Mention the term “Japanese design,” and the typical Westerner is likely to conjure up images that date from the days of samurais and ninjas: understated elegance, reverent use of natural materials, exacting craftsmanship, and the wabi-sabi embrace of imperfect, fleeting beauty. Say the same words to an architect or interior designer, however, and you’ll probably get a very different list. Exciting. Experimental. Boundary-pushing.
The Japanese Go International
Ever since the 1980s, Japan has functioned as a global laboratory for architecture, spewing forth innovative, if sometimes impractical, interpretations of the relationship between humans, nature, and inhabited space. Those projects have earned Japanese architects a tremendous degree of international influence. Four out of seven recent Pritzker Prize winners hail from Japan (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa in 2010, Toyo Ito in 2013, and Shigeru Ban in 2014), and many more of their compatriots are winning international commissions, popping up in the pages of prestigious industry publications, and drawing adoring attention in the blogosphere. So what explains their power of attraction?
The answer, says University of California, Berkeley, architecture professor Dana Buntrock, is simple: Delight. Japanese architects have by and large faced fewer rules related to energy efficiency than their European and American counterparts, and fewer demands to solve other social problems as well. This has freed them up to make buildings that move people emotionally rather than always meet utilitarian needs.
“We in the States can be so focused on the issues of commodity and firmitas [durability] that we really blow delight,” says Buntrock, who has authored several books on Japanese architecture. “The Japanese, by blowing off utility, explore delight in lots of interesting and persuasive ways.” Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum, which Buntrock calls “one of the coolest buildings of the last ten years,” is a notable example: the peculiar lens of punctured concrete is located on a remote island and houses a single work of art, yet packs enough atmospheric intrigue to draw visitors from around the world.
Shigeru Ban in Switzerland:
Mixing Tatami Mats with Western Ideas
An earlier generation of architects and critics turned their eyes towards Japan for quite different reasons. “Traditional Japanese architecture with its tatami mats and sliding paper doors shares similarities with modernism, and Europeans like [Bauhaus movement founder] Walter Gropius and [utopian architect] Bruno Taut were very impressed by that,” says Tokyo-based architecture journalist Tatsuo Iso. Perhaps the most direct line of influence can be seen in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived and worked in Japan for several years and adopted concepts like open rooms without fixed walls.
Meanwhile, Japanese architects were grafting Western ideas about scale (bigger) and materials (brick, stone, concrete and steel) onto older design frameworks. The 1960s saw a circular exchange of ideas between architects striving to define modernism in both East and West, but “it’s hard to say which direction the arrow [of influence] was going,” says Iso.
An Influence that Stands Alone
Over the next few decades, the relationship shifted. Japanese architects were still looking abroad for ideas, but they were also offering up something unique of their own: buildings that were neither slavishly derivative of Western modernism, nor tied down by their own history. Architects as diverse as Terunobu Fujimori, Toyo Ito, and Kengo Kuma began to explore materials and composition with an outpouring of influential (though often short-lived) structures.
Architect and scholar of emerging materials Blaine Brownell attributes the appeal of these works primarily to two characteristics. First, they share “a very sophisticated understanding of material expression and detailing, almost a reveling in these things,” and second, they pay great attention to creating an atmosphere that “optimizes the signal-to-noise ratio.” Against the chaos of the Japanese city, he says, the impact of architectural sanctuaries like Sejima’s House in a Plum Grove or Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light is remarkable.
Building Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum:
Those design strategies have increasing relevance in Western countries, he argues. “As the world both physical and virtual becomes a noisier place with more of our visual attention being occupied by more channels, most people appreciate having some of that cleaned up for us and really being able to focus,” says Brownell, who interviewed 20 Japanese architects and designers for his recent book Matter in the Floating World. The popularity of Apple stores, which employ a similar design strategy, illustrates his point.
Dr. Marta Rodriguez, a Spanish architect who teaches and does research at the University of Houston, adds another piece to the puzzle of Japan’s continued attraction for the West: the power of small. Geographic limitations have forced the country’s architects not only to value small spaces but to innovate within them. Rodriguez points to Sejima, who engaged in much of her most radical experimentation on the scale of furniture and small structures, as an example (House in a Plum Grove housed 5 people and 3 cats in 78 square meters, for instance). As population grows worldwide and environmental problems become more pressing, the West is taking note.
“What is architecture in the iPhone era?” Rodriguez asks, before offering her own answer.
“Not less is more, but more in less. Japan is advanced in that.”