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Book Review: "Japan-ness in Architecture" by Arata Isozaki


Modern Japanese architecture seems to be rooted somewhere in the Space Age, but this informative book by Arata Isozaki, an important architect and writer on architecture, shows that to understand the present you often have to look at the very distant past. For example, the fact that buildings in Tokyo are constantly being knocked down and rebuilt every five minutes somehow makes more sense when you consider Ise Jingu, the nation’s most venerated shrine. Every twenty years, this 'holy of holies' – the Japanese equivalent of the Vatican – is ritually leveled with the ground as an identical building is reared up alongside it.
Although you may often find yourself disagreeing with the writer's opinions, reading this scholarly tome will greatly enhance your understanding of all aspects of Japan's architecture, both ancient and modern. 


 According to Isozaki, the main problem that Japanese architects have always faced has not been keeping the rain off people's heads, resisting earthquakes, or looking nice next to cherry trees, but instead successfully internalizing and 'Japanizing' foreign influences. "Japanese history repeats this pattern over and over," Isozaki writes. "First external pressure strikes Japan; triggered by it, social turmoil occurs and brings civil disturbance in its wake; and, finally, society is restabilized by a cultural Japanization."

In the national struggle of a country that has forever been in the cultural and technological debt of foreigners to retain its sense of national identity and self worth, Japanese architects have worked harder than most.

Although the book's structure is not chronological or even logical, the picture that emerges is consistent and compelling, presenting a Japan that alternates time and again between periods of intense receptivity to foreign influences and periods where these influences are either assimilated or rejected. With his deep understanding of his own country’s architecture, Isozaki is able to point to many examples left in the architectural landscape, including the quintessentially 'Japanese' Ise Jingu shrine, which Isozaki shows has undergone several changes over the years in the attempt to make it seem as purely Japanese as possible.

The writer also identifies the characteristics on both sides of the main stylistic tension in historical Japanese architecture: indigenous Japanese vs. imported Chinese, and is not afraid to give reasons for these differences. For example, the use of the round, lacquered wooden pillar in Chinese design, as opposed to the square-shaped, lightly varnished or unvarnished wooden pillar in Japanese design, was caused by the scarcity of wood in Northern China, which was itself the result of the denudation of forests to provide the wood to bake the bricks to make the Great Wall of China.

Often these little snippets of information are more fascinating than some of the larger points Isozaki is endeavoring to make, like his belief that pursuing Japan-ness in architecture is somehow flawed and his assertion that globalization is eradicating the 'borderline' on which Japan-ness relies. He is particularly critical of the pre-war teikan style, a self-consciously nationalist but not unbecoming style promoted to counter the international modernist trend in architecture. Interestingly, for keen students of architecture, both styles can be studied relatively close together in Ueno Park, where the Tokyo National Museum's Honkan is the embodiment of the teikan, while the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is an equally fine example of international modernism.

Another key thread in Isozaki's account of Japanese architecture concerns the refugee German Jewish architect Bruno Taut and his modernist appreciation of traditional Japanese structures like Ise Jingu and the Edo period Imperial villa at Katsura, Chiba. After a visit to Ise, Taut, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, enthused that "Ise Jingu will become an ultimate destination of architectural pilgrimage, like the Acropolis."

As in so many other fields, the appreciation of a pair of foreign eyes helped the Japanese to discover their own merits. The result was that Japanese architects gained the confidence to apply their own traditions to modernist architecture, culminating in post-war architectural masterpieces like Kenzo Tange's Olympic Gymnasium.

The fact that Isozaki, a generation younger than Tange, never conceived of anything as remotely impressive as this, seems to have left a note of bitterness that occasionally finds voice in an otherwise fascinating narrative. Touchy people these architects!


C.B.Liddell
Metropolis
4th May 2007


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