‘Impossible Architecture: The Architects’ Dreams” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, eulogizes aborted artistic conceptions. The models, drawings, photographs, CG animations and reading-intensive wall charts, representing more than 40 international architects and artists, are proposed as the frontiers of a century of architectural imagination. For the most part technically possible, these building plans were scuttled, usually because of social or political factors. This is an exhibition with a few bones to pick and a future point to make.
Opening the early chronological bracket is Vladimir Tatlin’s symbol of modernity, the “Monument to the Third International” (1920). Tatlin proposed a 396-meter-tall spiral structure of steel and glass. Within it would have been four suspended geometric forms, one above the other, rotating in differing durations — a year, a month, a day, an hour. These spaces were to serve the Communist International, responsible for spreading the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-23) abroad. Tatlin’s fanciful project, however, was critically dismissed for representing romantic bourgeois individualism.
The enclosing parameter of the exhibition is Zaha Hadid Architects + Architects JV’s 2015 design for the Tokyo Summer Olympics’ New National Stadium of Japan. Hadid tendered a futuristic keel-arch construction that won the official international design competition, bringing prestige to Tokyo’s Olympic bid. Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unilaterally scrapped her plan in July 2015. A succeeding competition stipulated the use of wood and the architectural expression of “Japanese-ness.”
In 2016, architect Arata Isozaki weighed in, saying, “the government of this country, as if preparing for a new war, used the imagery of Zaha Hadid as a trump card to attract people to the Olympic Games.” He decried his government’s “skillful manipulation of the xenophobia of public opinion” and the “all-Japanese” rallying cry. For the Japanese architectural community, the canning of Hadid’s design signaled Japan’s increasing conservatism and nationalism.
In between these two projects lies a long list of other unmade buildings — several intentionally so. Daniel Libeskind’s series of prints, “Micromegas: The Architecture of End Space” (1979), violated laws of time and physics. Isozaki’s “New Tokyo City Hall Project” (1986) was rejected because he submitted a 23-story low-rise design when the competition criterion called for an ultra-high rise. The Archigram project (1961-74) pursued architecture as information through print media, eliminating the costs, construction times, and site and environmental considerations. Yakov Chernikhov’s graphic illustrations are presented as art works. Artist Akira Yamaguchi created “Original Plan of Tokyo Metropolitan Government” (2018) as a vertically elongated, fortified medieval castle at the proposal of another artist Makoto Aida.
Celebrating and exhibiting the unbuilt can be about extolling creative freedoms. It is also the comparatively cheaper option to showcase.
Taro Igarashi of Tohoku University notes in his exhibition catalog essay that China and the Middle East are the present-day architectural promised lands, and that the most outstanding works by major Japanese architects are done overseas. He states that at home, “architectural imaginations are being suppressed,” for which the forthcoming Olympics is symbolic of an increasingly uncool architectural Japan.
It remains to be seen, then, whether the 2018 selection of Osaka as host for the Expo 2025 will offer a potential turnaround, or provide further material for future “impossible architecture” exhibitions.
“Impossible Architecture: The Architects’ Dreams” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs through March 15; ¥900. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp/en.