The Swiss-French architect and artist Charles Eduoard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, was by any measure one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century.
A torchbearer of architectural modernism in Paris in the 1920s, growing to become a figure of global stature by the 1950s, Le Corbusier designed major buildings and parts of cities across Europe, the Americas and India, and exerted enormous influence over world architectural culture in the middle years of the last century. However, despite his world-spanning reach, Le Corbusier only executed one building in the East Asian hemisphere — The National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo.
This building was commissioned to house a significant collection of modern European art accumulated in Paris during the 1910s and ’20s by a wealthy Japanese shipping magnate, Kojiro Matsukata. Briefly confiscated by the French after the World War II, the collection was returned to Japan in 1953 to form the core of a new museum of Western art, a magnanimous but also culturally shrewd gesture by France. While the building was built and paid for by Japan, the design was to be kept in Parisian hands — those of Le Corbusier. Significantly however, the detailed execution of the construction was undertaken by three younger Japanese architects, Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka, all of whom had apprenticed in Le Corbusier’s office in Paris and went on to become major architects and bearers of his influence in Japan.
The design develops an idea that Le Corbusier had sketched over two decades earlier as an unrealized concept for a “Museum of Unlimited Growth.” This imagined a flat spiral bound by a square propped above the ground plane on thin columns and wrapping a central inner court, from which the museum is entered from beneath. The spiral could potentially be extended indefinitely as the collection expands. As realized in reinforced concrete in Ueno in 1959, the design retains the elevated centripetal organization around a light-filled inner court, with ramps providing a dynamic promenade. Major extensions were made in 1979 and 1998, however, site constraints meant that these have not followed a spiraling pattern, but a more conventional system of linear wings ranged around a garden court.
Alongside its primary nomination of the historical Christian sites in Nagasaki, Japan has also put forward this building for World Heritage listing in 2016. The inclusion is part of a multinational, multisite selection of works by Le Corbusier as part of the national submission by France, coordinated by Fondation Le Corbusier, a Paris-based organization whose mission is to preserve the architect’s archive and legacy. The effort to achieve the World Heritage listing of Le Corbusier’s oeuvre is remarkable in that it is a project of international cultural diplomacy dedicated to the recognition and protection of a far-flung collection of modern architecture. It is also an effort that so far has not been successful, despite multiple attempts.
When the World Heritage Committee convenes in Istanbul in July this year to determine which nominations have the “outstanding universal value” needed to be designated World Heritage sites, it will be the third time the Le Corbusier file will be examined. The first nomination was made in 2008, with 22 properties included, a submission that was referred back to its proponents to strengthen its conceptual foundation and improve its management plans. A revised nomination in 2011 reduced the selection to 19 properties and adjusted its arguments; but a decision was once again deferred. The current revision to the nomination has now cut the selection to 16 properties from six countries: Argentina, Belgium, France, India, Switzerland and Japan.
The effort to bestow World Heritage status upon a modern architect’s oeuvre reflects a strengthening view in conservation circles that the built legacy of twentieth century architectural modernism is underrepresented in heritage listings and particularly vulnerable to damage or loss, due to a lack of public appreciation of its artistic qualities or cultural significance. In Japan, the conservation challenges that this category of buildings face is compounded by a societal attachment to a utilitarian “scrap-and-build” mentality that rarely values modern buildings beyond an artificially shortened economic life of around 30 years. The recognition of a postwar modernist building as a World Heritage site would constitute a powerful endorsement of the notion that such buildings can bear cultural value at the highest levels of human achievement, comparable to any other period in history.
But while the arguments for listing the museum are focused on the building — its authenticity, integrity and its position in its architect’s oeuvre — there is an aspect that is rather overlooked in the official documents: its context. Le Corbusier’s building directly faces another modernist building of similar size and vintage: Kunio Maekawa’s Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, completed in 1961. With its sculptural upturned roof, sturdy concrete columns, scintillating polychrome-tiled interior and subtle referencing of Edo Period castle moats, this muscular building stages an exhilarating dialogue with the more restrained, introspective work of Maekawa’s former master — a conversation in concrete that casts light on the sources and aspirations of a resurgent modern Japan.
Like families, societies need mantelpieces on which their collective heirlooms and talismans are displayed. Ueno Park is the mantelpiece of modern Japan. The symbols and ornaments of 150 years of Japan’s absorption of modernity have accumulated here, forming an eclectic assortment of artifacts, monuments, buildings and spaces. The park is an oneiric landscape formed of the fragmented residues of successive dreams of bright modern futures.
The dream made visible on this site at Ueno Park, in the pregnant space between Le Corbusier and Kunio Maekawa’s historic modern architecture, is the vision of a Japan reborn from war as a confident, vigorous democracy, striving for a cultural identity at once both modern and Japanese. The recognition of this is the true meaning of this World Heritage nomination for Japan, and the world.
Julian Worrall is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Adelaide. His research focuses on the architecture and urbanism of modern Japan.