I recently contributed an article to Clog magazine’s Brutalism issue, about Japan’s long love affair with concrete. The debate surrounding Brutalism hinged upon whether the 20th-century movement was an architectural ethic or merely an aesthetic. Japan’s obsession with concrete (or what I call ‘concreteness’) might be loosely termed ‘brutalist’, but the country has shown how the material, despite architects’ ethical intentions, lends itself all too well to the aesthetics of consumerism.
Brutalism rallied around the imprints left by rough-hewn timber shuttering on poured concrete: the hallmark of Le Corbusier’s béton brut. Reyner Banham–New Brutalism’s chief chronicler–challenged whether the movement was an ethic or aesthetic. Unlike their Modernist heroes, who rendered clean white plaster over messy brick and concrete, the Brutalists’ bare walls revealed the naked honesty of construction. Banham remarked that the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School (1953) was “almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of.”
Just as early Brutalism was, in part, a plucky response to rebuilding post-war London, Tokyo had turned to concrete after suffering the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, in which an estimated 447,000 wooden houses burned. Subsequently, the Tokyo-based Czech-American expatriate architect Antonin Raymond – an ambassador for Modernism in Japan – received a flood of commissions for concrete buildings. Nearly thirty years before Hunstanton, Raymond employed skilled Japanese carpenters to build the formwork of his own concrete Rienzaka House (1924). Their craftsmanship so impressed him, he left the wooden texture exposed inside and out.
Later, the origami-like concrete walls of Raymond’s Gunma Ongaku Center (1955) bore another, now ubiquitous, impression: a grid of small circular holes produced by spacers. The pairs of plastic cones separated by a rod stabilizing opposing sheets of plywood shuttering are removed after setting, leaving circular cavities. Japanese contractors are capable of casting flawless concrete, yet the holes, like impressions on a ceramic tea bowl, remain as a conspicuous badge of authenticity.
Concrete continued as Japan’s material of choice, becoming virtually synonymous with Tadao Ando, who insisted his shuttering conform to the standardized tatami module, thus bringing concrete in-line with another aspect of tradition. Thanks in no small part to Ando’s prolificacy, the profusion of dotted concrete throughout Japan is a popular shorthand for architecture itself: symbolizing modernity, authenticity, and purity. Uchipanashi – as exposed concrete is called – remains expedient and economical, since there are no costly interior or exterior layers. Naked walls cleanse the environment of cosmetic trappings and mass produced finishes.
In a twist of the free market, companies produce wallpaper imitating exposed concrete, right down to these signature holes. These skeuomorphic wall coverings reveal contemporary Japan’s deep affection for concrete, as well as a popular lack of concern for provenance. The holes – byproducts of construction – have imprinted themselves upon Japanese consumers, some of whom proudly paper them across their walls, like the aspirational logos arrayed over their handbags.
Concrete spread through similar forces in Japan as in Europe, revealing the fossilized craft of construction. Brutalists favored this instant archaeological veracity, while its compatibility with craft traditions struck a chord in Japan. Yet, these traits’ superficiality have also made concrete vulnerable to being mimeographed into a paper-thin pastiche. Like imitation concrete wallpaper, this enthusiasm is antithetical to Brutalism’s ethics, but nonetheless driven by the movement’s aesthetic influence on the wider world. Banham’s quandary seems no less sticky over half a century later, in the age of the consumer.
Banham, Reyner, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966).
Banham, Reyner. “The New Brutalism“ Architectural Review 12 (1955).
Oshima, Ken Tadashi, “Characters of Concrete” in Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, ed. William Whitaker and Kurt Helfrich (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).