By Anna Kitanaka
A common perception about Japanese architecture is that there is an extraordinary mix of old and new styles—from temples dating back a thousand years to Odaiba’s infamous sci-fi Fuji TV building, there exists a unique blend of ancient and modern, Asian and Western, sublime and ridiculous.
For many, the lack of consistency is disorientating more than beautiful, once the novelty wears off. Indeed, particularly urban centers such as Tokyo or Kyoto, the mish-mash of uncomplimentary design has left a jumbled skyline with no consistency or harmony. An ‘architectural master-plan’ has been missing largely due to the rush to rebuild post-WWII. In 1945 much of the landscape of Japan had been flattened by bombs, earthquakes and other disasters—in the rebuilding process, ornate, traditional Japanese architecture was less popular with the cash-strapped government than cheap concrete condominium blocks that are easy and quick to build. The adoption of Western buildings also led to a new preference in materials, more concrete over the prewar favored wood.
The ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ Brutalism movement, as the craze for concrete tower blocks is known, dominated the construction of postwar Japan. Abandoning the historical primacy of form, Japanese architects instead focused on materials and functionality as determining factors for the design of a building, simplifying the form and eliminating ‘unnecessary detail.’ The theoretical ideal was that structure should always be primary and form should come second. This style of architecture can be seen dotted around industrial areas, where many Brutalist factories and state-owned condominiums can be found.
This new Western style adaptation of architecture opened the gateway for truly innovative, pioneering architectural designs. Prewar landmark buildings, including Tokyo Station, The Bank of Japan and the Wako Department store in Ginza, all manifest the Meiji Restoration attitude in their imitation of European Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance styles. However, postwar landmark buildings took a completely new turn, incorporating futuristic visions with a Japanese twist. For example, the Hiroshima Peace Center—designed in the 1950s by one of Japan’s most famous architects, Kenzo Tange, combines the Le Corbusier style of modernist architecture along with the ancient form of the Haniwa, evident in the design of the traditional tombs of the rulers of old Japan.
The new buildings were always controversial and architects have long debated whether Japan needs to be more proactive about enforcing consistency of design. The debate has spread to everything that has become characteristic of modern Japanese architecture— should ancient and modern be mixed? Should architects continue to enjoy total freedom in terms of their designs?
"Japan is a disposal ground—a toilet—and if a foreign design turns out to be poor, the foreign architect can just go back to their own country and forget about it."
Planning for the future
To many foreign architects, Japan provides an opportunity to try out different styles which they wouldn’t be able to try out at home, largely thanks to the lack of building regulations restricting the look of the exterior to make sure the whole area stays visually consistent. Whilst Japan is still regarded by the foreign architectural community as the epitome of experimental design, some Japanese architects are struggling with the morals of this attitude. Jun Mitsui, a top Japanese architect (principal architect of JMA Architects and associate architect of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects), believes that this view shows disrespect to Japan: “It means that Japan is a disposal ground—a toilet—and if a foreign design turns out to be poor, the foreign architect can just go back to their own country and forget about it.”
Yet this is all about to change, partly because of a growing number of people who share Mitsui’s attitude. Japan has tightened up its building regulations, enforcing new policies such as sticking to certain color palettes for the exterior of buildings. These colors are predominantly grey, beige and cream colors, a stark contrast to the bright colored buildings that can sometimes be found in Tokyo. These new color regulations are in response to the recent Italian Cultural Institute debacle in which the center, much to the disgust of the local residents, decided to build a red building near the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The local residents, Yasukuni Shrine, the outspoken Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and the Japanese national media all complained, calling the building “grotesque” and out of sync with the surrounding area. Ironically, the uproar about the Italian Culture Institute sparked off a counter-protest by the people who actually think color is good for “grey” Tokyo. Some architects agree with the latter, claiming that this new regulation will stifle their creativity. Martin van der Linden, Founder and CEO of Van Der Architects, as well as an adjunct architecture professor at Tokyo University of Science, says of this regulation: “I think what Ishihara is doing misses the point. Restricting the exteriors to a color scheme does not make a city beautiful. I don’t think these restrictions are going to make any impact on the city, making it neither more nor less sexy, it is just going to add to the confusion of the heap of buildings we call Tokyo.” Although Mitsui agrees that Tokyo is a jumbled mess, he thinks otherwise about the color regulations: “Architects should be able to have an incredible amount of creativity, even though they are limited by a certain color range. All architects must face some kind of regulations and limitations.”
However, the bulk of regulations relate more to Japan’s vulnerability to seismic movement, not to aesthetics. With two large earthquakes having destroyed both Tokyo and Kobe in the last century, no one is more aware of the dangers than Japanese building contractors. Yet Japan has been plagued by construction scandals, with architects and construction companies facing litigation and jail sentences for falsifying compliance documents in order to cut costs. The seismic problem has been a dominating factor in Japanese architecture, and the government is starting to require that buildings become more permanent— instead of the former cycle of 30-year-old buildings that has been the principal in Japan. With the construction permit process being tightened in the wake of the scandals, architects have also had to become more conscious of the requirements and check that their designs are compliant.
Needs and desires
As well as facing an evolving regulatory environment, the needs and desires of clients have also thrown up new challenges, particularly on the corporate side. Japanese architects must now cater to a range of interests, such as ecology and branding requests from clients. Jun Mitsui elaborates: “Being ecological is very important for corporations and everybody wants to advertise themselves as being very green.” Beyond this, whereas corporate clients typically used to demand functionality as the deciding factor for a building, now there is a growing trend towards defining corporate identity through form, especially for the headquarters of a company. “The building façade can become the icon of the company,” Mitsui says, and this has led to a heightened emphasis on originality and innovation. Van der Linden agrees, “Companies today need to look at their work environment as a strategic business tool to attract, retain as well as motivate their staff.”
In urban landscapes, there has been a rise in what might be termed ‘transitional spaces’ such as shopping malls, casinos and hotels. Such spaces have arguably led to two significant architectural developments. Firstly, a trend in interior design that seeks to echo the external world of the city and secondly, a disinclination to preserve ancient structures as the needs and desire for leisure, profit and pleasure become all too irresistible. For example, Omotesando Hills, completed in 2006 by world famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, exhibits both these developments. The Dojunkai Aoyama apartments that stood before the Hills were built were Bauhaus inspired and symbolic of the Showa period. Tearing down the old buildings in favor of the new, which features a simple glass and concrete exterior, brought criticism at Japan for not preserving historical buildings. The replacement hands over the main focus to its interior of spiral sloping ramps, turning it into a reproduction of the streets outside.
Van der Linden comments, “The end of architecture is happening—everywhere, not only in Tokyo—because the focus is towards the program of the building, I.e. What happens on the inside. The exterior is nothing more than an extra in Tokyo. Think about houses built on such a small plot of land, crushed in between other houses—these houses are nothing more than interior.”
However, with the new opportunities being created for a focus on the interior and the parallel growth in the need for some corporations to stand out from the crowd and avoid homogeneity, it is equally possible to say that in this end, is also a beginning
After graduating from Tokyo University, Jun Mitsui received his Master of Architecture from Yale in 1984, then worked for Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc. until 1992, when he became the principal of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects Japan and Jun Mitsui & Associates.
Having received several architectural awards in Japan, Mitsui has been a visiting professor at Niigata University, and continues as Guest Critic at several major universities. He has been a member of AIA, JIA and Japan Architects Academy, and is licensed both in Japan and the US as an architect.
Mitsui is currently working on constructing the new Haneda international airport terminal, due to be completed in 2010. The building is themed “Sensitivity of Japan,” and is based on the form of Mount Fuji.