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Beauty and purpose in design

by Stephen Mansfield

NEW JAPAN ARCHITECTURE, by Geeta Mehta and Deanna MacDonald. Tuttle Publishing, 2011, 224 pp., $49.95 (hardcover)

There are fewer contiguous architectural zones in Japan — areas where we can follow the accumulated contours of a set of perfectly integrated buildings — than there are in Europe. Instead, we must sample designs singly. But because of the very real singularity of the most accomplished works, this can be immensely rewarding.

Unlike authors who rhapsodize about Japan’s supposed culture of nonwastage, the writers of this new work know all too well about profligacy — of wealth in “the hands of people who, after thousands of years of practising the virtues of frugality, now throw away things just as they start becoming unfashionable.”

Much as we might decry the remorseless scrapping of buildings in Japan, the practice does provide opportunities not available to Western architects who must contend with complex heritage and zoning issues. The limitations of space can even be a gift of sorts, creating a working dynamic where ideas are stretched and squeezed into seemingly impossibly pinched allotments of land.

The authors feature designs that are contextually sensitive, though in Japan’s construction flux today’s well-placed building may be tomorrow’s anomaly.

The sublime “House Like A Museum” in Kamakura stands next to a barber shop and drink dispenser. Part of the relative disregard for coordination may stem from the likelihood that your immediate environs will change during the period of your occupancy. This obviates the imperative to make new structures look as if they belong.

If the designs in this book seem at times more daring than practical, this is because the Japanese “can be fearless, and willing to forego comforts dear to most of us in order to live in a work of art.” This is corroborated in some of the projects selected: a hillside forest home with only a trapdoor for its entrance, a toilet surrounded by transparent glass.

The avowed aims of the architects featured here may sometimes be lost on the casual visitor. At the Weekend House Alley in Kamakura, a warren of condominiums and commercial spaces, for example, the designer’s declared intention is to create coastal and neighborhood perspectives “in a manner that echoes the ancient paths that crisscross the hills of Kamakura.” One home on the Boso Peninsula replicates the appearance of an adobe home in New Mexico. What looks from a distance like the ruins of Ephesus or the towers of Leptis Magna turns out to be the Inujima Art Project “Seirensho,” the site of a former copper refinery.

Architectural appreciation is nothing if not personal. If the Nishimachi International School Yashiro Media Center, built on a narrow plot in Tokyo’s crowded Moto-Azabu district, appears suffused with amplifying light, a model of refined, subliminal space, “Bubbletecture H,” a museum assemblage of rust-colored, tumuli-shaped forms, seem closer to the domes of Buckminster Fuller than the future. Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, though arresting, bears just a little too much resemblance to Norman Foster’s 2003 Swiss Re Building in London’s commercial banking area, a structure affectionately referred to as “the gherkin.”

An aerial view of Tokyo Midtown reveals a structural cluster resembling a sanzonseki (grouping of three stones) typical in Japanese gardens. Though there are more than three buildings in the Midtown arrangement, the rather obtuse analogy, with a central “rock” encircled by smaller forms surrounded by gardens and lawns representing moss, does make the rather bland mass of buildings more interesting.

The writers imply this is a good time to be an architect in Japan, that after periods of hubris, showmanship and unlimited budgets, serious designers are in the ascendancy. Many of the building projects included in this book, however, are standout structures, designs of almost transcendental beauty and managed semantics in the midst of unconsidered construction sprawls. No ordinary structures, these are experiments by a distinguished group of designers to promote discourse on architecture.

This is eminently possible in the case of structures like the De Beers Ginza Building, where the undulating facade appears to be experiencing a dramatic mutation, not unlike the self-regenerating surfaces of Shinjuku buildings in William Gibson’s science fiction novel “Idoru,” or the folding structures in the film “Inception.”

Achieving beauty and functionality, the avowed aim of many of the architects featured in this book, is no easy task. Where there is this much creativity, though, and clients with open minds and wallets, the sky, architecturally speaking, is the limit.