Japan Is On The Go

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – September 21, 1987

Japan Is On The Go

Its new architecture and graphics lead the world

Japanese style? Japan is all about aesthetic discipline and refinement: it is a tidy place where ordinary buildings are Zen compositions, where cities fit together as ingeniously as a GoBot, a place where restraint and respect for tradition (rock gardens, ikebana, interior space denominated in tatami mats) come naturally, where advertising aspires to art, where even the landscape seems well designed.

Japanese style? Japan is a wild hodgepodge of gimcracky downtowns and kitschy international design ideas mixed and mismatched, its capital a shrill, Blade Runner mess of traffic, shabby office buildings and meretricious Architectural Statements. Consumer products are bland or bizarre, and in graphics anything goes.

 Both visions of modern Japanese design are correct. Where on the one hand there is Tokyo, on the other there is Kyoto, the perfect religious city. On street corners and in train stations are impeccably printed surreal posters that seem only incidentally to be advertising, but in the pages of magazines there is artsy typographical chaos. There are delightfully showboating aluminum office towers (such as Fumihiko Maki’s Spiral building in Tokyo) as well as brand-new buildings made entirely of secondhand wood (Atsuo Hoshino’s House of Used Lumber, on the outskirts of Tokyo). The familiar and the provocative, the traditional and the radical, the ascetic and the deluxe, the indigenous and the foreign — all coexist in contemporary Japanese design.

 But the dichotomies are no mere zero-sum stalemate, sensibility vs. sensibility ad infinitum. There is meaning to this madness. Masterly, highly original work is being produced by designers of all kinds. Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is one of the most fetching new buildings in the U.S. Tadao Ando’s severe, uncompromising architecture won him Europe’s prestigious Alvar Aalto Prize last year, as well as the respect of young architects all over the world. Maki, an architect who has lived and worked in the U.S., thinks this is unquestionably the Japanese moment. Given the “exceedingly high level of our craftsmanship and technology” and the “current flowering of all manner of architectural ideas in Japan,” Maki says, “Japan is the place to watch in architecture today.”

 Graphic and Stage Set Designer Eiko Ishioka, who has also worked in the U.S., is just as sanguine about the creative boom: “Japanese design is more flourishing and diverse than ever before.” At no time in the roughly 130 years that Japan has traded with the West have its applied arts been so influential abroad. “I’ve lived with Asian influence all my life,” says Eugene Kupper, an architect and UCLA professor, but “today Japan is in the forefront. It’s the most exciting it has ever been.” While tradition clearly informs some of the best new Japanese design, the current creative burst is not primarily backward looking. Indeed, Japanese design seems singularly, giddily unfettered. Not only are architects and art directors in their 40s and 50s free from the obligation to pay homage to traditional forms, they have also escaped for the first time in this century from the overwhelming gravitational pull of Western domination. They feel unusually free to borrow and transmute ideas and images from any source, foreign or domestic.

 The hard determining fact of all Japanese culture, including design, is the country’s size and island insularity. Land in Tokyo goes for as much as $846.7 million an acre. Thus an architect’s treatment of space takes on a sort of moral dimension. Isozaki was condemned by some compatriots for the spaciousness of an art museum he designed in the early ’70s. Now that he is busy with American commissions, Isozaki himself is a bit thrown by the comparative Yankee boundlessness. “In the U.S.,” he says, “even where I had thought I might be taking up too much space, my clients did not consider me wasteful.”

 In 1960 Architect Kenzo Tange violated the native tenets of compactness with his grandiose plan for an improved metropolis that would extend out over Tokyo Bay. Today, at 74, he is still pushing it. But now Tange, the winner of this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize, is at the center of another bitter controversy, over his design for new Tokyo metropolitan government offices. With a main section 797 ft. tall and an estimated construction cost of $780 million, this project would be the biggest, most expensive Japanese building ever — too big and too expensive, his critics say. Even more disconcerting to many of Tange’s peers is the building’s design: with its split tower, ersatz campaniles and creme brulee surface of glass-and-granite panels, it would be a postmodern monument — Notre Dame redesigned by Gaudi and enlarged to monstrous proportions. “Tange’s city hall is garish,” says Architect Takefumi Aida, “so much so that it would end up looking like a symbol of Japan as a nouveau riche state. I can’t stand it.”

 Aida is one of the few middle-aged stars of Japanese architecture who neither apprenticed nor studied under Tange. He taught at Tokyo University when Maki and Kisho Kurokawa were Tange’s students there in the ’50s; Kurokawa and Isozaki worked in Tange’s office in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In fact, Tange and Isozaki, 56, are a good point-counterpoint embodiment of the generational change in Japanese design. Tange is a reserved pillar of society. Isozaki, whose good friends (like Fashion Designer Issey Miyake) jokingly call him Iso-san, is an impish glamour boy.

 Tange, says Isozaki, “is of the generation all but dedicated to the job of translating Japanese tradition in terms of modern architecture, and introducing the result to the outside world.” Tange’s buildings of the ’50s and ’60s were in the then obligatory International Style but given bits of national flavor — Japanese-accented Esperanto, with upswept roof edges and exposed concrete beams formed into abstract “timbers.” Isozaki’s buildings of the ’70s and ’80s are the converse: instead of Japanizing a universal architectural style, he takes inspiration and ideas from anywhere he chooses, his odd, exciting syntheses unbound either by traditional or by antitraditional dogma. “I consider myself not a Japanese first,” Isozaki says, “but rather an internationalist.”

 Isozaki’s postmodernism was not fueled, like that of many Western architects, by a hankering to reproduce a particular, seductive historical style. The forms and fragments in his work are not cute or ready-made. Instead, he is an antirationalist, a form-follows-intuition designer whose deft play (tricks of perspective, false facades) tends toward the baroque but whose work comes off as anything but fusty. He is drawn to elemental geometries — cubes, cylinders — and natural materials, but he seldom leaves them basic or pure. He pulls together polished granite with curved glass with concrete, and makes columns short and fat, as in his 1971 Sogo Bank building; in a 1974 country club in Oita and a library in Kitakyushu, he makes barrel vaults snake and turn like architecture squeezed from a toothpaste tube.

 Isozaki is busy. His latest work includes a proposed sports palace for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and a full-scale replica in Tokyo of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. With the acclaim for MOCA has come more work in the U.S., including large new wings for the Brooklyn Museum.

 Fumihiko Maki, 59, is not so eager to build abroad. “At construction sites in Japan,” he says, “workers are always so willing to cooperate with architects that we can do something almost unthinkable in the U.S. — modify our designs in the process of building.” Maki knows what he is talking about. He earned master’s degrees in the ’50s from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Arts and from Harvard, taught at Harvard and practiced in New York City with Skidmore Owings & Merrill. He returned to Tokyo in 1965.

 The Fujisawa Municipal Gymnasium (1982) exemplifies the impeccable craft of his best work since then. Like much Japanese architecture of the past 25 years, it has a sci-fi quality: one section of the building resembles some enormous otherworldly blimp, the other calls to mind a high-tech samurai helmet. But unlike the slicker gimmicky UFO architecture (Kurokawa’s earlier work, for instance), Maki’s gym is restrained and sober, a mature fantasy. The flawless, parabolic stainless-steel skin is 1.6 acres in size but just about one-sixtieth of an inch thick.

 The work of Takefumi Aida, 50, is reminiscent of a particular kind of American postmodernism: the playful houses of California’s Charles Moore, architecture as fun. Each of Aida’s houses appears to be a sprawling stack of a child’s multicolored building blocks in Brobdingnag — simple rectangles, cylinders, triangles and crescents.

 The Aida houses may be facile, yet they do delight: toy building blocks are a cheerful transcultural artifact, and the mock-haphazard assemblages are lively, seemingly half built or half demolished. The Toys R Us aspect seems American, but the unfinished quality is pure Japanese. Says Aida: “Fundamentally I find myself swinging back and forth between two basic lines of influence — Japanese tradition and Western culture. I am attracted as much by Kandinsky, for instance, as I am by modern Japanese writers.”

 Tadao Ando, 45, is the most influential figure among Japan’s baby-boomer architects. Combative, ascetic, a radical traditionalist, he is the perfect maverick: after wandering across the U.S. in the ’60s, he aspired to a professional boxing career before becoming an architect. He is something of a Zen zealot. He hates “automated buildings with all manner of electronic convenience.” He hates posh materials. “Concrete, far cheaper than marble, can achieve a far greater spiritual sense of wealth,” he says. Indeed, most of his 90 buildings are constructed of concrete. Ando is thus maintaining a tradition: large-scale modern buildings in Japan were predominantly concrete until the ’70s.

 Ando’s buildings are precise and almost ostentatiously austere. He is seeking purity and purification. His town houses in Tokyo and Osaka are jewel- box bunkers, the concrete facades rigorously designed compositions of door, windows, fabrication scars and joints. The Protestant chapel (1985) on the top of Mount Rokko, outside Kobe, was the perfect Ando commission. “The process of preparing ourselves for the spirituality of religion takes time,” he says, and so the entrance to the chapel is a colonnaded tunnel. The chapel itself is a deep, 24-ft. by 24-ft. concrete box, with one side an expanse of glass overlooking the garden.

 Outside of architecture, the issue of tradition is not so pressing. Indeed, designers of graphics and interiors are more unselfconsciously ahistorical, often out-Westernizing the West in seeking novelty for its own sake. “If we steeped ourselves in tradition, we would not be able to create anything,” says Eiko Ishioka.

 Because Japan’s network of dealers is not nearly so large or aggressive as the mob of smart hucksters selling paintings in New York City and London, only a handful of painters manage to make a living from their art. Many turn to editorial and advertising work. They may be painters manque, but talented art directors and designers are more indulged and permitted more expressive leeway in Japan than in most other countries. Much of their work, even for big corporations, is highly unorthodox. At train stations in Tokyo last year, commuters could not avoid a meditation on androgyny, in the form of huge prints of a man’s face superimposed on a woman’s; the only type was the company’s name, almost unreadably small, at the bottom. “The Japanese regard advertising as a kind of cultural activity,” explains Art Director Masuteru Aoba, 48. “With their budgets for advertising, Japanese companies are supporting something colorful and playful, just like American billionaires who patronize art.”

 Tadanori Yokoo, 51, is among the most well-known graphic designers in Japan — and a rebel. In the ’60s he achieved pop stardom for his paintings and for psychedelic posters promoting his fellow members of the avant-garde underground. Unable to survive on his painting alone, Yokoo turned to commercial assignments. “I loved to quarrel with corporate clients,” he says with a smile. “And I refused to compromise. I wanted to express something very personal. So my design was called antidesign, and I was pushed out of the design establishment.”

 Then, in the ’70s, “the avant-garde became part of the mainstream,” as Yokoo puts it, and he got plenty of work again. His sexy, creepy 1980 poster for a fashion show is typical of his more recent, dreamier work: a naked, bleached-out man and woman stand face to face against a yellow field, their eyes and ears an odd, coppery red. In 1982, with his “sense of crisis missing,” Yokoo doubled back, leaving full-time design work to become a painter once again.

 Designer Ishioka takes no pleasure in being noted as the first woman to have achieved all she has achieved. Says she: “I hated it, and I still hate it.” She is not only a woman in a man’s world, she is an assertive feminist to boot. Her advertising posters and TV ads for a chain of clothing shops feature an undressed woman and the aggressively quixotic slogan: DON’T STARE AT THE NUDE; BE NAKED.

 Ishioka’s East-West ambivalence is palpable. Although she decamped to work in New York City in 1980 (and “did nothing,” she says), Ishioka returned to Tokyo after two years; then her interest shifted to U.S. and European projects. There was the Mishima movie and a Miles Davis album cover, and now she is at work on sets for M. Butterfly, a Broadway play, and for a Philip Glass opera to be produced in New York. “In the ’80s,” she says, “I would like to cause a commotion outside Japan.”

 Makoto Saito, 35, aspires to an elegant and disconcerting sort of T.S. Eliot modernism. He wants his graphics, he says, to be “visually simple but technically complex.” A 1985 poster for a company that makes Buddhist religious articles, for instance, features a high-resolution close-up of a human bone, drenched in dark powder and standing all alone and upright against a white background. In small letters at the bottom is the Zen koan-like non- slogan: “I am an ancestor of the future.”

 If Japan is unusually hospitable to graphic artists, it is tough for designers of furniture and interiors. There is only a minuscule residential market for high design, since the homes of even most well-to-do Japanese are small. Instead, the work is almost all commercial — boutiques, department stores, cafes, bars. Take, for instance, Lucchino’s, a bar in Tokyo’s chic Nogizaka district. It is a medium-size space for Japan; the lighting is theatrically pink and orange, the fixtures neo-1920s. A significant detail: the middle tier of the long, three-tier art deco glass bar is cracked deliberately. One might as well be in Milan. Lucchino’s is the work of Shiro Kuramata, 52, a furniture and interior designer with a considerable reputation in Europe as well as Japan. His boutiques around the world for Issey Miyake are black chain-link nests. The feel Kuramata seems to be after is a kind of monastery for 21st century hipsters, a futuristic Zen pad.

 Design of consumer products, on the other hand, tends toward the conventional — as it does in the U.S. In neither country are there industrial-design stars in the European manner, and the transpacific parallel is probably not coincidental. Says Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a professor of art at Tokyo University of Art and Design: “In the wake of World War II, we learned American culture through the designs of goods at PX’s — by way of lamps, shoes, clothing — not through the English language.” And often they learned the banal dialect of mass-market American design.

 The tendency has been exacerbated by the Japanese mania for mass production and marketing. The Japanese economic miracle has been all about mass production, which means that design flourishes are frills that might not be appreciated on the disparate world market the country’s industry hopes to command. “The lack of identity is our problem,” says Kiyoshi Sakashita, design director for the Sharp Corp. “Mercedes-Benz or BMW, for example, emits an aroma of Germany, but Japanese products have neither nationality nor brand identity.”

 Thus far it has been the engineers, not the designers, who have produced the remarkable consumer product successes of the past decade — VCRs, automobiles, the dirt-cheap calculator, the Walkman, the compact video camera. Given the high-strung national determination to triumph economically and the percolating creative ferment, it seems certain that Japanese industrial design will win the Most Improved award in the 1990s.

 The successes elsewhere are remarkable enough. “Never,” says Interior Designer Takashi Sugimoto, “have we felt as self-confident as we do today.” Architect Maki goes further. Japanese design right now, he says, “has reached a phase of development unique in the annals of our civilization.” Nowhere is the international give-and-take more equal, nowhere is it producing more sublime buildings, more ambitious graphics, more exciting, edgy design. Architect Isozaki likes to say he is mentally equidistant from Kyoto’s Katsura Detached Palace and the Parthenon. All the best Japanese designers, like Isozaki, delight in staying on that edge.

 — Reported by S. Chang and Yukinori Ishikawa/Tokyo