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The Floating World: Part II

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It’s not just houses. No building is spared from Japan’s memory loss when it comes to its own architectural history. Earlier this year, there was a bit of a stir when it was announced Kenzo Tange’s 1964 Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium would be demolished, the given reason being that the then innovative suspension roof was in danger of collapse. I’d forgotten this building existed but in the late sixties and early seventies it, along with Tange’s National Gymnasia Nos. 1 & 2, would appear in books and articles on Tange and modern Japanese architecture. Some very strange stuff new in new ways was coming out of Japan in the early 1960s. Does it look a bit like an ark? Or does it look a bit like a Japanese sword on display?

The building was completed the same year as the gymnasia but won’t be as lucky. It’s not so much the building but nostalgia for that time makes me mention it now.

Kunio Maekawa

If the Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium (or even the only house attributed to Tange) can be demolished then it’s no surprise that a building of his former mentor Kunio Maekawa is not exempt from demolition.

Fumigaoka Clubhouse 1954-2016

Tokyo Marine Nichido Insurance Building, Marunouchi, Tokyo 1974–2021

I doubt anyone will miss this office building despite its thoughtful corners. The recessed windows don’t maximize lettable area so perhaps it was showing its age. It may have fallen afoul of updated earthquake regulations that put about 30% of Tokyo’s if not Japan’s building stock in jeopardy, particularly its historic building stock. Retrofitting aseismic kit seems like something that can be easily said to be prohibitively expensive. In fairness, it probably is.

No. 1, No. 2 and Kumin Hall Buildings 1959–2016

Failing to meet current earthquake codes is the stated reason for the demolition of these two.

Maekawa House 1942–1994–

Maekawa’s own house is now a rescue house. In 1973 Maekawa had his house disassembled with a view to rebuilding it in concrete but died in 1986. In 1994, Terunobu Fujimori who was director of the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Museum operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, offered to reassemble the house as an exhibit.*

Junzo Yoshimura

Early modernist houses seem to retain historic value which is appreciated by some for what I imagine is status value.

Junzo Sakakura

Odakyu Department Store 1967-2022

Junzo Sakakura worked in Le Corbusier’s atelier from 1929–1936 and was one of the founders of modernist architecture in Japan. I never knew he designed the Shinjkuku Odakyu Department Store Co., Ltd. in 1967. Historically, department stores in Japan were built at terminal stations by railway companies to boost travel so Shinjuku has always been prime commercial land. This 2022 demolition and redevelopment is no surprise. A 48-storey office tower will replace it.

So much for the early modernists. Let’s see how the former Metabolists fared. The Metabolists believed buildings must be designed to allow for change. Usually, this meant megastructures with empty spaces with the potential for additional units to be added and/or others replaced. It was a novel idea that seemed visionary at the time. We never learn that visionary ideas are only visionary because they never come to pass.

Kisho Kurokawa

The Nakagin Capsule Tower we all know about and have an opinion about. 1970–2023.

Aoyama Bell Commons: 1976–2016

There was also a store in Tokyo called Aoyama Bell Commons, designed by Kurokawa and completed in 1976. Never knew. The corner location was one of Tokyo’s places to be in the 1980s. For a few months in 1991, I used to go to a gym in the building next door.

Arata Isozaki

The Isozaki building I mentioned last week was his Aoki House, completed in 1979 (Japan Property Central) or 1985 (Designboom) and probably not around for too much longer. This next house is a mystery. It’s called S-House and was completed in 1989. I’d never known of this one either, or the circumstances in which it was built. It’s not what I thought Isozaki would have been doing in 1989. Sometimes important people ask architects to design something and architects just can’t say no. Note 1: US$74,000 for the land and nothing for the house. Note 2: “… the house may be preserved and used for public purposes, but there is a chance it could also become a car park …”

In the end, this house surfaced yet didn’t disappear without trace. Instead, it scrubbed up well and became a scarf shop. You can read more about its further adventures here. Designed around the same time as Isozaki’s projects for Disney, this house isn’t listed on the Arata Isozaki & Associates website. The history of forgetting.

Kiyonori Kikutake

His own Sky House seems safe for the time being, and I can find no news of the impending demolition of his 1974 Pasadena Heights project. [c.f The Building is not Trying to be a Mountain] Some of his other projects haven’t been so lucky.

Miyakonojo Civic Hall 1966–2019*

*“On February 2019, the International Council on Monuments and Sites submitted a letter to the national, prefectural and city governments requesting the urgent preservation of the historically significant piece of architecture. Failing that, the Council was prepared to issue an ICOMOS Heritage Alert and launch a media campaign. A farewell open day will be held by the city on June 23, with the application deadline on June 12.” News ended in 2019 with that. You never seeing a photograph of this building but it’s been about fifty years since I last did. It dropped out of history long ago and was probably never in the Metabolist canon to begin with as it doesn’t wear its flexibility on its sleeve. Kikutake can be counted as a core Metabolist architect but projects such as his Pasadena Heights were rigid and inflexible and not in line with what textbook Metabolist architects were promoting.

Izumo Grand Shrine Office Building 1963–2016

This is another building about which the same can be said. It’s lovely. How to build a post-modern building next to a traditional shrine is a difficult design problem to pull off. I’m beginning to think the real roots of post-modernism are in 1960s Japan with wood-ish but not wood buildings such as this one that, like the Tange one at the beginning of this post, used concrete in ways outside the canon of Western architecture.

Sado Island Grand Hotel 1967–2020

In line with the spirit but not the look of Metabolism, this building had a second floor added to the underside of the superstructure, and possibly that elevator/stair shaft as well.

Suruga Bank Tokyo Branch 1967-2019

Architects who weren’t part of a movement but simply very good fared no bette, but aren’t so well remembered. This brings us to Togo Murano. Strictly speaking, he was an early Modernist but in a category of his own outside the Le Corbusier sphere of influence.

Togo Murano

Yaesu Dai Building 1967–2022

Construction began in December 1964, just a few months after the 1964 Summer Olympics and the building completed by August 1967. It’s not one of Togo Murano’s better known ones but it’s still one of those buildings that makes a city nicer.

Industrial Bank of Japan 1974–2016

This one hurt. I understand it was demolished in order to increasing the capacity of the subway system but whether it was the transportation or the retail capacity I don’t know. In the 2016 image above, the adjacent building is already being demolished. When I saw it in 2015, I didn’t know it’d be for the last time.

Since 1974 when it was published in Japan Architect, I’d appreciated how its polished granite walls meet the footpath in a polished granite fillet, how its mechanical equipment is stacked vertically in the tapered cantilever over the pool with its feature whirlpool. I have a memory of reading that the solitary window in the blank part of the wall was either the chairman’s office or a meeting room but I remember wondering if the wall were better with it or without it. I don’t suppose it matters now.

Senri Newtown Civic Center Building 1964-2013

New Osaka Kabuki Theatre 1958–2013

Yokohama City Hall 1959–2021 (?)

This building has windows and balconies floating across its facade like clouds. It’s thinking on the outside of the box.

Yahata Library 1955–2014

So’s this. I thought I knew most Togo Murano buildings but this one I only learned about yesterday and I already miss it. As ever with Togo Murano buildings, not much has been used to create something very special. [c.f. “The Placement of Windows, Architecture Misfit #21: Togo Murano (村野藤吾)/]

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It’s not just 20th century architecture that suffers from this enthusiasm to demolish and redevelop. The Japan Property Central news pages are grim reading. For every happy ending there are at least fifty not so.

And finally, yes, the San’ai Dream Center is going to go. It has been a landmark building at the Ginza 4 Chome intersection and a symbol of modern Japan since its completion in 1963. Its architect Shōji Hayashi was then chief architect at Nikken Sekkei. Before mobile phones hundreds of thousands of people must have made appointments for dates and meetings at this corner. At one time, this corner had the most expensive property in Japan. It was said (around 1970) that if you dropped a US$100 bill on the pavement, it wouldn’t purchase the area of land it covered. This seems almost cute now. The building’s current owners claim general deterioration as the reason for its demolition. The Japan Property Central article mentioned that a replacement landmark is expected to be completed by 2027. Ominous.

Already I’m worried what that new landmark building will be. It’s another impossible brief. San’Ai Dream Center was completed in 1963, the year before the Tokyo Olympics was the event marking the beginning of a different kind of reinvention for Japan and far more symbolic than Expo ’70. No mere landmark could replace a symbol of that time. I’d like to suggest San’ai Dream Center be demolished and rebuilt to the same design and with updated construction technologies. If maintenance problems are indeed the reason for demolition, then just rebuilding it better is the answer. Landmarks don’t just mark land but also points in time. San’ai Dream Center has no doubt had its neon replaced with LED long ago, and its single glazing replaced with double glazed panels so I propose rebuilding it completely every sixty years.

Japan has some of the oldest timber buildings in the world. The Horyu-ji Temple (below) in Nara Prefecture was built in 607AD and has done well. The continual rebuilding of Ise Shrine is about the transience of architecture symbolizing the durability of tradition but a twenty-year cycle isn’t setting the bar very high. The rebuilding of buildings laden with memory and symbolism but whose time is up is an idea worth considering. It’s not a noble precedent, but the Apple Fifth Avenue Store (designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) first opened in 2006 but the glass cube was rebuilt in 2011 after only five years. In terms of $/m3, it’s probably the most expensive building in the world, largely because no matter how much money is thrown at it, it’s impossible to make even a contentless building appear transparent. The rebuild not only kept its idea of “uselessness+transparency=gigabucks”, but only served to emphasize it. The same stars seem to be aligning at Tokyo’s Ginza 4-chome intersection.

San’ai image @]

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  • Hi Graham, to push the fire-proof timber concept further, I love how the cladding tile on Maekawa’s tower changes direction on columns and beams. In effect, this means that they both have their “grain” running lengthwise, as timber columns and beams of course would. I believe the mighty Takenaka Corporation is doing/did the demolition, which I’m sure was meticulous and well-documented. Akira Shibuya: I know almost nothing about him, but that design is definitely from 1966. It was for the Shinkenchiku housing competition for that year, with Tange as judge. As you say, definitely “more real.” By 1966, Shibuya could point to the pods Kikutake had hung under the Sky House for his kids’ bedrooms, or to the forest of cores in Tange’s just-completed Yamanashi Press building. I think Shibuya did work for Tange.

    • Thanks Casey – I never knew about the different direction of the cladding tile. Yes, it’s definitely meant to evoke timber construction. Also, it’s brown. But it just goes to show that if you stop and look, there’s a lot of thought to appreciate. You’ll have noticed many buildings in Japan clad in ceramic tile, even small apartment buildings. It wears well, but it also helps with the acid rain that was a problem in the 1970s. It’s a shame I won’t get to have a closer look.

  • Hi Graham, thanks for the post and happy 2024! I for one will miss Maekawa’s Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Building. This is an incredible design that would have made Mies envious. On a technical level, I’ve always thought of the windows inset to the back of the structure as a way to reduce solar gains, as later used by OMA’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Tectonically, it seems appropriate that a building for an insurance company in Japan would look like it’s made of fire-proofed massive timber. It also therefore makes sense that such an insurance company would feel the need to make a new Renzo Piano replacement with the most advanced life-safety systems as solid public relations. Sadly the visual banality of RPBW’s replacement also conveys a kind of safety.

    • Hi Casey and Happy 2024! I had another look at the Tokyo Marine building and, because of your comment, see it’s more than a plaid. Yes, I also thought of the recessed windows as a means of sun control. Many tall buildings in Perth, Australia where I’m from have some form of external sun control. And yes, sadly, you’re also right about the security in banality. I was going to ask you anyway, but do you know anything about Akira Shibuya, the apparently forgotten Metabolist? All I’ve seen are some images of his 1961 (?) Metabolic City (below) that seems more real (i.e. less visionary) than Isozaki’s City in the Air of the same year. Akira  Shibuya, Metabolic City 1961? There’s also this image dated 19066 (?) that shows the same project in the style of Archigram. Akira Shibuya, Metabolic City (1961?)I wouldn’t be surprised if Shibuya and Isozaki were both working for Tange at the same time but, since we’re talking about projects that weren’t built anyway, I think Shibuya should get more of a mention. If the 1966 date is accurate then Metabolic City would be seen as derivative and dropped from history as is usual to simplify history for the future, but if the date 1961 is correct then there was a lot more happening at the same time and not necessarily in Tange’s studio. New Year musings, Cheers Casey!