A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami

A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami

Reviews: Exhibits

A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami

By Dana Buntrock
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A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami
Pedro Gadanho and Phoebe Springstubb, editors
Museum of Modern Art, 2016 
256 pages
$55 (hardcover)

Sou Fujimoto
Naomi Pollock
Phaidon Press, 2016
$59.95 (hardcover)

In March 2016, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond, opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the third show developed during Pedro Gadanho’s fleeting tenure as curator of contemporary architecture. Forty-three when he began in 2012, Gadanho, a blogger and editor of a “bookzine,” promised a fresh approach; his previous curatorial work was praised for its experimental evanescence. By the time Constellation opened, though, he was already back in his native Portugal, MOMA’s mistimed dalliance with Gen X at an end.
     Crowd-pleasing bookzines and blogs tend toward the breezy and accessible, skating over complexity or gravity. Gadanho’s roots in this world were conspicuously on display in the exhibition: photographs and perspectives flickered hazily across gauzy MUJI curtains, and crisp, diagrammatic plans and sections—along with the occasional abbreviated architect’s statement—were mounted directly on nearby dove-gray drywall partitions. At knee height, intriguingly abstract models anchored the show. With drawings on one wall and the related photos located elsewhere on a translucent screen, the discrete pieces of each project were scattered across space. The exhibition, as a result, seemed to lean to ad hoc over insightful. 
 

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     The accompanying catalog, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami, collected these photographs, perspectives, and orthogonal drawings into 256 bound pages, adding very little: two brief forewords cover the many necessary acknowledgments inevitable in a show like this, which involved generous financial support from corporations and charitable foundations, many of them Japanese. Four essays (none longer than six pages) by Gadanho, Terunobu Fujimori, Taro Igarashi, and Julian Worrall place the work in a broader perspective.1 A chapter is set aside for each of the six architects’ work, with a seventh chapter falling between Sejima’s and Nishizawa’s, and featuring the work of their joint studio, SANAA. Each starts with a single page of text in the architect’s own words printed in 18-point type, the longest a mere 254 words. The book’s smudgy photographs (printed on a toothed paper called Munken Polar Rough) and enigmatic line drawings echo the spare aesthetics of the exhibition, rolled out in a formulaic fashion.2
     As MOMA Director Glen Lowry explains in his foreword, the exhibition was built around the close professional relationships and stylistic similarities of what one might call Japan’s Ito School of architects. Toyo Ito (b. 1941) once employed both Sejima (b. 1956) and Hirata (b. 1971); Sejima in turn trained Nishizawa (b. 1966) and Ishigami (b. 1974). While Fujimoto (b. 1971) never worked for Ito or Sejima, he has benefited from their mentorship and advocacy and works within the same aesthetic arc.
     Repeatedly, the essays link Ito’s leadership of this talented group to Kenzo Tange’s commanding mentorship in the postwar period; elder Japanese architects have long nurtured their protégés’ careers, favoring them in competitions or recommending them for major cultural attention. Indeed, gossip suggests that Gadanho initially hoped to feature only Ito’s work at MOMA, but the patriarch advocated including not only the equally esteemed Sejima and Nishizawa (both, like Ito, Pritzker Laureates), but also the three young designers possessing relatively thin portfolios. Hirata, for example, is represented by a 2007 farm implements showroom in rural Japan, an elegant installation briefly sited at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and three unbuilt proposals, including a structurally challenging competition entry for a 6-acre (2.46-hectare) site in Taiwan. The chapters on Ishigami and Fujimoto, too, blithely blend innovative single-family homes with ostentatiously ambitious overseas competition proposals.

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Toyo Ito’s sketch served as the basis for the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016 show, “A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond.”
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     Fujimori’s interpretive essay looks backward in time, linking Ito’s circle to Le Corbusier in particular; the other two insiders both address the Japanese context for this constellation. Igarashi quickly reels off a number of successful, but nonetheless missing, Ito disciples, such as makoto yokomizo,3 MIKAN Gumi, and Klein Dytham, and raises up still younger Ishigami disciples Studio Velocity and Motosuke Mandai. The younger generation’s value, he suggests, is that it reinvigorates the entire Ito school; Hirata and Fujimoto offer “new architectural possibilities in convoluted structures and twisted spatial topologies,” influencing Ito’s 2002 Serpentine Pavilion or 2013 Taichung National Theater.4 Worrall’s essay, “The Deep Field: Resolving a Japanese Constellation,” bridges some of the differences between expectations for architectural discourse in the East versus the West, outlining the group’s aesthetic and intellectual commonalities—“nature, publicness, lightness, and abstraction” (245)—that set their uncompromisingly lean, ahierarchical approach apart from competitors at home and abroad.
     In Sou Fujimoto, Tokyo-based Naomi Pollock picks up where the MOMA catalog left off, offering a warmly intimate portrait of the promising forty-six-year-old architect’s opus. The monograph’s forty projects inhabit scalar extremes: novel single-family homes (built and unbuilt) or small pavilions sprinkled across the globe are casually interspersed with colossal competition proposals that even the most experienced architect might find daunting. Only a very few completed works inhabit the middle ground that drives most architectural practices: several psychiatric facilities that, as Pollock explains, came about through Fujimoto’s family connections; a remodeled boutique; a small apartment complex; an art gallery in China; and a large library and museum in Tokyo’s suburbs, which Fujimoto snagged in a 2007 limited competition—modest built work for a monograph from a leading publisher.

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     In a text that can be entered at any point, frequently revisiting fundamentals such as Fujimoto’s Hokkaido roots or his close study of Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, Pollock describes a tried-and-true roadmap for ambitious Japanese architects. Fujimoto’s most transcendent projects, such as “Primitive Future House” or “Network by Walk,” were generated for Japanese “ideas competitions,” leading to financial reward, publication, and early celebrity. Pollock discloses that his commitment to international competitions was “a by-product of lecturing overseas. … Fujimoto began devoting considerable resources to these international endeavors” (176). And winning many, among them the 2011 Taiwan Tower and Belgrade’s Beton Hala Waterfront Center (also included in the MOMA catalog), the 2014 Forest of Music (Budapest), and the 2015 Polytechnique University (Paris). These remain unbuilt, she explains, for “economic and political reasons” (176). The profession’s passion for visionary proposals, expressed by many juries across the world, outstripped clients’ commitments.
     Pollock quotes Fujimoto saying “I am not thinking deeply but I am thinking instinctively” (13). She forgives his impracticalities, arguing, for example, “holes in the floor merely require watching one’s step” (12), or “the absence of handrails coupled with the steep incline [of an inhabitable residential roof] act as natural deterrents” (180). In this way, she further underscores the distance between the Ito school’s youngest leaders and the profession’s more conventional practices.
     Since Tange’s time, an ambitious few from each generation in Japan have enjoyed the support of powerful elder architects wielding tight control over competitions, publication, and cultural commissions. Today, the younger generation’s increasingly brazen proposals push them ever farther afield in pursuit of work; Pollock points out that “close to eighty per cent” of Fujimoto’s efforts are overseas (13), as are 40 percent of the forty-four projects in the MOMA catalog. And, as both books illustrate, these quixotic proposals are built for an intellectual vanguard (including many collectors), where unusual cultural capital is most highly valued. In truth, even the financial model for these unconventional firms differs from day-to-day practice: Pollock notes the many (unpaid) foreign and student interns who buttress Fujimoto’s operation (13).
 

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Work by Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa and their combined firm SANAA make up three of the seven chapters in the calatogue. Roughly 50,000 square feet of new construction, SANAA’s Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut (2012-5) is at a scale not represented in the younger architects’ works.
Akihisa Hirata’s short-lived Bloomberg Pavilion (2010-1) was sited at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s modest scale allowed for a carefully worked out algorithmic approach, rendered with elegantly detailed craft.
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     Since Tange’s time, an ambitious few from each generation in Japan have enjoyed the support of powerful elder architects wielding tight control over competitions, publication, and cultural commissions. Today, the younger generation’s increasingly brazen proposals push them ever farther afield in pursuit of work; Pollock points out that “close to eighty per cent” of Fujimoto’s efforts are overseas (13), as are 40 percent of the forty-four projects in the MOMA catalog. And, as both books illustrate, these quixotic proposals are built for an intellectual vanguard (including many collectors), where unusual cultural capital is most highly valued. In truth, even the financial model for these unconventional firms differs from day-to-day practice: Pollock notes the many (unpaid) foreign and student interns who buttress Fujimoto’s operation (13).
     As Julian Worrall explains in the MOMA catalog’s concluding essay, this situation causes even Ito discomfort: “He has explicitly promoted … a corrective to what he regards as the pallid insubstantiality of the work of the younger generation of Japanese architects (the chief standard-bearers being Ito’s own ‘children’)” (245–46). In its accelerating pursuit of the architecture world’s leading edge, Ito’s constellation has become its orchid house, inspiring the field with ever more astonishing and elusive beauty. But his Gen X protégés’ failure to advance from the intimate scale of homes and artworks to the ambitions reflected in serious competitions—their failure to convert exciting conceptual work into inhabitable architecture—is already causing internal anxiety, even as their own “children” in the next generation press further into the avant-garde.
 

I translated Fujimori’s essay for the catalog.
One or two large photos across the initial facing pages introduce each project, accompanied by a dozen lines of incisive text by MOMA’s Phoebe Springstubb. These are followed by a page of two or three smaller photos and a page of line drawings. In each architect’s chapter, the predictable rhythm is slightly disrupted by adding two pages of small photographs for one of the featured projects.
While the catalog capitalizes yokomizo’s name, it is his practice to write it in the style of bell hooks.
I am using the date of completion printed in the catalog, although construction continued on the National Theater through 2014.
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