Over a career that spans five decades, Philip Jodidio has written extensively about architecture and the arts. Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1954, he attended Harvard University where he graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and art history. He moved to Europe in the late 1970s, where he began working at Connaissance des Arts, a Paris-based art magazine, and over the years, he devoted a growing amount of his time to exploring and explaining the world of architecture. He has published dozens of books on the topic, including numerous monographs on contemporary masters. In the summer of 2021 alone, he published two volumes with Taschen, “Contemporary Japanese Architecture” and “Kuma: Complete Works 1988-Today.” Jodidio recently spoke with The Japan Times prior to the release of his two books.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize is often described as the Nobel for architecture. Seven Japanese are among its 44 laureates, Kenzo Tange being the first in 1987. Why have Japanese architects been so successful and widely recognized abroad?

This has to do with the personality of the architects themselves as well as with international trends. Interest in Japanese architecture goes back at least to Kenzo Tange and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which he built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His influence then continued through younger architects who worked in his office, people such as Arata Isozaki. Another important reason is related to a very interesting combination in Japanese architecture, one that in many ways is unique to Japan, which blends respect for tradition with a sense of humor, a willingness to transgress and a desire to be extremely innovative.

Also key are Japanese clients, many of whom have been willing to accept the combination just described, especially at a smaller scale such as with private houses. All these things have contributed to the success of Japanese architecture.

You point out in your book that many Japanese offices have been effective at developing talent. Indeed, working in the studio of a well-known architect appears to be an important path to success: Norihiko Dan worked with Fumihiko Maki; Hiroshi Nakamura and Masahiro Harada with Kengo Kuma; Kazuyo Sejima with Toyo Ito; Jun Aoki and Shigeru Ban with Isozaki.

Is such a path typical in Japan? In other words, how important is it for young Japanese architects to spend their first few professional years in the office of a well-established master?

One thing in Japan that does not seem to exist elsewhere to the same extent is that the offices of even famous architects are quite small, in part because the construction contracting process in Japan is different. In other countries, well-known architects — such as Norman Foster in London — run much larger practices. A young architect working in the office of an established one in Japan can develop a much closer relationship with the principal architect. This creates a work dynamic that may be more enriching than in other countries. Also, there is a stronger sense in Japan that in any given studio, one is part of a longer tradition, which must be perpetuated. Some might find this limiting, but it also offers a base to build on.

Shigeru Ban's Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, in collaboration with Studio on Site and ARUP | © HIROYUKI HIRAI. COURTESY OF TASCHEN.
Shigeru Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, in collaboration with Studio on Site and ARUP | © HIROYUKI HIRAI. COURTESY OF TASCHEN.

Your book focuses on works erected in the 2010s, but the architects behind them span different generations. Looking at the youngest of them, can we identify particular concerns or sensibilities that differentiate them from their forebears? If so, what are these?

After the economic bubble burst in the 1980s, Japan went through three decades of low economic growth. As a result, many young architects were unable to work on substantial projects early in their careers. They did not have the opportunities of their elders, architects such as Maki for instance, who were able to set up their practice during good economic times and, building on their success at home, were then in a position to secure commissions abroad. The reality was much different for younger architects who faced a difficult economic reality. This means they were forced to adopt more economical building techniques and be more innovative.

S-House by Yuusuke Karasawa is an intriguing space — it is simultaneously appealing and perplexing. However, it is difficult to see such “new architectural form,” as Karasawa describes it, catching on, except with those of an eccentric bent. It feels more like an installation, a place you visit briefly, but not a place where you live.

Over the years, architecture has produced many such constructions, buildings that seem to function best as a thought experiment rather than places to live or work. What do these kinds of buildings contribute to architecture as a discipline?

An experimental house, even one that has been designed merely for exhibition and not for being lived in, stretches the possibilities of architecture and opens up new vistas. It allows architects and designers to look at buildings in a different way and this may give them new ideas. There are many examples in the history of architecture of experimental houses helping to redefine the parameters of the profession, such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which was built in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1948-49.

In your view, which Japanese architects in your book will most likely be studied and admired in 100 years?

This is a hard question and I am not sure it can be answered. Several factors must be considered. One is which buildings will still be standing 100 years from now. By then, smaller or experimental constructions might be gone. Another is what will be considered innovative in the future and how will this affect the way in which people judge the works of architects of the past, including those active today. Architects active today have no control over any of these factors.

At the same time, there is no doubt that some architects are prescient or have a good intuitive sense of what will come. One person who I think will continue to be admired for a very long time is Tadao Ando. His buildings are made of concrete, so many will remain. Besides, with a limited geometric vocabulary and a strict range of materials — principally concrete but also wood — Ando has been able to express ideas and emotions that will last. I believe his work will still be admired in 100 years.

Tadao Ando's Shanghai Poly Theater in Jiading, Shanghai | © SHIGEO OGAWA. COURTESY OF TASCHEN.
Tadao Ando’s Shanghai Poly Theater in Jiading, Shanghai | © SHIGEO OGAWA. COURTESY OF TASCHEN.

In another one of your books, “Shigeru Ban: Complete Works 1985-2015,” you quote Ban as saying that when he returned home after his studies in the United States in the mid-1980s, he was surprised to find that architects did not appear to have a lot of respect in Japan. He believed this was because, in the past, Japan had craftsmen and not architects. Is that a statement that holds up today?

Japanese architects today are definitely not considered mere craftsmen. At the same time, it is not insulting to say that either. If you can craft something, if you can understand material, or call upon people who understand them to create your architecture, I think you are adding something important.

Ban spent a lot of time working with various humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations, to help design affordable shelter for refugees or survivors of natural disasters. How unique is this in the profession?

The extent to which Ban has engaged in disaster relief work is exceptional. I don’t know of any other cases in which a well-known architect has done quite so much, in Japan or elsewhere.

Even today, architecture in Japan is a profession that appears dominated by men. Kazuyo Sejima, Naoko Horibe and Chie Nabeshima, whose works are presented in the book, are three notable exceptions. Why are there still so few Japanese female architects?

The number of women in architecture schools, in Japan and elsewhere, has been going up consistently. It takes time, but women are slowly and successfully earning their place in the profession. I think we will see more and more female Japanese architects in the future.

Few people have written as extensively about architecture and for as long a period of time as you have. Where does your passion for the field come from?

In the late 1970s, I began working for Connaissance des Arts, a monthly art magazine based in Paris, and I proposed that they publish articles about contemporary architecture, something they had not done before. I did that by interviewing architects, people like Robert Venturi and Philip Johnson. I enjoyed meeting and speaking with architects, and I appreciated the fact that architecture remains longer than art. It’s not eternal, but it leaves a more substantial mark in time than most art.

Author Philip Jodidio
Author Philip Jodidio

In what context did you discover Japanese architecture? What initially attracted you to it?

During the 1980s, I published extensively in Connaissance des Arts about the process of constructing the Louvre pyramid, which architect I.M. Pei completed in the courtyard of the museum in 1989. This led to an encounter with a member of his team, a Japanese architect named Masa Bokura. We became good friends and, starting in 1990, we traveled in Japan together on a few occasions. During my first trip, Masa introduced me to Maki, Isozaki, Ando, Sejima and many other Japanese architects. Since then, I have been to Japan 25 times and visited all parts of the country.

Are you as passionate about other fields of Japanese arts and culture?

I have great respect for Japanese craftsmanship. It is unique in many ways, including its capacity to bridge the gap between the past and present, something we do not find in other cultures, at least not to the same extent.

This is particularly evident in ceramics. I wrote a book on Japanese potter Taizo Kuroda in 2009 [“Taizo Kuroda,” Prestel Publishing]. He was a remarkable artist who worked only in white porcelain. I write mostly about architecture, but as this example shows, I have also written about other artistic disciplines as well.

Did you have a mentor when you started out as an art/architecture critic and editor?

I did have a mentor, a very kind and generous man, and that was Pei. I met him when he was working on the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the 1970s. After that, I followed his career closely and traveled all over the world to see his work. Incidentally, it was Pei who designed the Miho Museum, in Shiga Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.

What was the best advice Pei gave you?

He did not give me advice as such, but he opened doors for me and introduced me to people. Equally important, he made me see how interesting architecture could be.

Given the state of the field (writing about art and architecture) today, what advice would you give to someone hoping to have a career similar to yours?

I tell my children sometimes that even if they wanted to do what I do, I would not be able to tell them how I did it. I got where I am through circumstances, a series of chance meetings with people — Pei, of course, but many others as well, such as Ando. The best advice I can provide is to always keep an open spirit, meet and talk to as many people as you can.

Remember, however, that writing about architecture is not just about the buildings, it is also about the people who make them. For me, that has always been my main interest — how do architects think about their work and bring them into being.

You have written extensively about architecture from all over the world through the years. How do you keep up with developments in such a broad and dynamic field?

To give you a concrete example, before deciding what I would cover in “Contemporary Japanese Architecture,” I traveled to Japan and visited as many buildings as I could. I asked architects for their advice and opinions, such as “What has been done recently that you find interesting?” or “What is the most arresting building in Japan today?” When I posed that question to Maki in 2011, he answered the Teshima Art Museum (on the island of Teshima in Kagawa Prefecture) by Ryue Nishizawa, so I went to see it. I did not regret following his advice and the museum is now of course in the book. I also rely on the internet to keep abreast of new constructions, for instance by following various pages on Instagram involved in contemporary architecture. I find a lot of ideas there, but the main source of information remains architects themselves, sometimes concerning their own very recent work that has not yet been published.

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian foreign service officer. The views expressed in this article are his own. To learn more about Philip Jodidio’s book “Contemporary Japanese Architecture,” visit taschen.com.

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