The Japan Guide


By Botond Bognar


Princeton Architectural Press, 1995, 430 illustrations, pp. 336, $24.95.

book cover with Shin Takamatsu project

By Carter B. Horsley

This is probably the best book on architecture to be published since "The A. I. A. Guide to New York City, Third Edition," by Elliot Willensky and Norval White, was published in 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

A reasonably-sized, soft-cover book, it combines excellent black-and-white photographs with superb commentary, pertinent facts and transportation directions.

There are other good books on contemporary Japanese architecture that are larger in format and have color illustrations, but they are highly selective and by no means comprehensive. This book, on the other hand, amply documents Japan’s incredible design creativity that has been pre-eminent in the world for more than a third of a century and shows no signs of waning.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Japan’s architects have dominated the architectural world since the mid-1960’s and that its "team" of great architects would easily better those of the rest of the world, which is not to say that Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Cesar Pelli, Renzo Piano and other "master" architects have been idle and not produced impressive works.

While many of the works included in this book are famous, many more are far less well known, at least in America, and the aggregate impact is staggering. The shock is almost like the Italians rediscovering ancient Greek and Roman art, although the current renaissance of architecture as a vibrant and exciting art form cannot really be solely attributed to the Japanese oeuvre. Indeed, the international architectural scene is very much alive with many major talents (see The City Review articles on skyscrapers and new forms in architecture).

Part of the problem is that until recently there have been few monographs available on many of the leading Japanese architects and part of the problem is also that many of the works are relatively isolated. In his introduction, Bognar, who , notes that " ." In addition, the insular and low-keyed nature of the Japanese has been the opposite of the hype so common in the West in recent decades.

Clearly, much of the Japanese aesthetic draws on many old traditions. Yet any notions that its focus is on serenity, or gracefulness, or conciseness, or understatement are apt to be confounded by the bewildering experimentation and flamboyant surprises that abound across Japan.

One is tempted to look for the romance of poetry in Japanese architecture and such searches can be very rewarding, but what is more impressive is the great depth of talent, the often blunt, heroic and outrageous inventions, and, very often, the completely non-contextual nature of the work.

In the West, a fine facade flourish may suffice for a work to be considered distinguished even though it may merely be covering a conventional building.

In Japan, most buildings are intriguing outside and inside.

In recent years, the influence of the Japanese architects have begun to spread: Arata Isozaki has been active with a few modest projects in the United States, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles and the recently demolished interior of the Palladium discotheque on East 14th Street in New York, and Yoshio Taniguchi recently won the very important commission to expand the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see The City Review article). On the other hand, some important non-Japanese architects have done some projects in Japan such as Zaha Hadid’s 1990 interior of the Monsoon Restaurant in Sapporo, Aldo Rossi’s 1989 Il Palazzo in Fukuoka and Steven Holl’s and Rem Koolhaas’s residential blocks in 1991 at the Nexus World Housing project, also in Fukuoka.

Quickly skimming through this slim, but rich volume, one is instantly struck by how avant-garde Japanese architects were in the 1960’s. Much of these "metabolist" projects achieved considerable fame as they struck a resonant chord with much of the ambitious megastructure plans of other architects of that era such as Peter Cook and the Archigram group in England. What is remarkable is that so many incredible Japanese projects were actually built in comparison with some of the "far-fetched" plans of the avant-garde elsewhere.

More surprising, however, is that the burst of creative energy in the 60’s did not burn out. Many of the great "stars," such as Kenzo Tange, continued to produce very important buildings, and were joined by many other architects of the highest caliber such as Shin Takamatsu, whose 1993 Kunibiki Messe Convention Hall in Matsue is illustrated on the cover of the book, shown above.

This book has 280 specific building entries but also references 360 more. The book, however, includes only a few individual residences. It has detailed indices and more than 30 maps. The author notes that many of the buildings in the book, "though they may be prominent public structures, are buried in the densely built, kaleidoscopic, radically heterogeneous urban fabric that deprives them from both easy accessibility and good, commanding visibility.

Bognar provides an excellent overview of Japanese architecture in his introduction.

He regards the end of the 20th Century in Japan, beginning in the early 1980’s, as "a new age of experimentation."

"Prompted by the rapidly rebounding economy, the quickly advancing consumer and information societies, and the evolution of another urban renaissance that can be called a new, ‘accelerated urban culture’ in Japan, the previous aversion toward the city softened, while its flexibility, vitality, and resilience were discovered anew. This change in architects’ attitudes has by now led to a new ‘form’ of urban architecture in which a broadening range of interpretations of, and approaches to, the city are brought to play’ these include poststructuralism, deconstructivism, and new modernism, among others. Divergent as they are in their concerns, these new urban sensibilities share a basic position, namely that the radically heterogeneous, volatile, and chaotic conditions of the Japanese city, best represented by Tokyo, can be the source of not only destructive forces, but also tremendously creative energies, and even of poetic inspiration.

"The architecture of the 1980’s in Japan can be characterized by an important shift of emphasis from the previously dominant industrial technology, or ‘hardware,’ toward a highly sophisticated industrial technology, or ‘software.’ As a result, recent designs, while not abandoning the tectonic culture and engineering bravura of earlier modernism, manifest an increased fascination with the ephemeral and phenomenal or, in short, the sensual in architecture. With their image-value multiplied, buildings in growing numbers appeal to the human senses as much as, and often far more than, they challenge the speculative or critical mind; instead of striving for monumental permanence, they foster ambiguity and perceptual instability with an implicit indeterminacy of meaning.

"In recent years, architects have increased the use of lighter, yet ‘ordinary’ industrial materials (Teflon-fiber fabrics, stainless steel, perforated aluminum, wire mesh, etc.) to erect buildings that, by virtue of their lack of heavy materiality or substantial corporeality, and by way of their fragmentary compositions, are intended as parts of the rapidly changing environment rather than as dominant, permanent objects with deterministic forms. In a characteristic Japanese manner, boundaries are frequently defined without being rigidly established. Areas are surrounded by multiple layers of screens and other thin elements, which take advantage of lightweight and translucent/transparent materials (LCD glass, synthetic films, infrared-reflecting polycarbonate membranes, etc.) as well as the latest technologies in lighting, including lasers, and various computer-controlled spatial articulations. In this way buildings can be more effectively engaged in, but also protected from, their environments."

Bognar provides excellent historical perspective, although he is rather conservative in estimating the awesome stature of its current architectural achievement.

"Throughout its history Japan has actively sought to enrich its culture through 'Japanization,' a process by which ideas from abroad are transformed, refined, and absorbed into Japanese life. As a result, Japan has been able to match, and frequently even surpass, the accomplishments of the very origins of its inspirations. The Chinese and Korean civilizations were the most important early sources for Japan. This influential period was followed by more than two centuries of isolation during the Tokugawa (or Edo) Era (1603-1868). The Meiji Era (1868-1912) once more opened up the country to extensive influence, this time from the West. Understanding modernization as a matter of its survival as a sovereign nation, Japan was determined to catch up to Western social, commercial, political, and cultural developments....To expedite these rapid changes, the Japanese invited many foreign experts, including specialists to design and supervise the construction of major public buildings and lay the foundations for a Western system of architectural education. Among them was the British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920) after coming to Japan in 1877 not only designed such prominent buildings as the Old Ueno Imperial Museum (1882) and the Mitsubishi Building (1894), both in Tokyo, but also taught the first generation of Western-trained architects, including Kingo Tatsuno (1854-1919) and Tokuma Katayama (1853-1917) at Tokyo Imperial University," Bognar wrote.

After an "eclectic and conservative" period, Japanese architects, he continued, "began to question the appropriateness of anachronistic academicism" and critics fell into two camps:

"The first camp favored an attitude to design - called wakonyosai in Japanese - that, although benefiting from Western technology, was supposedly of 'Japanese spirit.' In reality this search for a national expression produced nothing more than another kind of eclecticism, which became known as the Imperial Crown style or teikan-yoshiki....The second, smaller group consisted of young architects who were growing dissatisfied with the revision and recycling of historical styles and who distanced themselves from such past architecture, whether Western or Japanese. In 1920 several graduates of the Tokyo Imperial University formed the Japanese Secessionist Group or Bunri Ha Kenchiku Kai, which, although limited to ten years of activity, exerted a liberating effect on the contemporary architecture of Japan. Among its founding members were Sutemi Horiuchi (1895-?), Mamoru Yamada (1894-1966), and Kikuji Ishimoto (1894-1963), all of whom came under the influence of both Viennese Secessionism and German Expressionism. Since the original impulse of Bunri Ha was to reject all prevailing, mainly stylistic, tendencies, the group slowly paved the road toward the introduction of the International Style," Bognar wrote, adding that Bunzo Yamaguchi (1902-78), Tetsuro Yoshida (1894-1956), and Togo Murano (1891-1984) would add important and influential modern works.

Foreign architects were also important. "In 1916, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) arrived to build the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1923)...., while simultaneously working on several smaller projects, such as the Yamamura House in Ashiya (1924). More significant than Wright's highly individualistic architecture, however, was that of his assistant, the Czech-born American architect, Antonin Raymond (1888-1976). Raymond, even before the completion of the Imperial Hotel, established a design office of his own in Tokyo, which he maintained, with the exception of a few years during World War II, until his death....Other Europeans drawn to Japan included Bruno Taut (1880-1938), who spent the years 1933-36 there and contributed to the reevaluation of traditional Japanese architecture through his writings....Taut's publications, while drawing world-wide attention to such historic monuments as the Katsura Villa, Kyoto..., and the Ise Shrine..., also served to foment the theories of modernism in Japan immediately prior to World War II," Bognar observed.

Some Japanese architects, at the same time, studied abroad: Bunzo Yamaguchi and Chikatada Kurata (1895-?) studied with Walter Gropius and Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakahara (1904-69) and Takamasa Yoshizaka (1917-80) worked in Paris in Le Corbusier's office.

After World War II, Maekawa and Sakakura, according to Bognar, "emerged as architectural leaders: in his Kamakura Prefectural Museum of Modern Art (1951), Sakakura recaptured the delicacy of his Japanese Pavilion in Paris (1937). Equally significant was Antonin Raymond's Reader's Digest Building in Tokyo (1951)....Kenzo Tange (b. 1913), who in effect entered the architectural scene only after the war, came to prominence with the completion of his Hiroshima Peace Center in 1955, which signaled the beginning of the widespread use of reinforced concrete in Japan. The influence of Le Corbusier was felt increasingly, and eventually he was invited to design the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo (1959)."

Tange's 1957 City Hall in Tokyo, which was demolished for a newer and grander one by him, was extremely elegant, but within a few years Japanese architects and Tange began thinking and planning on a far greater scale. "Tange's Tokyo Plan (1960)...proposed a linear extension of the city over Tokyo Bay, forming a civic axis along which growth and change would be possible. In 1961, Tange founded URTEC, a team of architects and urbanists with whom he developed systematic planning methods applicable to both individual buildings and the layout of cities. Megastructures became prominent in planning circles during the 1960's and Tange's Yamanshi Press and Broadcasting Center in Kofu (1966) with its powerful, cylindrical shafts rising through and supporting the entire building, is perhaps the most relevant archetype....Under the personal influence of Tange, the movement known as Metabolism was formally launched at the World Design Conference held in Tokyo in 1960. The Metabolists believed that architecture should not be static but be capable of undergoing 'metabolic' changes; instead of thinking in terms of fixed form and function, these architects concentrated on changeability of space and function. Their ideas call to mind futuristic statements about new, modern cities with moving and variable parts; thus the Metabolist designs, with their interchangeable elements, and often capsules, can also represent a high-technology realization of the speculative work by the contemporary Archigram Group in London. While the mutual influence and a similarity of intentions between the two groups are evident, the Metabolists wee carried along by Japan's healthy and expanding economy and a spirit of vigorous - often very naive - optimism. As opposed to their British counterparts, they actually were able to realize many of their ideas. The original members of the Metabolism Group included the architects Kiyonori Kikutake (b. 1928), Fumihiko Maki, Masato Otaka (b. 1923), and Kisho Kurokawa (b. 1934), plus the architecture critic Noboru Kawazoe (b. 1926) and the industrial designer Kenji Ekuan (b. 1929). In the group, Kikutake played a key role, both as a theorist and architect. He designed numerous futuristic urban projects, most of which, such as the Floating City (1960) were to be located over the sea. One such project was partially realized in his Aquapolis of the Okinawa Marino Expo '75, which acquired a shape reminiscent of an oil rig....Although Kikutake's buildings are clearly of the twentieth century, it was the young Kurokawa who captured the essence of Metabolism, and whose work typified the movement's aspirations in striking science-fiction-like forms."

A commitment to high technology was reflected in Kurokawa's interest in capsule's as demonstrated by his Takara Beautillion of the Osaka Expo '70, the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo (1972), and the Sony Tower in Osaka (1976). Kurokawa's most famous design was probably his Helix City proposal, unbuilt, in 1961.

Bognar notes that large construction firms such as Shimizu, Obayashi, Takenaka, Taisei, Kajima and Nikken Sekkei corporations developed impressive in-house design teams.

During the 1960's, one of the brightest stars to emerge was Arata Isozaki (b. 1931). "Beginning his career as a disciple of Kenzo Tange, and, so, an initial sympathizer with the ideals of Metabolism, Isozaki produced numerous large-scale and innovative urban projects like the Joint Core System (1960)..., the City in the Air (1961)...., and Future City (1962). Yet, even these early, unrealized designs revealed features that pointed beyond the Metabolists' preoccupation with technology and 'mechanical changeability' toward a unique form of mannerism that Isozaki was to fully develop in the 1970's," Bognar noted.

Fumihiko Maki, who studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was perhaps the most interested of his peers in the city. "Japan has a historical tradition that, in lack of Western-type urban plazas and piazzas, emphasizes the significance of the street, where city life is enacted. Inspired by various traditional types of urbanism and working from his notion of 'group form,' Maki became the leading proponent of Japanese contextualism," Bognar continued.

Signs are important to the Japanese and "among those who investigated the systems of signs in the city, along with a new understanding of 'architecture as language,' was ArchiteXt, a loose-knit association of young architects who first exhibited in Tokyo in 1971. ArchiteXt had five members: Minoru Takeyama (b. 1934), Takefumi Aida (b. 1937), Mayumi Miyawaki (b. 1936), Takamitsu Azuma (b. 1933), and Makota Suzuki (b. 1935)....Takeyama's pursuit of architectural 'heterology' and Azuma's concern for 'polyphony' express the diversity of approach that characterized ArchiteXt; in addition, the group was responsible for promoting so-called 'pop architecture,' 'defensive architecture,' 'vanishing architecture,' and what Aida named the 'architecture of silence,' Bognar continued.

Many of this group's works "reveal an introverted or defensive attitude towards their neighborhoods; in this respect they were the forerunners of the residential architecture of such younger architects as Toyokazu Watanabe (b. 1938), Toyo Ito (b. 1941), and especially Tadao Ando (b. 1941). Other architects who devoted attention to architectural communication include Kito (Monta) Mozuna (b. 1941) and Team Zoo - Atelier Zo (established 1971)," Bognar maintained, pointing out that many architects, including Hiroshi Hara (b. 1936), began to "turn their backs on the city," confronted with commercialism, pollution and alienation.

Along with Kazuo Shinohara (b. 1925), Isozaki, Bognar argued, "became the most influential designer of his generation in the so-called 'new wave' of Japanese architecture." Bognar cites his "Fukuoka Sogo Bank in Fukuoka (1971)..., the Gumma Prefectural Museum of Modern Arts in Takasaki, the Kitakyushu City Museum of Art..., the Fujimi Country Clubhouse in Oita, all three of 1974, and Kamioka Town Hall (1978). By implication they simultaneously criticized the trivializing commercialism of the city while endorsing its potential and vitality. Arguably this is also represented by the more recent Tsukuba Center building (1983) and the Shufunotomo Plaza in Tokyo (1987), with their references to French neoclassicism. His latest work, such as the projects for Paternoster Square in London (1988) and Art Tower Mito (1987) continue to reflect Isozaki's response to historical/classical postmodernism, although the design of the tower seems to point beyond this declining paradigm in architecture." The Mito project has a spectacular, titanium clad 330-foot-high tower resembling a DNA spiral that is sensational as it much of the rest of the complex.

"The 1980's witnessed the maturation not only of Ando, but also his entire generation. Many of them had been previous disciples of older masters, such as Shinohara and Hara, while others followed their own, independent paths from the very beginning. Among the latter, Yoshio Taniguchi (b. 1937) emerged as the most remarkable example. His growth as an architect and urbanist is well represented by a series of significant public buildings that began with the much-acclaimed Ken Domon Museum of Photography in Sakata (1983), and has led to such recent masterpieces as the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art in Marugame (1991) and the Keio-Shonan-Fujisawa Junior-Senior High School in Fujisawa (1992)....Although a straight-forward approach to design and the 'simplicity' of the modern language of architecture - along with a heightened sensibility toward the natural environment and phenomena - continue to characterize Taniguchi's work, his latest projects reveal an increased sophistication in spatial articulation and skill in shaping the urban fabric in which they either find themselves or, alternatively, what they intend to create."

Itsuko Hasegawa (b. 1941) "has developed an approach that regards 'architecture as another nature,'...[and] combines her concern for the natural environment with a keen interest in new materials and technologies, all filtered through what she calls a 'feminine' sensibility. Her masterpiece is the Shonandai Cultural Center in Fujisawa, which was completed in 1991 and is shown in a photograph in another article in The City Review.

Bognar cites several buildings by Shin Takematsu (b. 1948) for their "stunning, science-fiction quality": the Origin buildings (1981-86); the Week Building (1986); and the Syntax (1990), all in Kyoto, the Kirin Plaza in Osaka (1987), and the Kunibiki Messe Convention Hall in Matsue (1993). Kirin Plaza is shown in a photograph in another article in The City Review and is perhaps the finest high-tech building ever erected as well as one of the most original and spectacular, despite its small size.

Among the many other masterpieces featured in the book are the following:

Kyoto International Conference Hall

Miyakonojo Civic Center

See The City Review article on a book on recent architecture in Tokyo

Click here to order the book at 20 percent off list price from

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review