Japan 2000 - Architecture and Design for the Japanese Public

Kobe

This fascinating book published in conjunction with the exhibition "Japan 2000' (currently on show in at the Art Institute of Chicago and the gallery of San Francisco Airport) claims to focus on design for the public, but what are the main problems facing the Japanese? Despite ten years of recession, with land prices falling threefold, Japan remains the world's second richest country.

A century ago, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the exotic content and atmosphere of the Japanese pavilion left an indelible impression on the American public, in particular a young Frank Lloyd Wright. "Japan 2000' (both the book and exhibition) invite the reader/visitor to speculate about what the next century may produce, and what the young aspiring Lloyd Wrights would make of the current display.

The book's main thrust is to feature the commissioning of the country's top architects and designers on such edifices as police stations, bridges, dams and crematoriums. This also forms the crux of the exhibition, where the emphasis is on the individual response to the content, and its interpretation by independent architects.

Naomi Pollock expands the theme of designing for the Japanese public, through a portfolio of 17 projects, explaining that architects in the post 'bubble' economy period of the 1990s architects in Japan appear to have developed a sense of social responsibility. Gone are the days of exciting private excess, obsessions and exhibitionism resultng in buildings as sculpturai forms at the expense of space. After the bubble burst the public agencies were required to pick up the slack, designing everything from Koban police boxes and public toi lets, to prefectural art centres and World Cup 2002 stadiums.

In Japan however most of the Urban environment is produced by the giant construction companies, many of whom have historical links or are owned by the leading Zaibatsus financial institutions. Although, public commissions are decreasing, government officials are more relaxed than previously and place a higher value on design. Employing the creative talents of Kisho Kurokawa and Arata lsozaki as advisers and consultants are evidence that the seeds of change have been planted.

Of all the architects selected here perhaps the greatest expectations fall on the shoulders of Kazuyo Sejima, with her radical but expensive mass housing concept - disappointingly, the very real problem of social infrastructure provision receives scant coverage in "Japan 2000". Sejima's Gifu Kitagata apartments straddle the angular perimeter of the new international competition development like a Japanese screen painting. Sejima has minimised the width of the block and her simple but clever concept turns each unit and the garden terraces to the side so the main rooms enjoy a dual aspect. The garden terraces puncture the elevations providing exterior space sunlight and natural draft ventilation as in traditional buildings. The highly glazed elevations provide a snapshot of the daily domestic drama within as imagery. One third of the 107 apartments are made of maisonettes, but whether a ten-storey block can succeed as a convivial home remains to be seen.

Despite its polished appearance and individual merits, the overall impression is that contemporary Japanese architecture lacks spark and ingenuity, and It is left to Masayuki Kurokawa (Kisho's brother), to sum up the need to humanise technology and architecture. Designers have to make things humans can love and fit in with their lifestyles. Aspiring Llyd Wrights will take note.

Graham Cooper is a design consultant. In 1995 he was Arts Fellow for the Japan Foundation, London.

Japan 2000 - Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago Edited by John Zukowsky. Prestel clo Biblios Reviewed by Graham Cooper World Architecture 66 May 1998

 

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