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Coming of age in Japan’s lost decades

Drawing on Japan’s still fertile architectural culture, which continues to present younger firms with opportunities, Japanese architects extend their record of excellence in the Awards, encapsulating the resilience of those who came of age in Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’

Despite the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011 as the apex of decades of hardship since the bursting of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, a new resilient generation of architects is re-examining fundamental premises of design in Japan. This year’s six Emerging Architecture award winners, who are either based or working in Japan, illustrate the continued strength of its architectural culture, especially in terms of supporting young, arguably innocent voices, to find new possibilities for practice. As this group illustrates architects in Japan often emerge a decade before their counterparts in other countries at an age when they are particularly passionate, agile and hungry for success.

This group of architects, born between 1966 and 1982, was educated and came of age during Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’ of the 1990s and 2000s. Economic stagnation resulted in the restructuring of companies and banks, subsequent demise of guarantees for life-time employment and rise of the ‘freeter’ − a word used to describe young adults who deliberately chose not to become salary-men, lack full-time employment, or are unemployed. In this age of uncertainty, this generation has looked beyond conventional corporate positions to a greater diversity of types and scales of basic design possibilities that often use humblematerials and methods and encompass furniture/industrial design and landscape.

Many of the award-winners cut their teeth and formed their design sensitivities under leading architects, but soon became independent to forge their own voices through small, often-low paying but interesting commissions. These include gallery installations and renovations in which they have explored the potential of spatial, material and lighting effects rather than creating overt sculptural form. Each architect has benefited from the internet to establish their own websites as platforms for ideas, no matter where they are located. Propelled by youthful energy, this generation continues to benefit from skilled craftspeople that embrace new challenges. This group, lacking any one particular style, represents the diversity of currents now being cultivated in Japan.

Tetsuo Kondo (born 1975) built on his seven years working for Kazuyo Sejima/SANAA by designing the modest projects including a full-length mirror, whose reflectivity changes according to angle of view to shape the character of a room and information lounge defined by a topographic carpet juxtaposed to the surrounding landscape at SANAA’s 21st-century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa (2004). Kondo gained international fame for his ramped Cloudscapes installation in collaboration with Matthias Schuler at Transsolar for the 2010 Venice Biennale (AR October 2010). Building on the success of this surreal architectural promenade below and above a cloud of saturated air within the brick warehouse spaces of the Arsenale, Kondo translated his elevated ramp scheme to the forests of Tallinn, Estonia, for his winning design.

‘Architects in Japan often emerge a decade before their counterparts in other countries at an age when they are passionate, agile and hungry for success’

Hiroshi Nakamura (born 1974), after working for Kengo Kuma between 1999 and 2002, continued his master’s attention to the effect of materials through a wide range of residential projects. Early projects include experiments with lighting effects of polka-dotted openings for the Lanvin Boutique in Ginza (2004), transforming a corporate office lobby through an epoxy resin floor that appears to be water above a bed of stones (2005). He further explored the effect of natural elements in his free-form composition of birdhouses in his ‘Dancing Trees, Singing Birds’ housing complex (2007), which evolved into his latest Roku Art Museum (2010) with curved walls and ceilings that reflect the shape of its surrounding trees.

Masahiro Harada (born 1973), who also worked for Kuma (1997-2000), José Antonio Martínez Lapeña and Elías Torres (2001-02), and Arata Isozaki (2003), set up his own course in the process of establishing Mount Fuji Architects Studio in 2004. The combined effects of the depressed economy and ongoing population decline have resulted in regenerative projects of the existing built environment, rather than an entirely new construction. Early projects include creating a Secondary Landscape (2004) of wooden polygonal hills atop a 40-year-old building in counterpoint to the mish mash of its surrounding utilitarian Tokyo landscape. Harada’s Sagacho Archives reflects this trend as a work that blurs the line between artistic installation and renovation as a gallery in a re-commissioned public school.

Takashi Yonezawa (born 1982), who maintains his Nagoya-based practice HAP Associates outside of the design centre of Tokyo, has thrived within an architecture culture that cultivates young blood. Following his 2008 commendation for his outstanding architectural model in the SD Review competition, he has most recently
been featured in the 2011 SUS Aluminium Architecture Under 30 exhibition. Well aware of the trials of the Japanese education system, Yonezawa infused spatial openness to the grind of studying in his design of the A-frame Kumon School in Kyoto.

Shingo Masuda (born 1982) and Katsuhisa Otsubo (born 1983), as the youngest architects of this generation, further look to micro-elements for inspiration. In their Ghost-like Architecture project, they transformed a simple courtyard wall enclosure into a translucent division between a house, garden and street. Their ‘Little Hilltop with Wind View’ intensifies the site’s elements, including the wind, flowers and clouds in a rubber-clad viewing tower overlooking windmills. Like an actual seedling, their architectural inspirations are cultivated by fundamentals of nature and building itself. Their strengths lie in their simplicity of conception and sophistication of articulation.

Vancouver-based Todd MacAllen (born 1966) and Stephanie Forsythe (born 1970), the most senior of this group of emerging architects, crossed international borders to infuse new life into the northern Japanese city of Aomori’s Nebuta Festival in their competition-winning design. Reinterpreting the folk celebration and domestic Japanese elements such as the engawa interstitial space, they bring fresh insights into Japanese traditions through their staging of mythical heroes, demons and animals within an undulating curtain-like deep red steel ribbon enclosure inspired by lacquer ware.

In the coming years, the legacy of Japan’s built and cultural legacy will become more important to re-examine with less new construction and more renovation work with the country’s changing demographics. The emerging generation in Japan, with its continued energy and diversity of perspectives firmly established, will be particularly equipped as it matures and grows to sustain wonder within the existing built and natural environment.

Ken Tadashi Oshima is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington, where he teaches in the areas of trans-national architectural history, theory, representation, and design.

This article was written for The Architectural Review, November 23, 2011.

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