Culture, No.5  Mar. 30, 2011


Photo : The superflat landscape of Shibuya
The superflat landscape of Shibuya ©Igarashi Tarō

A new type of twenty-first-century cityscape stretches out in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya station. When the lights change on the “scramble crossing” in front of the station, waves of pedestrians surge across the street from all directions. It is a space where things never stand still; where movement never ceases. Unlike the plazas and open squares of the West, people here never stop moving. The area is dominated on all sides by the huge video screens on buildings like Q-Front, which arrived in the area in 1999, and the 109-2 building. It is a landscape of vast advertising signs and high-rise structures full of the machines and automated application centers belonging to consumer loan companies. The city overflows with a stream of constantly updated information. On the front of the Q-Front building, the 10 meter by 10 meter “Q’s Eye” screen, one of the largest in Japan, is available for advertisers to rent by the second. Surfaces have become more important than the shape and form of the buildings themselves. Overlooking the Hachiko square in front of the station, Kuma Kengo’s 2003 renovation of the station façade juxtaposes a glass screen printed with images of clouds with the real clouds behind it. Looking down on the area from the second or third floor of Shibuya station at night, one has the impression that three giant television screens have been set down in the midst of the urban space. It is almost as though the futuristic predictions of the science fiction movie Blade Runner (1982) had become reality.

spell magic.jpg
Q-Front ©garashi Tarō
Photo : Kuma Kengo's Shibuya station façade
Kuma Kengo’s Shibuya station façade
©Igarashi Tarō

Since the 1990s, Japanese architectural design has been increasingly focused on flat surfaces rather than three-dimensional forms. This tendency is particularly prominent in the designs that famous architects have provided for famous luxury brand name stores. In the Louis Vuitton Ginza Matsuya store, for example, by Aoki Jun (2000), the glass façade combines with the walls behind the glass to create a check pattern as the viewer approaches, creating impressive moiré effects. Across the road at Sejima Kazuyo’s Opaque Ginza (1998), light streams from a membrane of double-layered glass. Another of Sejima’s designs, the building (2000) in Harajuku, also makes impressive use of glass printed with a pattern of thin stripes. Inui Kumiko’s design for Dior Ginza (2004) uses the façade to create an optical illusion similar to the effects used in op art.

Photo : The Louis Vuitton Ginza
The Louis Vuitton Ginza Matsuya store by
Aoki Jun ©Igarashi Tarō

Photo : Opaque Ginza
Sejima Kazuyo’s Opaque Ginza ©Igarashi

Photo : Dior ginza
Inui Kumiko’s design for Dior Ginza ©Igarashi Tarō

Plenty more examples could be given. Ishida Toshiaki’s Kobuna Building (1999) may be rather thin as a piece of architecture, but the lettering on the building’s glass façade gives it a graphic effect that makes it look almost like a page in a magazine, as though the design were aspiring to emulate a computer screen. On a larger scale, the Pentakun Tama Center store, another Kuma project (2003), features a huge glass façade decorated with digital images. Of course, a similar fascination in surfaces could be seen in earlier postmodern architecture. Takeyama Minoru’s Ichibankan (1970) and Nibankan (1970) buildings in the Kabuki-cho area of Shinjuku, for example, both strongly emphasized graphic elements. But the architecture designed since the 1990s stands out for its obsessive interest in transparency and imagistic effects.

Photo : Nibankan
Takeyama Minoru’s Nibankan ©Igarashi Tarō

This new style of architecture can perhaps be described as “superflat,” to use a term coined in 1999 by contemporary artist Murakami Takashi to describe the worldview of manga and computer graphics. In Murakami’s version, “superflat” refers to an infinite space in which a flat horizon stretches out into the distance. The concept embodies a view of the world in which preexisting hierarchies have been demolished. A similar development can be seen in architecture, where new designs are increasingly dismantling the stratified structure of the program. The “Made In Tokyo” series of urban observations by Atelier Bow-Wow, for example, calls for all the buildings to be seen from a flat perspective.

Proliferating Terminal Spaces

They are all around you as you wait on the platform for your train to arrive: People prodding with their thumbs, staring fixedly at their cell phones or i-Phones, checking their email and catching up on the latest news via the Internet. In the past, they would have been reading the newspaper or flicking through a paperback, but today the mobile phone has taken over almost completely. People are equipped with information terminals that keep them connected while on the move. It is an aspect of the urban scene that began to appear in the second half of the 1990s. Mobile phones spread like wildfire, and miniaturization and an ever-improving range of functions soon made them an indispensable part of everyday life. The mobile phenomenon has been made possible by remarkable developments in information technology. In parallel with this development, the urban environment underwent another change as numerous small terminal spaces began to spring up, connected to a variety of different networks. Convenience stores, automated loan machines, fast food restaurants, 100 yen parking lots, and karaoke boxes are all examples of automated spaces where people can connect to networks via consoles and terminals.

If you looked down on Tokyo from above, you would be greeted by thousands of winking dots of light, flickering 24 hours a day from the city landscape. These small facilities are the convenience stores, woven at regular intervals into the fabric of the city. The digitalized infrastructure of the contemporary city has given the convenience stores a more complex function. Today, the convenience stores are far more than just neighborhood larders selling the necessities of daily life. Since the beginning of the 1990s, they have acquired a growing range of additional functions. Fax and multimedia terminals, ATMs and postal services, plane tickets, automated box offices, CD and book retails, collection services for official documents, food delivery . . . If modernist architecture could be compared to a factory, devoted to a single function, today’s multifunctional convenience stores look set to become the preeminent symbols of the new urban space of the contemporary age.

The spread of consumer financing companies into areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku has atomized the city’s elevated spaces. Interestingly, these “salary man loan companies” have a marked tendency to gather in close proximity to one another. Often, offices representing different companies take up a floor each of the same building, with huge banner ads filling the windows. The first automated loan machines arrived in 1993. Connected by a network to a staffed reception center, these new machines allowed consumers to apply for loans without having to deal with employees face to face and triggered a period of exponential growth for the industry. The number of these unstaffed, automated offices doubled in Tokyo during the 1990s.

At the same time, 100 yen parking lots have been fragmenting the horizontal spaces of the urban landscape, expanding into the neglected empty niches of the city, as monthly rental parking lots shift to short-term stays as a way of making more money for little investment. A system for making efficient use of these parking lots has also sprung up, reducing congestion by allowing users to check for vacancies in real time.

McDonald’s and Yoshinoya, a beef bowl chain, were two fast food companies that dramatically increased their presence in the city during the 1990s. McDonald’s introduced a satellite store system that has allowed it to infiltrate ever smaller spaces, linked by network to larger “mother stores” that are equipped with full storeroom capacities. The company also developed a software system that analyzes data on new outlet locations and allows bulk purchases of food at the cheapest price from around the world. Yoshinoya doubled its presence in Tokyo over the eight years from 1994. Fierce price wars prompted the company to revolutionize its sales system and make more efficient use of kitchen space.

Public spaces brush up against peripheral areas. Security has been boosted by automatic number plate recognition systems on the roads, and in 2002 fifty CCTV cameras were installed in the Kabuki-cho entertainment district of Shinjuku. With the help of subsidies, this tendency is spreading to shopping arcades around the city. Security measures are increasing in the home as well, with sensors and alarms rapidly becoming standard fittings.

There has also been an increase in network-linked terminal spaces physically set apart from public spaces. The number of karaoke boxes in Tokyo, for example, increased eightfold within a few years of the introduction of networked telecommunication systems in 1992. And although straightforward Internet cafes never really took root in Japan, manga kissa (comic book coffee shops) have fully taken over that function. These are more than just cafés with comics. Some of the services on offer include nail salons, billiards, and oxygen capsules. The manga kissa are rapidly evolving into an affordable place for people to spend the night–a new alternative to capsule hotels. This can fairly be described as a Japanese phenomenon. Since the 1990s, Tokyo has seen a rapid proliferation in the number of terminal spaces connected to multiple networks.

The Collapse of the Bubble and the Hanshin Earthquake

Next, let’s take a look at some of the general tendencies in architecture since around 1990. First, a few remarks by foreign architects who worked in Japan during the period of the bubble economy. “Walking around the streets of Tokyo, one’s eyes pop out at the diversity of the buildings.” (Richard Rogers) “Japan is the most exciting field in the world for an architect today. . .Tokyo has becoming a vital testing ground for architects.” (Christian de Portzamparc) “Ignoring Japan would be like ignoring the future.” (Mario Bellini) Jean Nouvel has suggested that West European cities are becoming “Japanese” under the influence of Japanese architectural ideas. Mario Botta has described the city as a “modern-day Tower of Babel.” These views are almost diametrically opposed to the criticisms of Tokyo made half a century ago by Bruno Taut, who dismissed the city as “chaotic.” A more cynical interpretation of these enthusiastic encomiums might suggest that foreign architects love the chaos of Tokyo because it gives them license to carry out the kind of radical postmodern projects that would never be approved in their own countries.

In Japan, the trend for postmodern architecture coincided with the bubble economy. This was a period when strikingly bold forms and daring designs flooded Japanese cities, such as Takamatsu Shin’s Kirin Plaza Osaka and Kitagawara Atsushi’s “Rise.” Peter Eisenman, famous for a relatively small oeuvre of constructed works, was able to build several extremely bold works of deconstructivist architecture in Japan during this period, including the Nunotani Building and the Koizumi Lighting Theater.

Photo : Rise
Kitagawara Atsushi’s “Rise”
©Igarashi Tarō

Photo : Nunotani Building
Peter Eisenman’s Nunotani
Building ©Igarashi Tarō

However, the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 brought huge changes to the trends of modern architecture in Japan. Occurring at a time when the economic bubble had burst and the energy of postmodernism was beginning to fade, the earthquake put an end to the age of deconstructivist architecture. With a city reduced to rubble and collapsed buildings littering the streets, a high-minded and incomprehensible architectural theory of design that seemed to draw on earthquakes as metaphor sounded impudent and disrespectful. Personally, I am not convinced that all of these criticisms were fair, but there is no doubt that the earthquake and the widespread public sentiments it provoked helped to sweep away the deconstructivist movement. Designs moved decisively away from loud, complex, provocative postmodernism, and deconstructivism began to return toward a simpler and more transparent style of modernism.

Miyamoto Katsuhiro, who won a Golden Lion when he incorporated rubble into the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1996, built extensions onto his own house, which had been damaged in the earthquake, bringing it back to life as the ZENKAI House (1997). The renovation movement, which advocates making use of existing structures, became prominent from the second half of the 1990s. This was in marked contrast to the scrap-and-build tendency of previous generations. Lacking the massive budgets of previous eras, a new generation of architects have started to view extensions and renovations as important projects in their own right.

Photo : Zenkai House
Miyamoto Katsuhiro’s ZENKAI
House ©Igarashi Tarō

Many of the architects who came to prominence in the years after the bubble, most of them born in the 1960s, have a tendency to form loose affiliations rather than giving precedence to individual names. This has been called the “unit” tendency. One such unit is Atelier Bow-Wow, which works to find the positive side to aspects of Japanese cities and housing that have often been viewed in a negative light. The members of another, MIKAN, take the time to discuss each project carefully with the person commissioning it, saturating their plans with as many conditions as possible. Their espousal of non-artistic designs has sparked debate. The group does not consider architecture as something with special prerogatives. Instead, they believe, it exists on the same level as furniture and cars. This is a generation of architects who grew up regarding the danchi (collective housing) built in large quantities after the war as the norm. Instead of critiquing these features of the modern city, they have published a book of ideas for ways to renovate these housing blocks to ensure that they survive into the future.

Photo : Mini House
Mini House by Atelier
Bow-Wow ©Igarashi Tarō

Photo : Mikan Kindergarten
MIKAN’s Kindergarten in
Yatsushiro ©Igarashi Tarō

This movement has come in for adverse criticism from architectural critic Iijima Yōichi, who claims that the spiritual shock of the Hanshin earthquake has stripped the “unit” architects of strong philosophical ideals. Consequently, they have abandoned ambitious attempts to make a statement, preferring to tinker with minor differences within the context of a flat society. I do not think this criticism is fair. Architects born in the 1960s are intervening in the city in a way that differs from the monumental design of previous decades and are working to start a revolution from small beginnings. In Japan, the age when major architectural projects for events like the Olympics and the Osaka World Expo became national symbols came to an end in the 1960s, when Tange Kenzō was active. Most of the necessary public facilities in the regions were also completed in the 1980s, when the economy was booming. The “unit” tendency has developed as a way of adjusting to the increasingly networked society of the post-bubble economy.

A relaxation of building regulations has seen another rush of redevelopment in Tokyo, almost like a second bubble, since the early years of the twenty-first century. But most of these projects have been staid business buildings based on sound economic priorities, with little architectural interest. It may be the case that we now need to look to Dubai and China for extreme futuristic cityscapes made up of shocking forms and iconic architecture.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, a movement is underway to restore the city’s faded status as city of rivers and water. In Marunouchi in the heart of the city, an ambitious turn-back-the-clock project completely restored the impressive late nineteenth-century Mitsubishi Ichigō-kan Building, which was demolished in the 1960s. At the same time, almost unnoticed, there has been an increase in the number of tower apartment blocks since the start of the twenty-first century. These structures may be uninspiring as architecture, but the arrival of an age of high-rise living in Japan is a historic event that will have a major impact on the appearance of Tokyo in the years to come.

The Impact of Itō Toyō

Our first glimpse of a new architecture came in 1995, when Itō Toyō won the competition for the Sendai Mediathèque. This building redefined architecture for the digital age. No longer did a building consist of pillars, beams, and walls–we had entered an age of snaking tubes, impossibly thin slabs, and transparent skins. Itō has continued to develop at a breathtaking pace since the Sendai Mediathèque opened in 2001. One of the hallmarks of his style is his readiness to collaborate with structural engineers. This has enabled him to develop remarkable designs like those for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, the Bruges Pavilion, and Tod’s Omotesando (2004). In all these designs, structure and visual adornment are melded into one. Advances in computing have made complex structural calculations possible, and in many projects in recent years the names of the structural engineers involved, such as Sasaki Mutsurō and Ikeda Masahiro, have received almost as much attention as the architects themselves. The common practice in the past has been for the structure of a building to be arranged regularly, with adornments added later. The hierarchical relationship between structure and decoration was absolute. Today, structure itself has become a new form of decoration.

Photo : Sendai Mediathèque
JEW0503-photo-13.jpg Itō Toyō’s winning
design for the Sendai Mediathèque
©Igarashi Tarō

In 2010 the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the architectural world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was awarded to SANAA, an architectural practice led by Sejima Kazuyo (who previously worked in Itō Toyō’s office) and Nishizawa Ryūe. The prize was founded in 1979 by the Pritzker family that runs the Hyatt Foundation. As a general rule, the prize is awarded to a single architect every year. Previous winners include Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon and Frank Gehry. Last year was the fourth time the prize has gone to a Japanese architect, following previous awards to Tange Kenzō (born 1913), Maki Fumihiko (born 1928), and Andō Tadao (born 1941). Sejima was born in 1956, and Nishizawa in 1966. Both therefore belong to the generation that has followed architects like Tange, Maki, and Ando, who brought the architecture of their own times from modernism to postmodernism. Still in his mid-forties, Nishizawa is probably the youngest winner in the history of the prize.

Since they rose to prominence in the 1990s, the light, transparent designs of the SANAA group have been a breath of fresh air for Japanese architecture, which was beginning to labor under the weight of postmodern excess. SANAA has attracted substantial interest from overseas, and since the turn of the century the practice has undertaken projects around the world. As well as the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, SANAA has been involved in projects in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other countries.

One of the best known of SANAA’s projects, and in many ways the most typical of their work, is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. This work was singled out for particular praise in the Pritzker Prize citation. In outline, the museum is shaped like a large disc, with boxes (the exhibition spaces) of various sizes distributed inside the disc. The museum is an open space, without any distinction between a “main entrance” at the front of the building and a “back yard” at the back. People can enter and leave the museum here and there at different points in the circle. The interior of the museum incorporates the light from multiple interior gardens, while a transparent façade allows visitors to look out at the scenery outside. There is very little sense that one is deep inside a building. There is no fixed set route for moving from one exhibition room to the next. A sealed, self-contained form like a circle often has a tendency to become monumental and shut off from the outside world. This structure resists any hint of the character of a memorial or monument, redefining itself as an accessible space that is always open to all. Designs like this, giving an entirely new meaning to a familiar shape and imbued at once with both a reassuring sense of familiarity and contemporary flair, have won SANAA widespread acclaim from around the world.

Photo : 21st Century Museum
A model of SANAA’s 21st Century Museum
of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa ©Igarashi

Recent SANAA projects have incorporated strange forms seldom seen before in architecture–bewitching lines that cannot be easily defined in geometrical or mechanical terms as simple circles or ovals. The Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland, for example, is studded with breathtakingly original lines reminiscent of geological contours or the silhouettes of living creatures, ambitiously opening up new terrain for architecture.

Japanese Contemporary Architecture Esteemed Around the World

The 2010 installment of the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition will be remembered as the year that Japanese architects attracted the widespread attention of the world. The overall director of the event was Sejima Kazuyo, of SANAA. This marked a double first: Sejima was both the first Japanese architect and the first woman to be honored with this distinction. Many Japanese architects, among them Itō Toyō and Fujimoto Sōsuke, participated in the design exhibitions in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion. The Japan Pavilion is always a talking point, and 2010 was no exception, with a clear concept and remarkably fine modeling helping the pavilion to make its presence felt. A special Golden Lion in memoriam was awarded to the late Shinohara Kazuo, while the young architect Ishigami Jun’ya, who acted as representative for the Japan Pavilion at the previous biennale, won the Golden Lion for the best project of the exhibition, “Architecture as air.” His winning design was a remarkable structure consisting of a series of ultrathin four-meter high carbon pillars just 0.9 mm in diameter, an audacious structure that was all but invisible to the naked eye.

The Venice Biennale is held in other genres, including film and art, but it is in the field of architecture that Japan’s achievements have been most impressive. Despite more than half a century of participation in the International Art Exhibition, for example, the Japan Pavilion has never been awarded a Golden Lion, and no Japanese artist has ever been invited to act as overall director. In architecture, on the other hand, Japan has already won four Golden Lions in the space of just 15 years. This gives some indication of the high regard in which contemporary Japanese architecture is held around the world. Reasons for the high levels of Japanese architecture probably include the fact that architects have an opportunity to gain valuable experience from an early age because of the large number of small-scale housing commissions, Japan’s permissive urban planning regulations, and an aggressive scrap-and-build philosophy that makes it easy to carry out ambitious avant-garde projects. Japan’s advanced technology and precise and accurate construction work also provide support to architectural design.

Another factor is that as a general rule, architectural education in Japanese universities is carried out as part of the engineering department. This differs from the situation in the West, where more emphasis tends to be placed on design and schools of architecture existent independently of the engineering departments. The Japanese system results in much less friction, leading to greater cooperation between those who go on to become master architects and those who specialize in structural engineering, facilities, or construction. Indeed, the groundbreaking work of architects like Itō, SANAA, and Ishigami would not be possible without Japan’s highly advanced technology and engineering. The ultrathin dimensions of Ishigami’s award-winning “Architecture as air” project depended on a computer-based structural analysis. This is perhaps an extreme example of the tendency of contemporary Japanese architecture to demand extraordinary levels of accuracy and precision close to those found in craft art. (This may be one respect in which Japan risks cutting itself off by following a different evolutionary path from the rest of the world.)

In 2010, the Centre Pompidou-Metz opened in the French city of Metz, built on a winning design by Ban Shigeru after an international competition. The new building features a dramatically undulating roof shaped like a hat and makes an indelible impression on everyone who sees it. The center is rapidly asserting its presence as a new symbol of the city. The roof, which features a mesh pattern of interlocking layers of wood, used computerized numerical control machine tools, allowing a complex structure incorporating a mishmash of bends, curves, and openings. When the museum opened, exhibition space on the third floor was given over to an exhibit tracing the history of museums in France in the modern era. The section on the twenty-first century featured not only Ban Shigeru’s design for the Centre Pompidou but also the Louvre-Lens branch of the Louvre in Lens by SANAA and art center projects in Marseilles by Kuma Kengo. The fact that Japanese architects were hired to design new branch buildings for the Louvre and Pompidou, France’s two most important museums, shows the high esteem in which Japanese architects are held.

Photo : Centre Pompidou
Centre Pompidou-Metz by Ban Shigeru
©Igarashi Tarō

Last year was also the year of the Shanghai Expo, the biggest ever. The bright red Chinese pavilion stood out most, perhaps because it was the largest. In terms of overall tendencies, a lot of designs from Asia and the Middle East tackled traditions head-on. There were few noteworthy pavilions from Africa or the Americas. Several European countries, however, including the Netherlands and Spain, hired leading architects to come up with ideas marked by a high quality of design. Designed by a Japanese architect, the Japan Pavilion was a state-of-the-art pavilion that incorporated numerous ecological innovations. But the design itself, resembling a giant purple sea cucumber, was not so impressive. If the expo had been the Olympics of architecture, Japan would have finished even behind neighboring South Korea, whose pavilion featured an intriguing mixture of geometric shapes and graphic elements, taking the Hangul alphabet as its motif and making intelligent use of space and volume. An ideal opportunity was missed to show off the vibrancy of contemporary Japanese architecture.

Translated from an original article in Japanese for Japan Echo Web. [March 2011]