A great discovery and rooting was observed in the Japanese pavilion. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Please touch
By Barbara Basting
Jun 16, 2014

A thick red arrow shows you the way into the Japanese pavilion. It reads “In the Real World”, so welcome to reality. And curator and architecture historian Norihito Nakatani has devised an extensive exhibition for the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale that presents architectural reality in Japan, yesterday and today.
And because reality is so chaotic and disorderly, refusing to obey any plan, let alone visions created at some drawing board, at first sight the exhibition is just as chaotic: Wooden crates reminiscent of market stalls and bargain bins, poster and photo walls, architecture models, boxes with photographs, all kinds of infographics, and even handwritten curatorial statements – all conjure up the atmosphere of an attic or workshop.

Fortunately, at the entrance you are given a kind of “instructions for use” to the show: two frame posters, nonchalantly packed in plastic, ready at hand like items from a flea market. The one advertises the 1970 Osaka World Expo, the other the Tokyo on in 1964. Those were the days! Sadly, or so the message behind the packaged high-gloss images, they’re definitely long gone. Because the 1970s oil crisis put paid in Japan to the dream of limitless growth, and this impacted on architecture. On which – can be read on the wall behind the stack of posters. It was back then that young Japanese architects, such as Toyo Ito, Terunobo Fujimori and Hiroshi Hara, savaged the “International Style”, as championed in Japan by the likes of Kenzo Tange. The list of Tange’s sins included, or so these emerging new architects claimed, a senseless rupture with indigenous architectural traditions and the increasing inhospitable nature of cities. They felt the antidote was obvious: to remember small, village structures, to revisit context and real life, under changed economic conditions.

Just how the farewell to dreams and the return to reality has since entered the spirit of contemporary Japanese architecture can be discovered in the pavilion in a myriad of ways. One can, and this is almost like the agenda of the sea change back then, simply grab it: Or, as the exhibition constantly bids us: “Please touch”. Namely touch the facsimiles of Tomohu Makabe’s “Urban Frottages”, which he produced as of 1968 of the surfaces of the city of Tokyo. It is no coincidence that an architectural autodidact, dentist Tsutomu Ichiki has spent decades documenting demolished buildings. His fragments are personal mementos that most certainly ask how we relate to the past.

When in the 1970s the architects started becoming more interested in the Japanese building tradition, they opted for the instrument of field studies then being championed by historians. They studied everything that might be of relevance for their own work. For example the expressive architecture of the “Taisho” epoch (1912 to 1926) where we can discern a unique Japanese signature at the beginning of Modernism. Or modern architecture in Japan, which the “Architectural Detective Agency” collective does not exaggerate but documents with an ironic touch while referencing its respective modes of use.

The material thus gained proves to be the seedbed for new architectural beginnings in Japan, the source for all manner of experiments. And first and foremost the studies gave a new angle on the challenges that society and with it architects faced in times of crisis.

The initial outcome was, for example, the residential buildings Toyo Ito designed using prefabricated elements. While Ito took his cue from Le Corbusier’s modular construction concept a la “Dom-ino”, he adjusted the elements to the needs of an increasingly individualized and economically less prosperous society. Tadao Ando’s “Row House in Sumiyoshi”, which dates from 1976: Here, a concrete structure was inserted between two buildings. While the material is modern and parts company with the dominant use of wood for buildings, the design relies on tried-and-true traditional layouts such as the inner courtyard.

The Japanese pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale presents a broad spectrum of critical questions addressed to a Modernism that is technocratic in thrust. Subtly, the chronologically arranged exhibition puts its finger on the foundations underpinning the current success of internationally recognized Japanese architecture offices such as Sanaa or Atelier Bow-Wow: An intense focus on the location and context and the resulting conditions; a pragmatic stance that grasps architecture as a means of enriching and improving society by refined rather than brutal gestures; a return to the historical knowledge of spaces and their use.

Needless to say, we should not allow ourselves to be deceived by this suggestive reading of a reform-oriented permanent postmodernism that goes straight for the jugular. Anyone moving through the mush that is urban Tokyo, where the anonymous glass-faced high-rises in the “Corporate Style” pop out round the metro stations only to be torn down again at will soon realizes what it is above all the logic of capital that reigns here. There is very little space for alternative, future-oriented projects. But if you take a closer look, and Atelier Bow-Wow certainly does, then you will discover the interstices into which with skill and cunning individual free spaces can be inserted.

The highly developed societies of the West have had to contend with similar issues to those in Japan for some time now. They all made a similarly hard landing in reality. Precisely for this reason, it’s worth taking a look at those architectural trends in Japan that have got their feet firmly planted back on the ground in the wake of the high-flying designs.

Read more about the 14th Architecture Biennale
Rem Koolhaas’ foundations
Architecture Know-How in Museum and Archive
Italian affairs
If you want to understand Modernity you need to have fun with it
Germany’s Ex-Top Models
A Clockwork Modernism
Modernism and its uncle
Import – Export
The dream of an open society
Charles Brooking’s world of windows

Please touch: Finally a show that really "worked" as an archive. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The exhibits act as if they have just been unpacked from the crates. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
After the crisis, Japanese architecture was more pragmatic. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
The handwritten curatorial statements contribute to a more pragmatic atmosphere. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
The Japanese pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale presents a broad spectrum of critical questions addressed to a Modernism that is technocratic in thrust. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Photo © la Biennale di Venezia
Photo © la Biennale di Venezia
Namely touch the facsimiles of Tomohu Makabe’s “Urban Frottages”, which he produced as of 1968 of the surfaces of the city of Tokyo. Foto © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Foto © la Biennale di Venezia