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Those risky, robust, resplendent architects of Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

If Europeans are overawed by the architecture of the past, convinced that nothing as accomplished can ever be built again, this is where the Japanese, having none of these convictions or inhibitions, radically deviate, believing they can improve on the past, produce something more outstanding, or at least more apropos the times.

MATERIALS AND MEANING IN CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE: Tradition and Today, by Dana Buntrock. Routledge, 2010, 275 pp., $165 (hardcover), $62.95 (paperback)

This results in a continuous experimentation of the kind the architectural designers featured in this book are engaged in.

The author begins her series of profiles with Terunobu Fujimori. A divisive figure, detractors interpret his designs as evidence of an unstable mind, while devotees see his buildings as portals to a fairy tale world of enchantment.

Buntrock commends Fujimori and his assemblages for collecting the “dregs and things that twentieth century modernism threw off.”

An advocate of sourcing locally available materials, their purpose, however, is not always evident.

One structure, looking vaguely like a Cuban tobacco drying shed, turns out to be a museum in Nagano prefecture. If his work suggests dissonance of form, it is perfectly in keeping with his fondness for instability.

The impracticality of his Too Tall Teahouse, a 6-meter high structure resembling a tree house, is obvious, but the interesting aspect of the structure is the way it flouts the formalism of the traditional chashitsu, replacing the avowed aim of calm with trepidation at scaling the structure and remaining there safely perched above its spidery ladders.

In Fujimori’s work, the refinement of the Japanese tearoom has become scaffolding.

For his Soda Pop Spa he created turrets of white plaster and charred cedar, a stripped effect like an inverted version of the patterns on a Jacobean tavern. Oyster shells are embedded in the wall of the men’s bath, a coolly contoured alcove reminiscent of an Islamic mihrab.

At first glance, Fujimori’s designs may seem more Tolkien than Shinto, but Buntrock’s knowledge of the cultural context helps to adjust first impressions, re-citing his works in the Japanese world.

With Kengo Kuma, the author traces an extraordinarily changing stylistic trajectory, evident when comparing his Bubble era commissioned M2 building, an imperial Gotham City extravaganza, to his sublimely uncluttered 1995 Water/Glass penthouse pavilion, and the clean, luminescent lines of the later Suntory Museum in Tokyo.

Kuma’s flexibility is admirable.

Buntrock demonstrates how materials like fritted glass and plastic can have the lightness of paper and bamboo.

Indeed, the designer appears to be equally at home using split alabaster and cardboard, as washi paper and paulownia.

There are as many approaches to design as there are designers. One architect tries to defy decay, another embraces decomposition; one designer insists that materials should be sourced from the site locale, another blithely imports lumber.

Buntrock shows architects such as Itsuko Hasegawa, as visionaries of a malleable urban landscape.

Hasegawa is featured for her innovative public architecture, such as the 1990 Shonandai Culture Center, which she has called, “a place of mystery and symbolism, a town made up of labyrinth and neighborhood quarters . . . a work of making topography.”

Given the problems Hasegawa has faced as a female architect in a nation as gender-regressive as Japan, her work represents a supreme accomplishment.

Of the Shonandai complex, she writes, “The local bureaucrat supervising the project felt that, like the sumo wrestling ring, women should not be allowed to enter a construction site.”

The author’s love of language and phrasing adds interest to the book. A sampling of chapter titles — Reluctant Reds, From PoMo to Paulownia, Neolithic Daddy — hint at the originality of the text.

Exulting in alliteration, she writes of the Red School of architecture, that it is “raw and robust, raffish and ragtag, rambunctious and reckless, rough and rudimentary, refreshing and resplendent, risky and risque, recalling Rikyu, regionally responsive.”

Buntrock helps us to identify the nomenclature of architecture. I’ve often wondered what those fashionable circles left on the surfaces of unfinished concrete were.

Now I know they are called “round separator indentations”; buildings have “trusses,” like recuperating hernia patients, and the contextual meaning of “volumetric” is conveyed.

Reading about the allusive architecture of Hiroshi Naito, Ryoji Suzuki’s Herculean task of remaking the landscape of Kotohira Shrine on Shikoku island, and other original projects included in Buntrock’s erudite and urbane work, confirms the fact that, despite the spluttering economy, there is no halt to creativity.

While there are assuredly as many failures as triumphs in architecture, most designers would concur with Fumihiko Maki’s belief that “the present is the very flower of modernism.”