Architecture in Japan: A storied history built firmly on wooden foundations

by Sachiko Tamashige

Contributing Writer

As soon as you step through the doors of the Mori Art Museum on your way to see “Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation,” the smell of kishū hinoki (Japanese cypress) — used for the grid frame installation “Kigumi Infinity, Japan Pavilion, Expo Milano 2015” by Atsushi Kitagawara — beckons you to pick up the pace and hurry inside.

Behind this gate-like wooden installation, you’ll find amazing examples of traditional wooden structures, such as scaled-down versions of Todaiji temple’s Nandaimon gate and Toshogu shrine’s Goju no To (five-story pagoda), displayed together with contemporary architecture they inspired, such as Arata Isozaki’s “City in the Air: Shibuya Project”(1962) and the Tokyo Skytree (Nikken Sekkei, 2012).

This first section looks at the lineage of the wooden culture cultivated in Japan, a nation 70 percent covered in forest, where techniques to make the most of timber have been developed and refined since ancient times. The exhibition includes “Secret Books of Carpentry Techniques,” old scrolls that explain the design technique known as kiwari, which sets rules for determining the proportions of timber used in buildings. The technique was a closely kept secret passed down through generations of master carpenters, until it was eventually copied and surreptitiously distributed across Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), considerably boosting the general quality of Japanese carpentry.

Numerous contemporary Japanese architects, from Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando to Kazuyo Sejima and other up-and-coming names, have won wide international acclaim. But what makes Japanese architecture special? Is there any inherent DNA that defines it? What, architecturally, is “Japanese-ness”? This collection might offer some clues.

“The exhibition consists of nine sections based on key concepts for interpreting architecture in Japan today, tracing the lineage of architecture from ancient times until the present,” Naotake Maeda, one of the co-curators of the exhibition, explains. “It also explores the elements of genealogy undermined by modernism and concealed beneath it, yet which are undeniably still vital.”

The exhibition features 100 projects and over 400 items, including archeological artifacts such as “Iegata Haniwa,” ormamental terra cotta clay houses dating back to sometime between the third and seventh centuries, and “Study for Restoring Jomon Dwelling,” as well as important architectural materials, models and interactive installations. The eclectic range of exhibits has been carefully curated, with each section headlined by an attention-grabbing phrase. “The soul that dwells in wood,” for example, covers the spiritual aspects inherent in Japanese architecture.

“We wanted to avoid creating a conventional architectural show based on chronological order or styles,” says Shunsuke Kurakata, an architectural historian and co-curator of the exhibition. “Instead, we tried to maximize the visual effect of the entire exhibition so that the general public, even without special knowledge of architecture, could be instantly and directly engaged in the exhibits. We’d like the nine key concepts, such as ‘Possibilities of Wood,’ to be the trigger for further discussion.”

One remarkable highlight of this exhibition is the full-scale replica of the Tai-an, a teahouse created by the great tea master Sen no Rikyu in the 16th century, relocated to the 53rd floor, looking out on a panoramic view of Tokyo. This minimal tea room of two tatami mats and a low nijiriguchi entrance is the nearest visitors can get to the real thing, as the original Tai-an, a designated National Treasure, can only be admired from the outside.

A large ⅓-scale model of Kenzo Tange’s “A House,” which no longer exists, has also been constructed for the show.

“The arrival on the scene of Kenzo Tange propelled contemporary Japanese architecture to the cutting edge of global architectural practice, where it has remained ever since,” explains Terunobu Fujimori, an architectural historian who supervised the show.

Tange designed several major postwar projects, including Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (1954), Yoyogi National Gymnasium (built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) and Expo ’70 in Osaka. He found inspiration in classical Japanese architecture, and a small model depicting shinden-zukuri, an architectural style established in the Heian Period (794-1185) that was used for aristocrats’ residences, is also exhibited close to Tange’s. The inner-space divisions are fluid and the sizes of rooms can be modified by using various furnishings like drapes, screens or sliding paper walls.

“This fluidity and continuity of the space in shinden-zukuri remains vital, and can be seen in the work of contemporary architects from Kenzo Tange and Kiyoshi Seike to Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima,” Fujimori explains.

By the dawn of the 20th century, as exemplified by the Ho-o-Den, a Japanese pavilion built for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Japanese architecture was showing the world that buildings could be made without using walls to partition interior from exterior; rooms did not have to be fixed in terms of function; elegance could be realized by letting materials express themselves; and that harmony could be achieved through the scaling-up of modular units.

The installation “Power of Scale” (2018) by Seiichi Saito and Rhizomatiks Architecture, which employs the latest laser fiber-optic and video technology to recreate Japanese spatial concepts of various scales in their true dimensions, appears as a stark contrast to Sen no Rikyu’s “Tai-an” and the model of Tange’s “A House,” both painstakingly assembled with true craftsmanship.

“Real pieces of architecture like ‘Tai-an’ can never be matched by what we can create with digital technology, as the resolution of the real architecture is overwhelmingly high,” Seiichi Saito, an executive at Rhizomatiks Architecture, says. “We present this installation to provoke the audience into regaining a sense of scale between the body and space, a room, a house and the city, and to feel the size of a particular space in terms of modular units. People constantly exposed to digital space, such as virtual reality or augmented reality, will lose their physical sense of scale, which I think is the quintessential element of Japanese architecture — as well as the basis for creating anything.”

Kurakata concludes: “In the 150 years since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, architects in Japan have seen immense opportunities for experimentation. The confrontation with Western modernization that characterized the Meiji Era, as well as the Americanization of the postwar period, also pushed Japanese architects to establish their own identities, linking with their roots but in the context of the world map.”

“Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation” at Mori Art Museum runs until Sept. 17; ¥1,800. For more information, visit www.mori.art.museum/en.