Last year I had the honor of editing a digital collection of 100 Japanese architectural works which I selected from the previous 21 editions of the JA (Japan Architect) Yearbook. Read on for a short extract from my introductory essay.Given the incredibly prolific and richly creative output of Japanese architects over the previous two decades, I found the task was by no means easy and somewhat daunting. While some notable works were obvious choices for inclusion in the e-book, there were far more than a hundred worthy projects. It necessitated difficult some decisions. I found it impossible to be formulaic when choosing the works, but as I created the list, some very clear themes emerged to help guide my way. Each Yearbook begins with an essay or interview by a notable architect airing personal reflections on the contemporary design ethos. I was struck by how accurately, each of these voices complimented the buildings of that year, but also, taken as a totality, the writings constitute a remarkably coherent and linear conversation, defining the development architectural discourse over the period.
My introductory essay extracts what I felt were very clear themes. All of which, I believe, are rooted in something more primitive that is inextricably Japanese. These themes are: largess during the bubble era; sombre reflection post-bubble; the rejection of materialism; withdrawal into personal realms; abstraction of physical architecture; and the spirit of gaman post-disaster. Here’s an extract from my essay entitled Mapping Japan’s Spatial Genome explaining one of these themes:
Zen and the Post-Bubble Reality (extract)
In the wake of the bubble’s implosion, a different type of largess fueled a new building spree: Keynesian economics. Rural Japan was lavished with grand infrastructure projects and civic buildings in hope of re-stimulating the recessionary economy through massive government spending. Large and elaborately constructed provincial museums were typical of this time. Lacking a more concrete justification, they were often dedicated to esoteric themes such as wind, wood [Museum of Wood by Tadao Ando], stone [Stone Museum by Kengo Kuma], squids, children, and even meteor strikes. To some architects these projects were a boon, offering freedom and total control to craft a complete architectural experience. With little content to contain, however, architecture itself became a spiritual attraction. Such destination architecture relied on long, symbolic approach routes; sweeping, sculptural walls; placid reflecting pools; and hard rambling architectonic landscapes to involve and envelope the visitor within a powerful alternative reality, far removed from the chaotic commercialism of Japanese cities.
These impressions are not unlike walking through the gardens of a Zen Buddhist monastery. Severing oneself from earthly temptations is a universal rite of monastic existence. But within their walled confines, Japanese monasteries—like Ryōan-ji in Kyoto—enclose vibrating seas of raked gravel, perfectly conical mountains of sand, and rolling hills of gently nurtured moss. All are abstract interpretations of natural order, set within a highly controlled environment, much like contemporary art installations exhibited within a gallery, but long before that term or concept existed. Many post-bubble architectural works seek to (re)stimulate conscious awareness of being in that place. Visiting some of the more contrived projects of this era can amount to little more than a succession of well-constructed follies, but others offer a sublime and deeply moving experience, whether in a literal spiritual sense [Tadao Ando's Water Temple], or in purely physical terms [Stone Museum by Kengo Kuma].
As fortunate architects continued to enjoy almost carte blanche freedom to conceive self-contained worlds, far removed from any built context, their influence and involvement in real urban place making waned. In Japan, the field of urban planning has been undermined so as to reduce it to a set of mathematical formulas predicated upon maximum enclosure and density. The role of public space has been largely subsumed by Bigness—agglomerated shopping centers, railway station complexes [Kyoto Station Building by Hiroshi Hara+Atelier Φ], and office developments, so huge, they encapsulate their own urban ecosystems and microeconomies.
At only $9.99, I think this collection of 478 extracted pages from JA magazine featuring photos, drawings, and essays, offers a particularly good value. It’s a fantastic resource to have on the iPad, but with Zinio’s apps, the book can be read on desktop or smart phone. Available only at Zinio.