Tokyo, A Guide to Recent Architecture

by Noriyuki Tajima

Ellipsis London Limited, 1995, pp. 320, $14.95

By Carter B. Horsley

This very small, but excellent pocket guide presents about 100 of the most interesting projects in Tokyo built since 1983, when Arata Isozaki built his great Tsukuba Center Building that tossed classical elements into a very modern mixer, all with very good black-and-white photographs and crisp commentaries. At a time when most lovers of architecture are inured to paying several times the cost of this book for a larger book with color photos of just a couple projects, this is a wonderful, lucid tome.

The author is an architect and a partner in YEP, a multi-disciplinary design practice in Japan, which has been the world's awesome design leader for two decades.

Noting that the Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the bombing of World War II devastated much of the city, Tajima observes that "the post-war period saw the adoption of radical modernisation without reference to past customs and aesthetics, a situation that produced the phenomenon of the 'salary man' - the workaholic who wishes for nothing more than an economically stable life without the weight of a social and cultural heritage." "If Tokyo had ever contained the common concept of a city as a kind of moral order, this no longer existed. Instead, it was a developing marketplace whose success depended on the enthusiasm of its participants, willing to embrace new ideas and technology and unfettered by doubts about the evils of progress, looking to the future instead of relying on tradition and the past," Tajima continued.

The titans of modern Japanese architecture - Kenzo Tange, Isozaki, Shin Takematsu, Hiroshi Hara, Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa, Atsushi Kitagawara, Toyo Ito, TAO Architects and Tadao Ando - are, of course, well represented, but so too are foreigners such as Peter Eisenman, Sir Richard Rogers, Coop Himmelblau, Mario Botta, Sir Norman Foster, Nigel Coates and Rafael Vinõly.

"Whatever the intelligence of the design, architecture in Japan is renowned for the consistent high quality of its detailing and precision finishing, a phenomenon that owes much to the position and organisation of contractors….The fabric of the cityscape and investigations into its meanings provide fertile ground for future directions. At street level, multi-layered compositions of vast signs and flashing neon mask facades and submerge buildings in sensory displays. Vending machines every 30 metres proffer everything from drinks and meals to disposable cameras and sex aids in a relentless consumer barrage that indicates a city constantly on the move and on the spend," Tajima notes.

While not all the new masterpieces of Japanese architecture are included, those represented here more than adequately convey the awesome range of the great imagination and design sensitivity that has led the world for two decades.

Tokyo Budo-kanAmong the truly sensational works included are Kijo Rokkaku's 1989 Tokyo Budo-kan, a martial arts center, shown at the left, that is thematically based on Unkai-sanjin, the Japanese word for "sea of clouds, a man in mountains," and which utilizes diamond shapes: "This is represented by Rokkaku's 'vertically condensed square,' its lowest corner the point of autonomous balance, the moment of readiness for movement. And it is a gesture that is repeated again and again, creating the diamond pattern that dominates the building's vast spaces."



Eisenman Project

Also noteworthy is Peter Eisenman's 1992 NC Building, a six-story structure, shown above, in which "everything (except the lifts and toilets) is distorted and displaced," Tajima writes, adding that "each of the 493 windows is of a different size" and "the result is a structure that appears to be on the point of collapse, frozen at a moment of transition, shifting and sliding as if during an earthquake….It is visually striking and direct, a childlike metaphor."

And Makoto Sei Watanabe's 1990 Aoyama Technical College is an organic explosion that leads Tajima to ask, "Is Tokyo as monstrous as Watanabe's vision would have us believe?"

Of course not, as only a few pages later one encounters Itsuko Hasegawa's 1990 Shonandai Culture Centre.

Shonandai Project"The urban hinterland of metropolitan Tokyo gives way to anonymous buildings strung along the roadside which gradually coalesce into a denser, though incoherent development interspersed with parking lots. This project provides a much-needed communal heart, as well as a space for cultural activities and recreation. Alone among the finalists in the 1986 competition, Itsuko Hasegawa rejected an historicist, formulaic approach, avoiding banal quotations from the repertory of world architecture: the Mayan temple, the agora, the amphitheater. With a playful sense of decoration, she has assembled shells, marbles, fragments of coloured glass and animal footprints among fairytale silver 'trees,' a river and two cosmic spheres. The scheme provides an enthralling setting for a performance billed as 'second nature' in an architecture Hasegawa describes as an 'artificial landscape.'

The Shonandai center, shown at the left, is immensely popular and is, as Tajima comments, magical.

The author notes recent economic vicissitudes in Japan and his commentaries add important historical perspective both to the urban context and the oeuvre of the individual architects.

See The City Review article on "The Japan Guide," by Botond Bognar

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