I once almost got to interview the architect Arata Isozaki, but it was canceled due to his ill health at the time. No doubt a consideration in the cancelation was the fact that interviews with him can go to extreme lengths, as Isozaki has much to tell, having collaborated with almost every big name in postwar Japan — and not just architects, but also artists, musicians and other creative types.
He has also recently been in the news due to the continuing controversy over Zaha Hadid’s much-maligned design for the 2020 Olympic stadium in Tokyo, which — in an open letter to the Japan Sports Council — Isozaki hilariously described as a “dull, slow form, like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away.”
With all his various interests and opinions, Isozaki sees himself not just as an architect, but as a cross-disciplinary artist, a so-called Renaissance Man.
This is also the approach taken by “Arata Isozaki 12×5=60,” an exhibition at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um), which tries to shed light on his collaborations and creative processes, and especially his concept of “Thoughts Beyond Architecture,” a phrase that describes the way he seeks to think outside the box and find new inspirations.
The exhibition title — once deciphered — is a good example of this, showing how he seeks interesting analogies and cross-disciplinary stimulation. The “5” of the title refers to the five senses of the human body, while the “12” refers to 12 people whom Isozaki has been inspired by, including such diverse spirits as Marcel Duchamp, Kenzo Tange and Marilyn Monroe.
In formal terms, the centerpiece of the exhibition is a full-scale model of the treehouse that Isozaki built as a study retreat next to his summer home in Karuizawa. This is called, simply enough, “Tree-House,” but this name also works as a rather clunky Japanese pun. Pronouncing “tree” as “tori” (bird) changes the name to “bird house,” a place from which thoughts might take flight.
Each day from 4-6 p.m. visitors are allowed to climb up a notched log ladder and enter the treehouse, which fills the museum’s central atrium. The interior is rather like a traditional Japanese teahouse, but with a desk and a well-stocked bookcase. From this we get a strong impression of Isozaki as a “man at work,” meditating while the cicadas buzz outside, before he comes up with yet another architectural vision or inspired insight, such as his comments on Hadid’s Olympic stadium.
The idea of the “bird house” is also a reference to his view of city dwellers as creatures in a three-dimensional lattice birdcage, one which he believes true architectural avant-gardism can breach.
Next to the treehouse there is a display showing “Marilyn on the Line” (1965), an early work that abstracted some of the curves of the legendary Hollywood sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe, in order to create a ruler that was then used to create items like the “Monroe Chair,” where her curves are replicated in the back of a birch chair.
There is something of the magpie about the way Isozaki works This bird is proverbial for its attraction to shiny, eye-catching items on which it swoops and snatches in its beak, taking them back to decorate its nest. At this exhibition we get a sense of Isozaki as such a creature, swooping down from his Karuizawa treehouse lair to seize on striking inspirations, like Monroe’s curves, or Piet Mondrian’s buoyantly rigid and bright blocks of color, which were seamlessly incorporated into “MA: Space-Time in Japan” (1978). This work, also known as the “Mondrian Teahouse,” is both an exploration of the Japanese spatial concept of ma (negative space) and a tea-house design, created with the help of Sotoji Nakamura, a leading builder of sukiya-zukuri (buildings in the style of tea-ceremony pavilions). A part of the Mondrian Teahouse is replicated in this exhibition.
The exhibition also includes several installations testifying to the wide range of collaborations Isozaki has been involved in over the years, including works with Taro Okamoto, Tadanori Yokoo and others. In accord with the number “12” in the exhibition’s title, 12 of these collaborations are presented through a range of media, from sketches and models to photographs and video.
They include the “Space of Akari and Stone” (1985), a collaboration with the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and “Ark Nova” (2013), an inflatable mobile concert hall that Isozaki designed with the world-renowned Indian-born artist, Anish Kapoor.
At times in this exhibition you get a feeling that Isozaki is a bit of a name dropper, keen to let everyone know just how connected he is, but the animus behind “Ark Nova” — a desire to bring concerts to areas struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 — suggests that Isozaki’s wide-ranging and star-spangled career has been driven mainly by the wings of inspiration.
“Arata Isozaki 12×5=60” at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um) runs till Jan. 12; 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. except Dec.1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and Jan. 12. www.watarium.co.jp
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