Taipei, Taiwan – Buildings can be uncanny things. Though given shape by inert materials — concrete, glass, steel, wood — they are much more than the sum of their parts. They have an identity. They are endowed with a past and a personality. In the best of them, one can sense a pulsing vitality, perhaps even a presence akin to a soul.
But buildings are also products of their times. Take the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, for instance. Conceived by Kenzo Tange, one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated modern architects, the stadium went up in the early 1960s, a time when the country’s economy was booming, its population was still young and the future looked bright. Although Tange’s design was modest by the standards of postwar Japanese architecture, there was no mistaking the vision it aimed to convey: the waves of a low-lying roof gently rising; the spire on top of its nearby annex soaring to greater heights. These were forms that symbolized the discreet pride of a resurgent nation.
By comparison, the National Stadium, where the Tokyo Olympics officially opened on July 23 in front of a minuscule crowd after months of gaffes and controversy, was completed during much more disquieting times. Decades of stagnant economic growth and a series of natural disasters, the most prominent being the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, to say nothing of a crippling pandemic, have taken their toll on the nation’s spirit. Gone is the optimism of the 1960s.
And yet, in the world of architecture, a quiet confidence permeates the profession, unaffected by the ambient malaise. Paradoxically, perhaps, the National Stadium illustrates this perspective well.
Designed by Kengo Kuma, it is as discreet and welcoming as a structure made to host 68,000 spectators can be. It rises only 50 meters above ground, lower than Tokyo Dome and a full 25 meters below the design previously submitted by Zaha Hadid, who had been given the original commission before her controversial proposal was scrapped. Kuma also surrounded his construction with four levels of wooden eaves, under which he placed an abundance of trees and plants. From the surrounding street, the building emanates a warmth that is rare for such structures. It would have been inconceivable for Tange or any of his contemporaries to come up with a design of that sort.
Kuma’s philosophy and subdued approach — he once said that “architects should be very shy, everywhere” — has been influential. Nowadays, many Japanese builders and designers tend to favor projects that are “closer to nature and also to the country’s ancient tradition,” writes Philip Jodidio in “Contemporary Japanese Architecture,” a comprehensive and richly illustrated survey of the field recently released by Taschen. “This does not mean that Japanese architecture has become less inventive,” he adds, “but it is symptomatic of an aging society under constant threat.”
Jodidio is a highly knowledgeable guide: few have written as much about contemporary architecture as he has. For Taschen alone, he has authored more than 70 volumes. Though most explore the work of Western practitioners, from Renzo Piano to Norman Foster, Jodidio has also produced several monographs on their Japanese counterparts, such as Ando Tadao and Shigeru Ban. Another text covering the entire career of Kuma is scheduled to appear this month.
Nostalgia holds little attraction for Jodidio. His interest is very much in the here and now. “I like to go see new buildings,” he explains over email. “I enjoy meeting and discussing with architects who are very much alive. I am less interested in writing historical pieces.” In the book’s introductory essay, Jodidio does take a longer view, going back to the early 1930s, but that is merely to set the stage for a close examination of the 55 buildings, all erected between 2010 and 2020 by more than three dozen Japanese designers and engineers, that form the core of his voluminous tome. The result leaves no doubt as to the creativity of the discipline.
One area in which Japanese architects are showing ingenuity is in their response to climate change. With its long, windy coastline and varied topography, Japan is highly vulnerable to shifts in the environment. The need to parry its impact and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle thus looms large in the minds of many up-and-coming architects.
One of them is Hiroshi Nakamura. In Kamikatsu, a town in Tokushima Prefecture that began pioneering zero-waste public policies about two decades ago, he designed Kamikatz Public House, a microbrewery. Nakamura tried to recycle, reuse and reduce as much as possible: For the main facade, he collected dozens of window frames from abandoned houses, which he assembled into an attractive jumble of squares of various shapes. Likewise for the furniture, which he fabricated from repurposed objects. The result, he told Jodidio, is a space “full of improvisation and discoveries with the creative combination of waste material.”
This approach is still somewhat radical, but over the next decade, Jodidio says that “we are likely to see the development and increased use of techniques allowing architecture to be less polluting.” Whether it is the carbon footprint of a building, the type of material or amount of energy that goes into erecting it, or its ability to withstand floods and other natural disasters, such practical concerns “will become more and more important,” he says.
Hiroshi Sambuichi is likely to play a key role in this movement. A calm and composed man who radiates serenity, he grew up in Hiroshima, but spent a lot of time in the greenscapes along the shores of the Seto Inland Sea. He later credited this environment for sharpening his awareness of the connection between a building and its immediate surroundings. “The terrain is also a part of my architecture, and my architecture is a part of the earth,” he explained to Jodidio.
Atop Mount Misen, 535 meters above the shrine of Miyajima, in Hiroshima Prefecture, Sambuichi designed a lookout that embodies this precept. Its raised platform appears to float in space. Its straight lines and flat surfaces contrast, but do not jar, with the grey boulders that surround the observatory. The outcrop on which it sits is unmovable, timeless even, but Sambuichi did not attempt to build a structure that would rival it in longevity. Exposed to the elements, the untreated cypress and cedar wood that covers its roof and walls lost its golden shine long ago. But the site still radiates, as the best architecture always does, its spirit unbowed, its glory undimmed.
Martin Laflamme is a Canadian foreign service officer. The views expressed in this article are his own. Click here for a Q&A with “Contemporary Japanese Architecture” author Philip Jodidio.
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