Material Immateriality

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, explores ideas of community as an intrinsic part of the aesthetics of contemporary Japanese architects.

In his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Prize in 2013, the great contemporary Japanese architect Toyo Ito showed characteristic modesty and generosity when he stated that “making architecture is not something one does alone; one must be blessed with many good collaborators to make it happen.” A new exhibition at MoMA exploring Japanese architecture, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond, attempts to give a fuller and more rounded picture of the social and collaborative endeavour of contemporary architecture, exploring ideas of influence and community.

As its title suggests, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond goes further than just presenting the work of individual architects and instead focuses on some of the impulses and aesthetics that are shared by a select group of contemporary architects and underlie their practice. As Pedro Gadanho, former Curator of Contemporary Architecture at MoMA, and current Director of the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon, remarks: “I wanted to question the status of the monographic show as the most desirable format to present work by architects. I consider this an ‘expanded monograph’ in which the focus is on the relationships and influences that a selected number of them have. In this sense, this is not a ‘national’ event, but relates very precisely to a given lineage of architects, and what becomes evident as a shared formal language.”

One of the touchstones that these creatives co-habit is an environment that could be called Post-Metabolism. Metabolism was a short-lived post-war acme moment of ambition and optimism for architecture in Japan in which architects such as Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki devised theoretical manifestos, and designed such hypothetical projects as sprawling urban complexes floating on water and plug-in capsule towers that could incorporate organic growth. The movement itself produced only a few buildings that matched the ambition of the writing in their manifestos before dissipating due to the economic crash of the 1970s. Nevertheless, the reverberations of this movement are ever-present in the work of, for example, Ito, whose first position was with Kiyonori Kikutake’s practice.

While Metabolism was a self-defined movement, this exhibition suggests a much more fluid contemporary environment. The sense is of a specific network of architects who share a professional language and are intrinsically linked in their roles as mentors, students and colleagues. Gadanho says his intention was not to suggest a kind of formal school or a self-defined movement, “but how an atmosphere of cross-generational mutual support and influence has fostered an intellectual context and shared attitude toward architecture’s ability to induce social change.”

Kazuyo Sejima’s House in a Plum Grove (1999-2004) is an example of a relatively modest project that demonstrates both technical innovation and a poetic and aesthetic approach to space. As an architect, Sejima, one half of the Pritzker Prize-winning practice SANAA, is known for her lightness of touch; she eschews virtuosic flourishes in favour of elegant simplicity. The building is a white box with a few seemingly haphazard gaps or cuts for windows. It is an expression of modesty and presence, set in a small site of 92 metres squared, in which even the detail of the door is such as to fuse almost invisibly into the wall. Using steel sheets for the walls, Sejima was able to create a sense in which the internal and the external walls have the same thickness, and while secure, seem weightless. Internally, no room is entirely shut off from another and the home challenges ideas of privacy while reflecting the way that modern families live.

Gadanho believes that projects such as this reflect the fact that there are more opportunities for contemporary architects to work on a smaller scale and in more innovative ways in Japan than in the USA. “There is a corporate sector that is very similar in both countries, what you could call a new international architecture, which I find uninteresting. In Japan, there is also a wider scope for smaller, experimental practices that survive – and indeed thrive in terms of architectural quality solely on private commissions, something which seems to be economically unsustainable in the USA. In this sense, and discounting the obvious exceptions in the States, contemporary architecture in Japan has been much more referential in terms of the spatial innovation it has been able to create over the last couple of decades.”

Some of SANAA’s most ambitious projects are public buildings such as New York’s iconic New Museum (2003- 2007), Lausanne’s Rolex Learning Centre (2005-2010) and Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum (2004), which characteristically explores simple forms, modulating and combining them to create a complex spatial experience. This is an important feature of SANAA’s approach to architecture: the use of basic shapes and forms in a way that is surprising, fresh and at times exhilarating. 21st Century Museum is innovative in its design in that the galleries are arranged in a non-hierarchical circular system in which a series of exhibition spaces are surrounded by a matrix of public corridors that allow visitors the freedom to choreograph their experience in different ways. There is a continuity between the galleries and the surrounding environment as well.

An inescapable shared social context for all contemporary architects in Japan is the Great East Japan Earthquake that took place in 2011. As Gadanho comments: “It had a huge impact on this group of architects, with Toyo Ito leading a discussion on the social responsibility of the architect and how these practitioners could further reconcile their aesthetic pursuits and avant-garde experimentation if they had a deeper sense of the needs felt by the users. If this was already a theme in these architects’ works, the 2011 events led them to new collaborative endeavours and self-initiated projects in a direct response to the reconstruction efforts.”

The work of Toyo Ito has always been concerned with materiality. He has written of his attempts to “counter the fixity of architectures, their stolidity, with elements that give an ineffable immaterial quality.” Many of his buildings, in their innovative employment of curved forms and his use of the grid to suggest extension and modular form achieve just this. However, this aesthetic impulse is at times at odds with a necessity to design buildings that are able to withstand the volatility inherent in building in Japan. The 74-year-old Pritzker Prize-winner’s best-known creation, The Sendai Mediatheque (2001), was commissioned and design began soon after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and Ito ensured it conformed to exacting standards. The Sendai Mediatheque was innovative in its suggestion of a new model for a cultural institution, and it has proved hugely influential to other architects. As Gadanho explains: “The building is notable for its approach to structure, dissolving typically solid columns into hollow steel-lattice tubes that provide support as well as spaces that can be occupied. The resulting building interior is a highly fluid space where interior walls are eliminated and a series of cultural programs are seamlessly combined.”

Since 2011, Ito has refocused his activities in the direction of buildings that are adaptable. He has said in interviews that he sees the role of the architect as negotiating different demands, such as those of sophisticated urban environments in a region with high seismic activity, rather than as a visionary artist expressing a personal aesthetic. For example, he has recently developed Home-for-All, which designs homes that are easy to rebuild in the event of earthquake damage, rather than making an attempt to master or resist the elements.

It was important for Gadanho in curating the show that the exhibition itself use the space of the Museum of Modern Art in thoughtful ways, to best showcase the works. As he explains: “The translucent panels that separate the different sections not only evoke certain perceptual qualities which one may discover in these architects’ work but also attempts to bring a more atmospheric quality to the way in which architecture is appreciated in a museum context. Thus, the typical models and drawings are juxtaposed to projected slideshows that make the buildings more accessible and understandable.”

The exhibition includes recent works such as Ito’s National Taichung Theater (2016) in Taiwan. As an opera house in a site of c. 57,685 square metres, it is arranged in a design that incorporates both curves and grid forms without the need for vertical or horizontal surfaces – everything is rounded. Drawing on the surface of the human ear, the acoustics of teapots and sound bowls, and the designs of early human dwellings such as caves, the building gives the impression of a sound cavern in which audio quality is of paramount consideration, as well as aesthetics. In the large auditorium, there is a round curve on the ceiling that is designed to reflect the sounds perfectly at every angle to every seat.

Another recent project documented in the exhibition is SANAA’s Grace Farms (2012-2015), a cultural centre in a nature reserve in Connecticut. This project establishes a nuanced relationship to the landscape, which is another theme that recurs across many of these architects’ work. Suggesting the sinuous ribboning of a river or stream, the 83,000 sq ft (7,710 sq m) structure is a series of five pavilions, all linked by a curved roof, which descend a gently sloping hillside. Each building has been designed to serve a distinct function, with a sanctuary, library, gymnasium, orientation centre, and a common outside space with a cafe.

Displaying the dynamic variety of the contemporary architectural scene in Japan, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond points also to the future. As these most recent projects testify, today’s Japanese architects are making a global impact. Both SANAA and Ito have designed pavilions for The Serpentine Galleries in London, as has one of the younger architects whose work is presented in the exhibition, Sou Fujimoto, whose Serpentine Pavilion (2013) almost seemed to pixelate and dissolve into the green space in which it was situated, vanishing chimerically in front of the eyes. However, the impact of Japanese contemporary architecture on a global scale is no chimera, and this exhibition clearly testifies to its robustness in the face of ongoing global economic and environmental challenges.

Words Colin Herd.

A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond. MoMA, New York. Until 4 July.