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Building on strong foundations in 2013

by Julian Worrall

Ise Jingu Shrine — a time for renewal

The end of the year is traditionally a time of review and new prospects, a time to weave memories of the past with plans for the future to form the narrative cloth of a coherent identity.

In Japan, where old buildings seem as disposable as yesterday’s Christmas giftwrapping, architecture can often seem to suffer amnesia. For this last On: Architecture column of the year, we pick up projects from 2013 linking past and present, “renovating” the old into the new.

First up is Ise Jingu Shikinen Sengu, the periodic rebuilding every 20 years of the Ise Jingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture — the paradigm example of renewal drawn from the Japanese spiritual and architectural tradition. This year saw the completion of the 62nd iteration of the rebuilding ceremony, which dates back to the seventh century.

The new structures, which exactly match the old, are built using timber taken from trees planted expressly for the purpose generations ago, crafted by descendants of the craftsmen who built earlier shrines, and using the same craft techniques handed down through these family lines. In this way, Ise Jingu embodies a cyclical sense of time, in which something extremely old can have the pristine quality of the freshly born.

Ise Jingu Shikinen Sengu website

Kitte stamps its mark in Tokyo

JP Tower Kitte
JP Tower Kitte | KYODO

The redevelopment of the Marunouchi district around Tokyo Station over the past decade has involved a Faustian bargain between preservation and development. This pact only spared the Meiji Era red-brick grandeur of Tokyo Station from destruction by enabling the developable air-rights for the station to be sold by JR to surrounding private landowners (largely corporate entities within the Mitsubishi conglomerate).

The result has been the development of Marunouchi through the erection of numerous glassy towers rising through the carcasses of older Showa Era structures.

The Tokyo Central Post Office was the final building around the station square to be subject to this treatment. The original building, designed by Yamada Mamoru in 1929, with its abstract forms and white-tile finish, was an early icon of Japanese functionalist Modernism in what was called its “white tofu” mode. The site reopened earlier this year as the JP Tower, a 38-story glazed office tower, alongside Kitte, Japan Post’s first shopping-center development. This, in the form of a multi-story mall inhabiting part of the bleached skeleton of its original structure, brought to 21st-century consumption habits an ambience of early 20th-century progressive ideals.

JP Tower Kitte website

Under the arches of Maach

Maach Ecute

The renovation of old civic infrastructures, with their muscular proportions, frank materials and solid construction, can offer attractive counterparts to the lightweight ephemera of consumption environments, giving a way to infuse sites with new life (and money!), while maintaining a sense of their former lives. This can be seen with the renovation of the former Manseibashi Station, near Akihabara, earlier this year into the Maach shopping complex under its station-shop chain Ecute.

Wedged between a canal and a triangular square once adorned with statues of heroes of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Manseibashi Station was an important center in the Tokyo of a century ago. It lost its function as a station in the 1940s and was largely forgotten, housing a transportation museum until 2006. JR East has now renovated the Meiji Era brick structure supporting the train lines into an attractive shopping and dining space, complete with an observation deck on the platform where Taisho Era commuters once stood.

Mach Ecute website

Kengo Kuma’s cake shop


Sunny Hills Japan

Architect Kengo Kuma has long drawn inspiration from traditional Japanese materials and craftsmanship, while finding new expressive resources in these traditions. His mastery of this approach can be felt in his design for a small Taiwanese cake shop, which opened earlier this month in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.

A mass of cedar sticks, each 60-mm sq. across, shrouds Sunny Hills Japan in a nest-like geometric cloud. The design exploits the precision of Japanese carpentry techniques using complex joints to link parts that are offset by 30 degrees. With this kind of skilful deployment of old techniques in new ways, Kuma aims to innovate within the discipline of architecture itself, discarding conventional concepts of wall and window in favor of a design language that defines spaces and enclosures using patterns and layers — a genuine “renovation” of the old to shape the new.

Sunny Hills Japan website