Travelogue: KSA Japan 2013

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in Japan, co-leading a study-abroad tour with professors from the Ohio State University. What follows is my more-or-less real-time stream-of-consciousness travelogue, typed mostly on iPad and supplemented with photos posted daily to Instagram.

Day (-2): Nikko

252After about 20 hours in transit (including some jet-lagged confusion on the Tobu Line out of Tokyo), I’ve arrived at my first stop in Japan: Nikko. The city had been cut from our official itinerary fairly early in the planning process, and I wanted to see what we’d be missing (and, I admit,  spend a few peaceful nights in a traditional inn before the frenzied tour officially starts).

Nikko is justifiably famous for its collection of UNESCO-listed temple complexes, nestled in the cedar forests a few miles from the modern city. Nikko’s temples are considered the best of Japan’s Edo-era architecture, and as late as the 19th century they were widely considered the apotheosis of Japanese architecture in general. Essentially, the Nikko temples take Chinese-Buddhist precedents, and crank up the volume. These buildings are gaudy and ostentatious: no surface goes undecorated, and the riot of ornamentation and visual collision of myriad materials can be shocking, if one was expecting severe minimalism. Of course, the temples at Nikko are of a different era than, say, the restrained imperial villas and gardens of Kyoto.

For architects today, “Japanese traditional architecture” will bring to mind the geometrically-precise proportions of tatami-mat tea rooms, or the honest tectonics of unlaquered joinery, or the sliding screens that could reconfigure a room for different uses, or seasons. This perception, while not untrue, is largely the result of the promotion, and curation,  of only certain modes of Japanese architecture by the major players of early European Modernism. The Japanese influence on Gropius and the Bauhaus is well known. Bruno Taut was perhaps the first to exhile the exhuberant aesthetics of Nikko to the history books  when he embraced  the spare lines of Katsura  in a memorable diagram in his “Japanese Architecture.”

It’s too easy to dismiss Nikko as frivolous, as a overwrought riff on Chinese styles before Japan developed a ‘true’ indigenous architecture, and I believe the buildings here  fit perfectly well on a trajectory of development that runs from the earliest Minka farmhouses all the way through to present. We’ll see similar temple architecture later on, and will be interesting to compare.


Day 1: Tokyo

223From our hotel in Akasaka, we took the subway (and a brief walk)to Meiji shrin, walked through the park to the 1964 Olympic Gymnasium, on to Shibuya Crossing (viaAtelier Bow Wow’s Miyashita Park), then backtracked a bit to the luxury boutiques along Omotesando-dori (hhstyle, Gyre, Tods, Omotesando Hills, Louis Vuitton, Coach, the Spiral building, and Prada), then went on to the Nezu museum, Aoyama cemetery, the National Art Center, 21 21 Design Sight,  the Suntory Museum, a brief walk to Roppongi Hills,  and wrapped up the day with a visit to the Mori art museum and skydeck at sunset.

A long day, but we did manage to see a cross-section of Tokyo’s architectural history. Though the Meiji shrine is a fairly recent construct, we were able to start a discussion on temple typology – the influence of Chinese planning principals, propagated through japan via buddhism, and the subtle (to our untrained eyes) differences between Buddhist and Shinto temple/shrine architecture. While the shrine itself is a relatively recent construction (last rebuilt in the late 1950s),  we noted the craftsmanship that marks it as inheritor of a longstanding craft tradition, and noted the tectonic ‘honesty’ of materials and lack of unnecessary ornamentation as possible differentiators between Buddhist and Shinto  architecture. In our discussion, we speculated on the role of ancient/traditional forms of architecture in the establishment or reinforcing of state power. In the shrine’s original incarnation in the 1920s, the use of traditional forms and construction techniques could be understood as a reaction against the westernizing tendencies of the Meiji restoration, ironic as the shrine was built to venerate the recently deceased Meiji emperor…

227Moving to the 1964 Olympic stadium, we note, again, the tension between the state and the individual in the construction (or re-construction) of a modern society. Tokyo had been selected  as the venue for the 1940 Olympic Games, but as the Sino-Japanese war  merged with the pacific theater of WWII the games were justifiably canceled. Only 4 years after theBerlin olympics, we could only speculate what the Games would look like in Imperial Japan. A mere 24 years later, Tange’s Olympic Gymnasium was constructed on a grand scale – a perhaps obscene use of space, considering the cramped quarters in which most Tokyoites did (and still do) live. The form of the building still looks shockingly contemporary, with sweeping curves derived from the practical necessities of a large span roof in a seismically active zone. The formal similarities between the sweep of the roof and the curves  of the eaves in traditional temple architecture cannot be overlooked, and may have had some impact on the acceptance of the gymnasium as a symbol of modern japan, so soon after the dismantling  of the Japanese empire and the devastation of war.

225Onward to Shibuya station and crossing, we had the opportunity to discuss Tokyo’s urban development, and the agglomeration as a multinodal, decentralized network. Like Los Angeles, Tokyo has no real center (the symbolic one in each case relatively devoid of street life). The city exists as a sprawling mat, punctuated in only a few places by high-rise towers and the associated commercial frenzy. Shibuya is one of those nodes. Walking from Shibuya crossing to Omotesando, we noted the pedestrian-scale lanes branching  out from the major boulevards and pondered the  legacy of pre-modern land-holdings and  the differences in urban form between the former low and high city (feudal lords vs merchants?). The retail boutiques of Omotesando-dori make an interesting group, but spatially only the Raum-plan of Jun Aoki’s Louis Vuitton and the extruded diamonds of HdM’s Prada make a big impression. The others seem mere surface & graphic.Prada’s position in the ongoing HdM project – the elaboration of surface graphic into three-dimensional space – was discussed at length, while our group tried to sneak photos of the interior.

From Omotesando-dori, we walked past Kengo  Kuma’s Nezu Museum to  Aoyama Cemetery, and on to Tange’s National Art  Center, which we caught in great light – surprised by the accessibility of the lobby, occupying the space between the wavy skin and the blocky gallery halls. As the trip goes on we’ll try to reconcile Kurokawa’s early Metabolist work with his later (commercial?) phase, but that discussion will wait for another day.

After a stop at the fairly uninteresting 21-21 Design Sight, we jogged to Roppongi Hills’ Mor