We put off going to Japan for many years, despite the fact that we are Modern architects—or perhaps because of the ways Modern architects, from Bruno Taut to Wright, Gropius, and others, promoted the classic architecture of Kyoto. Each generation of Western architects has seen in Japan what it wanted to see.
Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown
Due "naif" in Giappone (1996), 2000
The time lapse between the end of the ciam and the success of what was called post-modern architecture is one of the most fascinating "free zones" of the last century. Modernism seemed to have collapsed in the West as a result of a pincer movement enacted by Team 10, on the one hand, and the New Formalists (Venturi, Rossi, Ungers, the early Eisenman), on the other, while populist (Rudofsky, De Carlo), pop (Archigram) and radical (Superstudio, Haus Rucker-Co, etc.) enticements were also (re)appearing. However, at the same time in other parts of the planet, modernism was raising its head again with a force similar to that experienced in Europe only at the beginning of the short 20th century, i.e. during the birth of the avant-gardes in the "heroic period of modern architecture".
It may be mere coincidence but one of the most comprehensive texts of the few that have recently sought to explain this entangled period, Dominique Rouillard's Superarchitecture , ends with Rem Koolhaas. It is not an especially original choice, to be honest, since the Dutch architect's central position is undeniable and enduring. For him, the decade that has just passed began with the Pritzker Prize (in 2000) and finished with a Golden Lion at the Architecture Biennale, without mentioning the ascent of his professional and academic career— from Harvard to Strelka in Moscow. However, in last year's acceptance speech, Koolhaas declared it an honour to receive the prize in Venice and from that particular director (Kazuyo Sejima) because the two national cultures to which he feels most closely bound are those of Italy and Japan.
Now, Project Japan shows that these were not just empty words. Despite its focus on the Metabolists, the book (commenced in 2005) analyses the cultural context and events in Japan between 1940 and 1985, with a strong emphasis on the decade between 1960 and 1970—the period that, roughly speaking, saw the rise and fall of the Metabolist Movement. Seen here as the last avant-garde movement, its manifesto should also be considered the last modernist one, after which came only the neoavanguardia, the radicals and the neo-rationalists, but no more modernists—a theory shared by Isozaki, who was also never officially a Metabolist.
After his book on Lagos (announced on Amazon but not yet distributed) and three on the Persian Gulf, Project Japan now ends this remarkable trilogy that takes a look at the future of the 21st-century city.
When, with regard to his lengthy project for the Hillside Terrace Complex in Tokyo, he asks Maki, "What I like about the Hillside Terrace is that here the ambitions are so subtle that any kind of spectacle disappears. Would you say that's true of your work in general, that you're trying to get more and more subtle in terms of the effect—or not?"; and when he asks Kurokawa, "If we look at your career now and the way you expanded the architectural field in the 1960s with television appearances, exhibitions and events, and becoming a public figure, was that all part of including life within architecture?", they are questions on perhaps contradictory subjects but inherent to the complex Koolhaas personality. You only have to think of the immeasurable difference between oma's neo-Metabolist project for a Hyperbuilding in Bangkok (compared in the book to one by Kurokawa for Tokyo in 1997, see page 694) and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, under construction, that by contrast seems drawn straight from the pages of Hilberseimer's Groszstadt Architektur.
Koolhaas had already focused on this in 1995, when it was no longer fashionable, in his essay on Singapore where the theories of Maki, in particular, were inadvertently applied by some local followers (William Lee and Tay Kheng Soon), and with such size and speed that Maki was forced to admit, "We theorised and you people are getting it built…" (pages 636-637).
If Project Japan is not a history book, as it states here and there, and if it is not a catalogue, then what is it? At a time when architectural studies fall into the historical, which tend towards philological and self-referential (for the historians) delirium, and the measly instant-books by architects happy to be self-celebratory and superficial, it is perhaps time to retrieve the practical critical tool of which Project Japan is an undeniable and excellent example, as well as being a description of movements of architectural thought the likes of which has not been seen for years. Manuel Orazi
1. Dominique Rouillard, Superarchitecture. Le futur de l'architecture 1950-1970, Éditions de la Villette, Paris 2004.
2. Rem Koolhaas, Singapore Songlines. Ritratto di una metropoli alla Potemkin… o trent'anni di tabula rasa, edited by Manfredo di Robilant, Quodlibet, Macerata 2010, p. 7. Spanish edition: Sendas oníricas de Singapur. Retrato de una metrópolis potemkin... o treinta años de tabla rasa, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona 2011.
3. The Gulf, Lars Müller 2006; Al Manakh, Columbia University gsapp 2007; Al Manakh Cont'd, Volume no. 23, 2010.
4. Various authors, Metabolism 1960: Proposals for a New Urbanism, 1960.
5. The son-in-law and partner of Gio Ponti as well as a technology and design expert, Rosselli was probably an incognito ambassador for Domus on that occasion.
6. Rem Koolhaas, interviewing Isozaki, p. 51.
7. Kisho Kurokawa, p. 383.
8. Reyner Banham, The Japonization of World Architecture, in various authors, Contemporary Architecture of Japan 1958-1984, edited by R. Banham and Hiroyuki Suzuki, Rizzoli International, New York 1985, p. 18 & fol.