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Craftsmanship Meets Technology : Japan's Architects Borrow From Past to Design a Future

November 26, 1987|MAGGIE JACKSON | Associated Press

TOKYO — Japan's top architects have tasted freedom and found it heady. Now their own masters, they worship no ideologies of past style or futuristic form.

"We are free from icons, free from gods," said Kisho Kurokawa, with the jumbled silhouette of Tokyo stretching below his studio windows. "It's a new age, a dynamic situation."

Architectural critics and Kurokowa's colleagues agree. Japan's architects today feel little compulsion to work by anyone else's rules, fostering an era of prolific and diverse creation.

Earthquakes in Mind

Not even Japan's constant concern about earthquakes constricts their designs.

"It's an exciting moment," said Fumihiko Maki, who at the age of 59 has moved toward a new style that produced his greatest works.

His Spiral Building, completed in 1985 in the chic Omotesando district of Tokyo, has a collage-like aluminum facade of cone, square and grid forms.

In an age of such variety, there is little in the way of a mainstream style. A look at their career paths shows how Japan's top designers found the freedom to differ.

Many of the best architects began by training under Kenzo Tange, the dean of modern Japanese architecture, the man who probably most represents the ideas they have broken away from.

As a professor at Tokyo University's Architecture School, Tange taught Kurokawa and Maki. Arata Isozaki, creator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, worked in Tange's office for nine years.

As a young architect, Tange saw in the ashes of World War II a chance to create not just new buildings, but new cities. His sleek Peace Center in Hiroshima, built four years after the U. S. atomic bombing in 1945, was designed to become the "spiritual core" of the city, he said.

An elfin 74-year-old who still works full time, Tange is a visionary who believes architects have a social mission.

"Architects today tend to depreciate themselves, to regard themselves as no more than just ordinary citizens without the power to reform the future," Tange has written. "I feel, however, that we architects have a special duty and mission . . . (to contribute) to the socio-cultural development of architecture and urban planning."

Since the war, he has worked for a certain orderliness not only in his buildings, but also in their urban settings. He developed a functional approach to design, using the latest technology.

In the work considered his masterpiece--the twin gymnasiums designed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics--he placed two comma-shaped buildings with sweeping roofs like upside-down ships' hulls so as to connect two busy Tokyo districts.

One Motif Dominates

"You will find all his works have a certain order, a single motif," said Nobuo Hozomi, a professor and critic of architecture. "One major motif dominates the whole structure, so you can read and understand it immediately."

Tange has headed urban design projects in several countries, and for more than 20 years has also pushed for a plan to redesign Tokyo. That plan remains unrealized, but has influenced current efforts to develop Tokyo Bay.

This year, he won architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize. But while his work has "acquired a kind of statesmanship . . . his influence in architectural ideas is not as great or as strong as before," Maki said.

In the first decades after World War II, "all architects had a god, an ideal for society," said Kurokawa, who is designing Gateway Center, an angular, 40-story multi-use building at the corner of Figueroa and Temple streets in Los Angeles. "They had a central conception for architecture, a great task . . . to reform society."

But in the 1960s and 1970s, Maki and other architects began to feel increasingly alienated from the utopian, futuristic architectural and urban designs admired by Tange and others.

Today, part of the new freedom stems from this continued uncertainty about the future coupled with a freedom from the past, Maki said. In a sense, Japanese architects are "living for the moment," he added. "It's a very fragile sort of situation."

Today's top architects were also influenced by the war, seeing its destruction as children. But unlike Tange, who helped rebuild Tokyo, younger designers saw a new city spring up before they began their careers.

"In Paris, London or New York, nobody experienced such a drastic change," said the 53-year-old Kurokawa. "In one night, the city disappeared, and in 40 years another city is there. . . . This makes our generation flexible-minded." The war thus helped teach architects that change is unavoidable, and not always controllable: Tokyo's finest new buildings sit among ugly concrete structures that make much of the city a chaotic sprawl.

"The city is not something we are going to reconstruct, nor is it an object to exercise architectural muscle," Maki was quoted as saying in Japan Architect magazine. "We take the city as a kind of man-made nature and try to respond to it."

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