An exhibition’s critical charge

Work from Swiss firm Diener & Diener shows how to craft shared environments


“In Japan, the city consists of parts perfect in themselves, but lacking a sense of or connection to the whole,” observes curator Shino Nomura while discussing the work of Swiss architectural firm Diener & Diener.

Nomura sees the larger goal of the exhibition he’s curated at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, “The House and the City: Architecture by Diener & Diener,” in terms of an idea of the responsibility of citizens to their broader environment. “I would like this exhibition to invite us to begin a conversation with our neighbors about the city; to show that as citizens, through our attentiveness and care, we make our shared environment.”

Founded by Marcus Diener in Basel in 1942, Diener & Diener is a respected name in Europe but largely unknown in Japan. The practice has been continued by the founder’s son, Roger Diener, recalling traditions of father-to-son artisanal lineage that are more associated with the old Swiss standbys of watches and chocolates than with architecture.

This propensity for the long view is manifested in its work. D&D is an architectural firm of sobriety and restraint, whose buildings are often difficult to distinguish from their surroundings. For D&D, any building is an enduring element of a larger entity that exceeds it in space and time, and the company’s architects adopt a rigorous analysis of the existing context to guide the design of new work.

The theme of the relation between buildings and the city is at the heart of the exhibition, which shows till March 22. This theme is distilled into two penetrating questions posed at the entrance to the show: “Will our memories be part of our city?” and “Is the view from my window part of my room?”

While contemplating these questions, the visitor is gently drawn into contemplation of the architects’ work. Models, photographs, competition entries, video, construction documents and actual building materials from 33 projects spanning over two decades are gathered into a sequence of four sections, which visitors navigate with the aid of detailed exhibition notes.

The first section is a hall of wooden models and large photographs of buildings. There is nothing immediately remarkable to be seen, but a certain aura emanates from these objects and images that envelops the observer and stills voices.

It is the aura of carefulness, of attentiveness, of modesty. The models, exquisitely crafted creations in fine wood, are not of buildings but of the urban context of each project. Nothing distinguishes the architects’ interventions. They take their place within the built fabric of the city, elements organically connected to a larger whole.

The large photographs, of identical size, are rigorous compositions that show the architectural grid and executed with the same fastidiousness as the models. They are arranged in two rows: The top shows a portion of an exterior facade; the bottom shows an interior view looking toward a window.

The dialogue between the rows of images and within the urban models engages both of the architects’ concerns: the private realm of the house and the public realm of the city. The way that these concerns find elaboration in particular architectural responses is revealed in subsequent sections.

Section two presents 26 competition submissions, a display of condensed architectural thought presented in its most direct and unmediated form. Public competition is the standard means by which architectural projects of any significance are awarded in Switzerland and many other European countries; the competition document is at once analysis, creation and entreaty, a demonstration of the architect’s attention and response to the needs of any given site. As a process, it privileges neither property owners nor architects, but the enduring qualities that manifest and sustain a community over time through its built environment.

Such a process is, however, the exception rather than the rule in Japan, and, by concentrating on D&D’s competition projects, the exhibition implicitly criticizes this situation.

The final section, in which five projects are singled out for detailed presentation, presents tangible fragments of material reality: bricks, glass, timber — the closest one can get to the built work in the confines of a gallery. In examining the fine stitching of the leather grip on a piece of steel handrail, one feels directly the care with which these architects seek to craft their buildings.

The subtlety of D&D’s work makes for a different kind of architecture exhibition than seen in recent years at this gallery. The exhibition has something of the atmosphere of a library, or even a monastery, a space of study and contemplation. But this tranquillity should not be mistaken for passivity. A critical charge lies embedded throughout the show. The invitation to thoughtfulness is a calculated response to the culture of novelty and sensation fostered by commercialism in Japan.

Furthermore, the choice of architects and theme is motivated by the curators’ sense that there are shared cultural predispositions linking the Swiss and the Japanese that could make the ideas about cities on display at the gallery acquire critical force.

Minimalism, capturing the idea that “less is more,” is a label that is frequently applied to the work of both contemporary Japanese and Swiss architects. The work of D&D certainly is characterized by the elimination of the inessential. But, as Nomura explains, it is rather a sense of the importance of exactitude and perfection that is shared between the two cultures.

Such attitudes are a manifestation of a special care taken toward material things. What distinguishes the two cultures is that the Swiss extend that care in breadth, outward across an environment and a community, whereas in Japan, such care is focused on depth.

“The House and the City: Architecture by Diener & Diener” is at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery till March 22; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (8 p.m. on Fri.; closed Mon.). For more information, call (03) 5353-0756 or visit Julian Worrall is assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University.