Sunday, January 28, 2007

Urban Tokyo Series - pt.2: Showa Modern

This week, our Tokyo correspondent Darryl Wee gives us his take on Showa Modern, the genre of architecture that emerged in a culturally insecure Japan during the Taisho-Showa era and eventually blossomed into the Japanese modernism that we know of today.

Although never formally colonized, Japan has always been fertile nesting territory for Western cultural imports. The vogue for youkan (western houses) dates from Meiji, but it was only really during early Showa (1925 onward) that modernist architecture as such began to sink roots. Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel was completed in 1923, Tokyo has cherished, if not actively fetishized, the industrial gleam of steel and glass, prizing their “negative” values like natural light and void space.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Tokyo Imperial Hotel, 1922

Maybe that affinity was mirrored in its own native building traditions: the one storey hiraya, a wooden house constructed from timber joinery and sliding screens; the row house (nagaya) stretching deep into narrow back alleys (rojiura) despite an extremely narrow frontage (supposedly a legacy from feudal times when merchants, for whom this dwelling was principally constructed, were taxed on their property according to the width of this frontage along the main thoroughfare); the tea room, or sukiya, that opens out onto a “verandah” overhanging the garden or doma (unfloored part of the house), the site of domestic urban-pastoral happiness, it seems - frothy matcha in tea bowls with Japanese sweets, sunning oneself while playing go, entertaining the house cat, etc.

Foreign architects working in Tokyo found warm reception for their open plan, well-lit interiors. Conversely, Japanese repatriate architects returned to plant Parisian arcades and brick buildings all over the city. Wright’s assistant on the Imperial Hotel, the Czech-born Antonin Raymond, enjoys something of a mythic status as a pioneer of rational, angular modernism. In suburban Suginami ward, Raymond’s Tokyo Women’s Christian University nestles next to Zenpukuji park. The church fa├žade is riddled with geometric ventiblocks that resemble a Moorish arabesque, or one of Wright’s Mayan-inspired suburban stone villas in Hollywood or Pasadena.

Early attempts at reproducing a Bauhaus aesthetic
in Japan (Kikkawa Residence by Horiguchi Sutemi, 1930)

The record of Japanese product during the same period, however, was patchy. Mainstream Japanese modern before the war was essentially Bauhaus inspired-and-imitated. Apartment blocks were initially meant only for foreigners and Japanese repatriates. It introduced other curious and forward-looking youngsters, mobo and moga (modern boys and girls; essentially the Japanese generational equivalent of London’s Bright Young Things, or Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age dandies) to dosoku seikatsu – literally, life with shoes on. From wood, cinderblocks and rice paper, lounging on cushions and tatami, suddenly Tokyo’s moboga were capering around a living room in brogues and heels, perching on top of Bauhaus pipe chairs and sipping earl grey from English china.

The love of “modern” interiors was uncritical and unchallenged, and at first the Japanese didn’t so much import Western architectural expertise as borrow the glamor of its associations. The defining curves and stylized lines of New York Art Deco were props on permanent loan for the living spaces of Asia’s first burgeoning middle class urban consumer society.

European mod cons seemed as if they were flown in direct and retrofitted. From Paris, the shopping arcades or passages suddenly materialized in central Tokyo. The first indoor arcade appeared in the Maru office building in 1923, in the Marunouchi/Hibiya district, historically faithful down to the mosaic floors, Art Nouveau arches and wrought iron rails and balustrades. This would mark the start of an enduring taste for Reform Club smoking-jacket chic: heavy lampshades, thick wooden panelling and so on. Even today, this sort of gentleman's club atmosphere lingers in the more sullen corners and musty basements of Marunouchi and Ginza, still cherished by retro hounds with a taste for boardroom gravitas.

Japanese Pavilion at Paris World Exposition
by Sakakura Junzo, 1937

It would take some time for modernism as such to be fully digested by the New Japanese architecture, though. Maekawa Kunio, together with Sakakura Junzo and Yoshimura Junzo, completed the somewhat textbook-Miesian International Culture House (kokusai bunka kaikan, not to be confused with the late 50s concrete concert and event hall in Ueno park called just bunka kaikan) in Roppongi, which even way back in 1923 already had the stirrings of a foreigner-friendly cosmopolitanism. Late in his career, Maekawa would find the balance that would earn him his reputation as a leading light of the New Japanese Modern, successfully marrying his Bauhaus leanings with traditional “authentic” Japanese traditions.

Maekawa Kunio's Tokyo Metropolitan
Festival Hall, Ueno, Tokyo, 1961

His personal residence (1942), now dismantled and reincarnated in the open-air Edo-Tokyo architectural museum in Koganei city, is essentially a hiraya with more generous proportions and better natural light. It retains the free flow of space from the interior living room outward to the yard of the traditional Japanese residence, with an elegant concession to high ceilings and near-transparent sliding screen doors. The result is one of those rare instances where fusion rids each component of its limitations. The Japanese house managed to shed its usual gloom, and the modern glass box acquired a newfound warmth of materials. I’ll let the picture speak for itself

the Maekawa residence: its warmth and glow