If you’ve ever had the opportunity to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel in the Shinjuku Park Tower — I haven’t, but I know someone who has — you’ll know how looking down from the 52nd floor on the silent city from the hermetic calm of a guest room is mesmerizing. Sofia Coppola used this to good effect in the film “Lost in Translation,” in which her character Charlotte has trouble giving up the safe and culturally neutral environment of the hotel for the confusion and unpredictability of the streets of Tokyo.
The conjoined triple towers of Shinjuku Park Tower, like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building — the only nearby structure that can overlook it — was designed by Kenzo Tange, an architect celebrated for his key role in the postwar reconstruction of Japan, and for his influence on modernist architecture generally. Currently on show at Toto Gallery Ma is a novel exhibition that focuses on contact sheets of Tange’s photographs.
These black-and-white rectangles, each showing a grid of 36 images from one roll of 35 mm film, were a personal record of the architect’s research on traditional Japanese buildings, the construction of his own projects and the occasional official event, such as the 1957 Sao Paulo Biennale, for which Tange was a juror. They are not finished photographic works. Occasionally a particular frame is marked out for enlargement and may appear in the exhibition catalog. When this happens, if nothing else, it shows how much editing and printing make a carefully produced photograph a radically different thing from the photographic recording of data.
The numerous contact sheets are tightly lit by narrow spotlights in an otherwise dark, solemnly designed exhibition. As a venue that specializes in architecture the Ma gallery is not a straightforward white cube, and the show is split over two levels with the visitor having to pass briefly though an open-air space between floors. Here, a large image of one of Tange’s core inspirations, the 17th-century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, is juxtaposed with several of Tange’s projects from the 1950s.
The monochrome strips of images that make up the contact prints, also arranged in rows, are a formalistic echo of Tange’s rigorous modernism. However, as each image is only 36 mm by 24 mm, the content is frustratingly elusive, a problem exacerbated by the low light. One thing is obvious despite this — geometric order is paramount for Tange.
Working with a 35-mm rangefinder camera it was not possible for him to photograph an entire building without a receding perspective, unless he included a large amount of foreground. In many images the buildings are shown beautifully straight, but the lower-half of the photograph is left empty. It’s a technicality, but a revealing one nonetheless.
“Tange By Tange 1949-1959: Kenzo Tange as Seen Through the Eyes of Kenzo Tange” at Toto Gallery Ma runs till March 28; open 11 am.-6 p.m. Free entry. Closed Sun., Mon. www.toto.co.jp/gallerma
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