International Architecture in Interwar Japan

Amy Hartwell June 3, 2010 Comments Off on International Architecture in Interwar Japan

Even if you’re not an architect, you likely know the names Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Otto Wagner – the well-known titans of the International Style of modern architecture that defined the 1920s and 30s. Professor Ken Tadashi Oshima, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture, traces the careers of three less familiar architects who, through global travel, mass media, and building technology information exchange, developed a unique aesthetic that met the demands of modern living while remaining appropriate to Japan’s climate, culture, and economy.

The three modernists examined are: Yamada Mamoru (1894-1966), Horiguchi Sutemi (1895-1984), and Antonin Raymond (1888-1976).Their quest to discover Kokusai Kenchiku, or “International Architecture”, stemmed from their mutual desire to break from past architectural traditions at the turn of the twentieth century. They aspired to generate a vital, authentic architecture firmly situated in the present yet interlaced with familiar cultural traditions. Yamada and Horiguchi contributed to the creation of the Bunriha – the Japanese Secessionist Architectural Association – in 1920 which looked West for modernist inspiration at about the same time that Raymond, a Czech native, became fascinated with the tangible simplicity of Japanese design through early tutelage and employment with Frank Lloyd Wright. Oshima outlines the early educations, formative influences, employment choices, peer practitioners, and significant commissions of all three within the context of world events and newly-emerging visual, philosophical, and social concepts.

To explain the challenges these architects confronted, Oshima begins by describing the history of Japanese design and culture preceding World War II. During the Meiji Period, from 1868 to 1912, Japan underwent a tide of modernization and Westernization that elevated it to world power status. Simultaneously, architects began dismissing rote historicist traditions and pursued expressive ideals based on building material properties, humanism, and tectonics, or the poetry of structure. Japanese architects of the 1920s were strongly influenced by the Vienna Secession movement as well as the DeStijl. Oshima asserts that DeStijl principles greatly resemble traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony principles. In the case of a Japanese teahouse, the room is sized according to tatami mats, typically at four-and-a-half mats. Similarly, DeStijl design was based on rectilinear geometry coupled with strong asymmetry, where a room or entire structure is divided into proportions based on a fundamental building unit. Both principles symbolized spiritual harmony and order.

As their practices evolved, Yamada, Horiguchi, and Raymond were faced with the conundrum of defining what was International versus what was specifically Japanese. Oshima asks: Is there a sensitivity that transcends context? Would their buildings be as successful if they were located anywhere else in the world? The author explores how the dichotomies between Oriental and Occidental traditions played out in everyday life during this period and how they influenced building forms and materials. Western norms such as wearing shoes indoors, using utensils, and sitting in furniture that required solid-surface flooring became problematic when designing for clients embedded in both cultures. Similarly, familiar building materials such as wood and thatch were re-interpreted and juxtaposed next to new materials like concrete and steel to create hybrid forms considered avant-garde for the time.

Through numerous photographs, diagrams, and thoroughly researched historical documentation, Oshima weaves a compelling argument for how these artisan architects achieved their goal of creating completely unique architectural forms linking past with present, old with new, ordinary with unusual. He chronicles their important residential and civic works – Horiguchi’s Soshokyo (“double bell house”), Yamada’s Tokyo Central Telegraph Office, and Raymond’s Tokyo Golf Club, for example – and how each contributed to Japan’s wealth of contemporary buildings that blended modern materials and volumetric designs with the traditional Japanese appreciation of nature. He cites the “transformative process inspiring a new language where old materials are re-thought in new ways.”

The Japanese International style effectively reached its end with the unrealized Tokyo Olympics in 1940. Due to escalating war efforts in Japan and the resultant steel demand for military purposes, non-military construction projects reverted back to standard wood construction. Yamada, Horiguchi, and Raymond remained kindred spirits and continued their careers in various capacities during and after WWII and found opportunities to continue their quest for an International architectural ideal.

“International Architecture in Interwar Japan: Constructing Kokusai Kenchiku”. Dr. Ken Tadashi Oshima 2009, University of Washington Press.

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