A new generation of Japanese architects is scoring success by reinterpreting the past.
Unlike their predecessors, who modernized Japan with Western-style edifices, they talk of fluidly defining space with screens, blending it with nature, taking advantage of earthy materials and incorporating natural light — all trademarks of Japanese design.
And their sensibility, that speaks to a human-oriented yet innovative everyday life, is proving a hit abroad, said Erez Golani Solomon, a professor of architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“Food and architecture,” said Solomon, stressing how the two are Japan’s most potent brands. “They are powerful — Japan’s strongest cultural identity.”
One of the country’s star architects, Kengo Kuma finds he is in demand not only in Japan and in the West but also in places such as China.
Among Kuma’s major Chinese projects are the Xinjin Zhi Museum, whose sloping angles and repeated tile motifs are characteristically Kuma, and the still ongoing Yunnan Sales Center, a sprawling complex of shops, housing and a theater, where a wooden lattice decorates the main structure overlooking a pond.
He also designs private homes for affluent Chinese who admire Zen philosophy and want to incorporate that stark aesthetic into their daily lives, Kuma said.
Japanese architecture offers warmth and kindness as it is adept in the use of natural light and artisanal craftsmanship, such as bamboo and paper.
It is “working together like music,” to create a comfortable and luxurious spot even in a cramped space, the basic principle of a Japanese tea house, Kuma said.
“It’s part of our genetic makeup,” he said during an interview, sitting in his Tokyo studio among elegant chairs designed by himself, and others by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
He points with disgust at the vaulting skyscrapers visible from his window.
“People all over the world are sick and tired of modern monuments,” Kuma explained.
“The desire for the human and the gentle is a backlash to the globalization that brought all these monster skyscrapers.”
Another rising Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto is also working all over the world.
His beachside cultural center in Serbia is a giant spiral, while a bungalow in southern Japan that he designed is a cube of wooden blocks. His Serpentine Pavilion in London, a metal lattice, has been compared to a floating cloud.
In Montpellier, France, construction begins next year for a housing complex he has designed with balconies sprouting precariously at all angles from a tower.
“This understanding of the connection between nature and the man-made is Japanese. The Japanese garden utilizes nature while also being finely crafted,” Fujimoto said. “You go back and forth between those two points.”
In a telling sign of their rising stature, four of the winners of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in the last six years have been Japanese nationals: Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Toyo Ito and Shigeru Ban.
In the past, the winners were few and far between. Kenzo Tange, known for his statuesque, curvaceous Tokyo Olympic stadium, won the Chicago-based Pritzker in 1987; Fumihiko Maki, who infused an Eastern sensibility into his floating forms of glass, metal and concrete, won in 1993; and the self-taught and idiosyncratic Tadao Ando was the third Japanese to win, nine years after Tange.
Sejima, who works with Nishizawa, is coveted for her trademark ethereally white designs, often using glass, such as the Musee Louvre-Lens in northern France, the Christian Dior building in Tokyo and the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Germany.
Ban, this year’s Pritzker winner, carved out his career by using recycled paper tubes as construction material, and his housing ideas have been widely praised for their use as temporary housing in the wake of disasters.
When people were crammed into a gym following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, his idea of hanging cloth as partitions on paper-tubing frames delivered privacy and a sense of mental peace.
Takaharu & Yui Tezuka
Fuji Kindergarten in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, by Takaharu and Yui Tezuka, also illustrates the characteristically Japanese idea of fusing the outside with the inside.
The walls of the doughnut-shaped building are glass, and they open as sliding doors into a courtyard. The spherical roof works as a playground, in which the children are free to run around until they are exhausted.
The couple often use the roof as a living space, and they swear that sitting side by side on a sloped surface, like a riverbank, as opposed to facing each other across a table, is good for human relationships.
With Japanese architecture, a slight change of approach transforms a roof into something more than just a roof, in the same way the artistry with which a chef cuts and presents raw fish transforms it into sashimi, Takaharu Tezuka said.
“Some European and American architects say it’s important to have intermediate space, between inside and outside. But our approach is different. Everything is intermediate,” he said.
Further information on the architects featured in this story is available at:
Kengo Kuma: kkaa.co.jp
Sou Fujimoto: www.sou-fujimoto.net
Shigeru Ban: www.shigerubanarchitects.com
Takaharu and Yui Tezuka: www.tezuka-arch.com