Harmony for Mankind. My only interest was the pavilions and, aged 13, I agreed with Kenzo Tange that the only really irritating one was the Matsushita Pavilion [centre above]. Tange articulated his objection better than I could when he said “History is like a millstone around our necks. Our task is to smash it apart and reassemble it”. Or something like that. (It was 1968 or so.)

But of course Tange would say that – he was on the Metabolist side of the fence, and Metabolists were famous for having ideas about the future, whether founded in history or not. If one purposely excludes The Constructivists, then Koolhaas and Obrist were correct to identify the Metabolists as the first “movement” of non-Western architects to make an impression on the architecture of the Western world and, as with Expo ’70 itself, there was nothing the Japanese wanted more than create an impression on the Western world. Tange was clearly the man for the job.

My interest in Japan’s modern architecture had begun with me reading a Reader’s Digest article introducing Kenzo Tange. It had a photograph of the Yoyogi Stadia. The year was probably 1966–7. 1974-1978 were my undergraduate years and, on the same library shelf as DOMUS and CASABELLA, I discovered Japan Architect and buildings by architects such as Takefumi Aida, Mozuna Monta, Artata Isozaki, Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Hiroshi Hara and Kazuo Shinohara. [c.f. The New Japanese House, Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses, Madame Butterfly] It was the houses that fascinated me. Here’s Takefumi Aida’s 1972 Annihilation House. It’s an inhabitable object. I still believe that’s all a house is meant to be.

Kazuo Shinohara may have thought of houses as inhabitable objects but for him they were primarily objets d’art. In 1962 when he wrote “A house is a work of art.” he was creating as well as stating a position vis-à-vis The Metabolists who always thought themselves cut out for bigger things such as cities. Shinohara was not the first architect to carve out a niche for himself but he did set the tone for how his buildings would be regarded. What’s more, it still holds, despite there never having been any discussion of in what sense Shinohara’s houses are art, or whether or not they are good art. [1] And how would anyone know anyway? Surely only the artist would know whether their work was a success or not. And artists, like anyone else, can be creative with the truth.

An Anatomy of Influence

An Anatomy of Influence is a very handsome book by Thomas Daniell, Professor of Architectural History, Theory, and Criticism at Kyoto University. It covers Japanese architecture over the period 1965-1980, a period with many memories for me. Its beginning was the time of the ‘economic miracle’ leading up to Expo ’70, and the middle of it was the downturn brought on by the Oil Crises. The entire period was pre-internet and, as everywhere else, architectural ideas were presented and propagated by magazines that were readily available yet specialist in nature. Having buildings published was perhaps the most important means of self-promotion. [2]

Delivering seminars and presentations on the university lecture circuit is a poor substitute for publishing well thought-out positions in specialist journals read by critical peers. A few years ago, I met a Japanese architect who had moved to Dubai and set up a practice. He said he much preferred working here and, when I asked why, he replied, “In Japan you never get to do anything. As soon as you design your first house and get it built, you’re expected to endlessly write about it and never stop talking and lecturing about it anywhere and everywhere to anyone who’ll listen.” Yō Shimada sprang to mind. [c.f. Career Case Study #10: Yō Shimada]

This system of specialist magazines was not unlike the system of journals that had existed since the 1920s across Europe and the USSR. A position expressed in an article might be countered after much thought and discussion by another article by someone else a month or two later. No such intellectual landscape exists today anywhere in the world and this is our loss. [c.f. Need to Know] A self-critical piece such as Kiyonori Kikutake’s thought on his just-completed 1975 Pasadena Heights is today unthinkable. [c.f. Honorary Architecture Misfit: Kiyonori Kikutake] I’m all for an architecture that’s less elitist, but don’t see why criticism, relevance and self-control had to be the first casualties. As with people most everywhere, the Japanese live their lives largely untroubled by architecture.

A forum of one’s peers didn’t stop architects of all persuasions having opinions on how everyone else should live whether in house, city or both. What Daniell’s book brings to the table is an oral history gleaned via interviews with various protagonists, and for which edited transcripts were reviewed, sometimes amended, and subsequently approved by the speakers. Daniell can vouch that all these things were said. The veracity of the things said is another matter, for memories can be hazy, recollections muddled and both facts and emphasis can shift as things get said to “set the record straight”.

The recollections of the eleven architects Daniell interviewed don’t always concur and this is where it gets interesting. Daniell calls this The Rashomon Effect. Rashomon is a 1950 movie by Akira Kurosawa in which a samurai is killed and his wife supposedly ravished by a bandit but the accounts of wife and bandit differ, and we also begin to suspect the narrator is unreliable. An important early text I wish I’d read 40 years ago stands in for an interview with Shinohara who died in 2006. A living Shinohara would definitely have contributed more lines to read between, but would also have shaded the recollections of Arata Isozaki, Itsuko Hasegawa, Kazunari Sakamoto, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Seijima …

In Rashomon, Kurosawa didn’t have this problem as the testimony of the dead samurai is delivered via a medium. It’s a powerful scene, not least of all because we accept the medium as an audacious storytelling device more readily than we do the dead samurai’s version of events.


Daniell explains that he chose the final eleven interviewees from architects over 60 “so that their career arcs were clear [ouch!] and their historical significance beyond question, then selected 12 individuals who occupy positions within the field as far away from each other as possible”. This is as good as any other method. The qualification “within the field” is important because it includes architects on the fringe but excludes outliers who, by definition, aren’t in the field. I confess to not remembering Masaharu Takasaki’s name but Googling cosmic architecture Japan pulled up an image of his most memorable building in one. Even in the seventies I found it a bit too cosmic. I wonder what he did after, and is doing now. There’s a whole other book out there.

But there are still plenty of stories, and more to them than we will ever know. Daniell’s interviews don’t just reveal the people behind the buildings – the also reveal who they are now as well as then. We don’t need to be told what Arata Isozaki has been doing for Arata Isozaki & Associates is a huge practice doing the usual things, getting press, collecting awards, etc. Tadao Ando we know about and, if he didn’t make the final twelve, it is because we can comprehend his buildings via those of the others. I missed not seeing Takefumi Aida but then, I can see how he could be comprehended in terms of Ito plus or minus a bit of someone else. I never much cared for his Toy Block House series but I’m pleased he’s still around.

Osamu Ishiyama
Ishiyama [who was interviewed] is a borderline outlier beyond the tribes of Metabolists and anti-metabolisms, and comes across as a decent person. His belief that social equality lay with less architecture, not more, must have been heretical in the time of megastructures, irony and art. His Gen-An (幻庵, Fantasy Dwelling) is a type of minimal dwelling unit that fits with his desire to create a house that could be built anywhere with inexpensive materials and a low level of construction skill. The First Oil Crisis was 1973 and nowhere were its effects felt as much as in Japan. Conceiving a low-cost, self-build, and possibly off-grid housing was a socially useful thing for an architect to propose. In 1975, infatuated with spatial invention and sophisticated compositions, I completely missed the point of its cheap construction and disapproved of its hippy vibe. I thought this house was against architecture. It was, but I was wrong thinking that was a bad thing.*

Ishihyama’s still doing it. Here’s his 1995 Light Coffin house. Completely ignored by media, it didn’t try to be popular.

“By the 90’s, it was obvious that the traditional form of family – an authoritarian father, an obedient mother and powerless children – was becoming obsolete. New types of relationships started to emerge in the vacuum created by shrinking conventional family stereotypes. The “Light Coffin,” designed by Osamu Ishiyama in 1995, was a house designed for a young gay couple. (The original name in Japanese is the “House for Doracula.”) Built using plain materials such as lightweight steel frames and corrugated roof panels, this house looks like a warehouse with no frills. The interior is also bald and bare: the entire space is divided into two simple  rows, one of which consists of a bathroom and a kitchen. In a conventional sense, you may not call this building a house. But then, if this couple don’t want to raise kids or don’t need conventional functions for a conventional family, then they don’t need a conventional house.  A format for a family and their life style can be a lot more diverse or peculiar. If Doracula wants a house – well, or a coffin – of course he can have one.”

Monta (Kiko) Mozuna
The cover image of Daniell’s book is a detail from a wonderful Mozuna drawing, Mandela 1, from 1991. Mozuna’s estate kindly allowed its use. It would have been interesting to know what happened between 1991 and his 1972 Anti-Dwelling house that made an impression on undergraduate me, not only because of its obvious weirdness, but more because he designed it for his mother. We don’t know what she thought of it but, in what must have been a photograph in Japan Architect, I remember a row of pot plants along some corridor and thinking that all houses need do is intersect with the act of living. Sadly missed.

Takefumi Aida
I never could quite make up my mind about Takefumi Aidfa but he’s still practicing, although it’s difficult to know to what degree. This 2012 building, titled Portico, by Aida Atelier [the same Takefumi Aida of Annihilation House, earlier] + Kuno LAB shakes up the detached house once again, literally turning it upside down and, surprisingly, making it work incredibly well. The ground floor has a main entrance and three bedrooms, each with its own entrance. Communal living happens upstairs. This is a house that could be lived in by a household of arbitrary ages and configuration. Although attractive in that Japanese way we’re used to, it’s a useful idea worthy of further exploration. It would be a shame if it were regarded as nothing more than art.

I was also pleased to learn this next building is from the Aida atelier. It uses minimal means and modest contrivance to make something special. It reminds me of some of the later work of Hiroyuki Asai, seemingly banished from Shinohara’s lab mid-1970s. [c.f. Misleading Narratives] Maybe it’s time someone said “A small apartment building is a work of Art”? Maybe I just did.

Hiroshi Hara
Hiroshi Hara was one of the interviewees. I’d never been that much of an admirer although my university friend Jonathan Gale once took me to a party at Hara’s own house from 1974. I wish I’d been more open to being influenced by Hara. I liked this statement from his interview. “I believe architecture is not an object but an event. If you lack the tools to notate such events, you have to create your own notational system. Such a system should be comprehensible to a wider audience, not just architects.” 

I also like this facade treatment Hara’s atelier put on one corner of Kyoto Station. It’s slightly bizarre, neither art nor building, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s under the radar and hiding in plain sight. No-one will get asked to talk about it. Articles won’t get written about it. Nice work.

Kazuo Shinohara
On a recent trip to Japan, I visited Tokyo’s largest bookstore, Kinokuniya, in Shinjuku. I scanned the shelves and saw Isozaki’s writings were well represented, as were those of Toyo Ito, Kiyonori Kikutake, Waro Kishi and others. I was pleased to see at least twelve books on Tōgō Murano – a wonderful architect virtually unknown outside of Japan. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]. When I saw there wasn’t a single book on Shinohara, l couldn’t help thinking how fluid this notion of influence is.

It was odd. The world of architecture is usually quick to reward architects who keep the idea of architecture relevant by downwardly enlarging its market. [The most recent case I can think of is Alejandro Aravena being showered with accolades for his half-a-house invention bringing Chile’s property-poor into the housing market.] Shinohara singlehandedly invented the idea of volumetrically modest houses as art, thereby increasing the number of buildings that could be potential carriers for architectural ideas.

The memory of Kazuo Shinohara is being allowed to fade right now – a sure sign we can expect a major retrospective within five years. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, the idea of a house as art has never been stronger. It was an idea that, once released into the air, grew wings and flew. It just exists now as part of our intellectual and media environment, as if where it came from or how or why it got there are questions we shouldn’t trouble ourselves asking. All we know is that Japanese architects have continued to produce houses purporting to be art and we in other countries have been guiltily enjoying them ever since.

An early draft of this post was titled Under The Influence.

• • • 

[1] These questions were tossed around last year in the four posts ART IN SPACE!, Houses as Art, Living as Art, and Art as Houses, and recur in an article of mine titled A Shinohara House is a Work of Art, in Issue 45 of LOG magazine.

[2] Issue 46 of LOG magazine includes an article by Thomas Daniell titled Finding a Voice, accompanying a translation of Tadao Ando’s first foray into the world of architecture article writing and position-making.


• • •

Sun 13 Oct., 2019 16:07
So, just when I think interest in Shinohara is waning, along comes an exhibition at GSD.


  • I just stumbled on your site looking for some references to Hannes Meyer and I’m very impressed by the quality of your work/writing. Thank-you for this post on Japanese architecture – it brought back memories of repeated readings of the IAUS monograph on Shinohara in the architecture school library. There’s a wonderful double issue of the Spanish journal 2G from 2011 on his houses.

  • The case of Togo Murano really thrills me. In Japanese libraries or bookstores’ shelves, a good 10 % of the architects works section is about him (and he deserves it). In the same time, his buildings are being demolished one by one so that I could spend two hours walking to search the Industrial Bank of Japan before finding on the phone the news of its demolition. Or the grotesque case of the Kabuki theater in Osaka, whose Edo-baroque facade was maintained just to justify the construction of a 50-stories monster above it.
    In Japan, the concept of defending a modern building from demolition seems a joke to many.
    “Why should we keep this old thing, while we could build a double worthy skyscraper on this high price land?”
    “But this is a masterpiece for architectural history!”
    “But it’s old!”
    “Ok, let’s just think something”.

    The results are: amusement parks where old famous buildings to be demolished have been rebuilt; skyscrapers with a first floor shaped more or less like the previous building; skyscrapers with a facade of a kabuki theater pasted on the first 5 floors.

    It seems that a western mentality of conservation, that is totally different from the Japanese one, is being adopted just to make someone happy; but, at least, nobody really cares.

    • I too must have spent an hour looking for the Industrial Bank of Japan, and I thought I’d remembered where it was. After checking addresses and locations many times, It took me some time to accept it was gone, that somebody could have done that. There’s some photos I took of it in 2013 here. But even then, the pond was drained and there was no more whirlpool. They don’t make them like that anymore. I’m also really happy to know Tōgō Murano is finally being appreciated.