Today, Japanese contemporary architecture enjoys an outstanding international reputation, but the story of its emergence to a position of such accomplishment and acclaim has not yet been told comprehensively. A pair of exhibitions at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa presents a postwar history of Japanese architecture — “Japan Architects 1945-2010” — and the tendencies that are gathering momentum now and will shape the future — “Architecture since 3.11.”

The history show is told as a progression from darkness into light; while the contemporary one is presented as a proliferation of, questioning of, and exploration of new definitions and approaches to the tasks of architects, which is brought to urgent focus by the disasters of March 2011. Together, the two exhibitions constitute a significant moment of retrospect and prospect, inviting reflection on the state and direction of the discipline in Japan today.

“Japan Architects 1945-2010,” the first exhibition of Japanese architecture with such historical sweep, was initiated by Frederic Migayrou, deputy director of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and implemented in collaboration with curators from the 21st Century Museum. Over 240 drawings, models and artefacts have been exhumed from the collective archive of the profession and organized into six partly overlapping periods in chronological order. Each period is conceptually designated a color, spanning from black for the immediate postwar moment, to white for the most recent period (immediately preceding 3/11), and ranging through dark and light gray (the 1950s), color (roughly the 1960s) and “non-color” (roughly the 1970s-’80s).

This arrangement, with its curious chromaticism, at first seems rather arbitrary and reductive, but there is an appealing logic to the schema, both symbolically (the ascent from darkness to light), and in terms of the formal qualities of the architecture chosen to represent the periods, with the exuberant work of the youthful metabolists being vibrantly colorful, while the weightless abstraction of recent years is coded as white.

The narrative and the selection of architects would be largely familiar to the local professional and interested outsider, but there are some refreshing French inflections. For example, Le Corbusier’s influence over mid-century Japanese architecture is generally understood to have been propagated via his protege Kunio Mayekawa, and thence via Mayekawa’s brilliant apprentice Kenzo Tange. In this show the work of Le Corbusier’s other Japanese proteges, Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka, are also included.

Architects sometimes dismissed as errant idiolects in mainstream accounts are also brought into the story. The brooding mysticism of Seiichi Shirai’s “Temple Atomic Catastrophes” is a powerful presence in the dark-gray section, while it was exhilarating to witness the emotional force of the drawings of cult figure Yoji Watanabe, whose reclusive proto-cyberpunk New Sky Building in Shinjuku’s Okubo district has a global, if rather occult following.

The show’s presentation, however, is dry and mostly bloodless — the archive as a neat chronological line. The possibility of alternative routes through this archive lies latent but unactivated within the limpid, non-hierarchical architecture of SANAA’s Kanazawa museum building itself — whose presence is reduced to a mute model of itself on display.

Underlying this show is the question: What constitutes the identity of Japanese modern architecture? The question itself is a modern one, and it may not carry as much significance for a younger generation of architects as for their forebears. While the show doesn’t cohere to a clear answer, it does present an accumulation of evidence that the Japanese conversation about the disciplinary core of architecture — space, mass, structure, tectonics, program, symbol, meaning — has been one of the most vigorous, insightful, accomplished and distinctive.

Rather than a tale of cumulative progress (or gradual decline), an alternative approach to telling history is as a story of punctuated equilibrium — periods of relative stability broken by irregular shocks that induce rapid change. For Japanese architecture, the most reliable source of shocks are foreign intrusions and disasters — both natural and man-made.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 spurred the development of reinforced concrete construction and led to the introduction of new building codes. Since the most recent disaster, the role and techniques of architects have been undergoing another cycle of profound questioning. To the focus on technological refinement and formal experimentation traced in the postwar show, there is today increasing attention being given to the social and communicative dimensions, the “software,” underlying the physical structures, the “hardware,” as well as a suspicion of technical “solutions” to the risks and challenges of nature. This relational turn is documented in the companion show “Architecture since 3.11.”

Curated by guest curators Igarashi Taro and Ryo Yamazaki, only a portion of the show focuses on the efforts of architects to guide reconstruction activities in the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Well-known exemplars of this are detailed, including the Home-for-All project to create small common spaces as seeds for rebuilding local community initiated by Toyo Ito, and the ArchiAid network linking independent architects with affected communities and government agencies.

But the emphasis on participatory processes, local resources, and the idea of the architect as an agent of social regeneration evident in these responses to the disaster is visible in numerous other practices and setups around Japan, particularly by the youngest generation. Exhibited examples, from a rich field, include the firm Naruse Inokuma, which focuses on designing the concept of “sharing” into houses and offices; Hiroshi Nishimura’s Workvisions, which emphasizes events and reprogramming provisional urban spaces such as parking spaces; and the young trio Bus, which — true to their name — travel to declining rural communities by night bus to develop creative responses to depopulation. Rather than matter or forms, it is relationships that are being designed in these projects.

The overwhelming impression left by this pair of shows is of the irrepressible optimism and vitality of Japan’s architectural spirit, something that endures through all seasons, generates immense variety and continually proliferates into fascinating new formations. Its capacity for change is the source of its resilience — like life itself.

“Japan Architects 1945-2010” runs till March 15 and “Architecture since 3.11” till May 10 at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.) Closed Mon. Tickets are ¥1,000, a combination ticket to both shows is ¥1,700. For more information, visit www.kanazawa21.jp

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