by Hideaki Ariizumi, Manuel Tardits and Enric Massip
For this issue we propose the subject of cultural superimposition: architecture produced in a concrete society but thought under different cultural coordinates. It includes the implantation of foreign models, materials and/or styles as well as the work of "displaced" architects: Mies in America, LC in India, Wright in Japan -to mention but few known examples.
We want to raise some questions: Is architecture universal? Has it always been so, or is it a product of modern times, of the hegemony of Western thought and Western economical/military power? Is architecture (or any cultural manifestation, for that matter) bound to roots or bound to exchange? Is it part of a complex process of adaptation of the general to the local -or viceversa? And more personally: do architects coming from other latitudes have a say in what architecture should be in their plce of activity, or should they adapt to preexistant structures such as social and bureaucratic habits, union's criteria, technical traditions, availability of materials? Is there room to think that we all share nowadays a common approach to architecture, whatever "common", "approach" and "architecture" might mean?
Or, are all the disruptions produced by the superimposition of cultures of the same sort, of the same value and of the same consequences? Does the success that often follows these disruptions show an inevitable and progressive coming together of the different cultures, or is it only a part of the Western commercial and mediatic pressure?
1. Stranger's pleasure
The first two years of my New York residence, I worked with Steven Holl on a housing project in Japan. It was interesting to observe both Steven and the Japanese client each with slightly different expectations. The client was a leading developer who displayed brave enthusiasm and energetic willingness to accept new design experiments. Steven, on the other hand, surprised me with his persistent chase of materiality and craftsmanship. Since abstraction and simplification were the basic methods I used to control materials and detailing, I was not comfortable contributing to the development of materiality and hand-crafted shapes. However, gradually, I realized that there can be aggressive details as well as passive details. The aggressive detail is a detail which makes its own statements, while passive detail is intended to remain in the background, disappearing from attention.
We, I with my partner Glynis, started touring the Long Island area in search of a potential site for designing and building a house as our "business card". I found bare nature just a two or three hour drive from Manhattan. I also realized that the area where we can reach nature is unexpectedly limited by privatization. We can not see even a sliver of water from the road on a skinny island, since the views are continuously blocked by a chain of private properties each of which own a fragment of beach. While the townscapes are such overwhelmed by privatizing, we also found that there are many personal conventions inserted in individual sales contracts, in addition to the public codes, allowing ex-owner to check the new owner's freedom of designs and use. I was confused about what is the "ownership" in this country. Something is very wrong, isn't it?
What made me so surprised when we were at the design development stage for the "House on North Fork" was that the building materials were so limited with no flexibility. However the scarcity of materials is not due to the reliance of local resources as in past times, but to the control of the market by less than a hand-full numbers of dealers. Unexpectedly limited availability of the factory mass-produced materials is a big restriction for the cost control. Is this what it was supposed to be?
Whatever the surprises are, they often generate a stranger's pleasure, maybe even stimulating enlightenment. Like Picaso bumped in to the African art, like Corbusier loved the Mediterranean vernacular, many artists, architects found their inspirations from foreign cultures. That is a privilege of a person who go across an unfamiliar field. Since all related local facts are generally ignored or unknown in the traveler's considerations, the enlightenment may not benefit immediately to the place where he/she is visiting. Even it can be just a simple misunderstanding. But still it may benefit to the visitor's home, where his/her considerations are based on.
2. Alien's observation
I once wrote in a small essay that "New York is a metropolis of phenomena, while Tokyo is a empire of signs". ("Toward experiential space," Shinkenchiku 8/1994). The speed of changing signs is the organic rhythm of Tokyo, consuming all kinds of "new" fashions in a moment. The physical appearances of buildings are not flexible enough to synchronize with this speed of change, however, they seems to be trying to. There are neither basic prototypes, nor well developed/completed works, but a huge emerging accumulation of re-productions with small differentiations shifting their appearances next to next. It never stops nor concludes. On the other hand, New York is a petrified city not progressing passed the 1960s. Everything looks to be concluded. Even the nature has a clarity set in contrast to manmade settings, as the clearly articulated Central Park. The certainty of the physical appearances provides stages for varied phenomena. In New York, the "soft" aspects take place in the "hard" basin. While in Tokyo, the "soft" metaphorically rules the "hard".
It might be possible to apply the similar frame on to what I was and am trying to find in my design themes. When I was in Japan, I always tried to find a new formal system for things which correspond to the new ways of living. In this manner, the "thing" and "life" is still in the same amalgam. After I moved to New York, I started to consider the phenomenon which may appear between things and us. The "thing" was distinguished a little more carefully from "life". It is clear for me that changing the base-camp between different cultures prompted and made it possible for me to compare and to recognize cultural paradigms a little more objectively. The alien's observation-frame is a comparison. It helps the alien to clarify the characteristics of two cultures simultaneously. For architects, to know the cultural characteristics is more than just an analysis of our past, but it is a recognition of aspects which may be the unconscious rules having formed our settings. Once it is revealed from the opaque cover, it can be transformed to be an usable design tool or material.
3. Undetermined object in Tokyo
Let me think about architecture built in a foreign context, instead of architect in a foreign context. It might shake the community, in some way.
Recently, the "Tokyo International Forum" was completed in the center of Tokyo, designed by Rafael Violy, a NY architect who won the international competition for the project. The completed architecture is perfectly done, thoughtfully designed from the gigantic spaces corresponding to the metropolis, to the tiny bolts fastening metal pieces. However, the reactions of Japanese architects were generally quite critical. Typically, they commented that the building is a symbol of the Japanese bubble economy, using excess money and generating costly running expenses which must be carried by citizens of the future. The criticisms are reasonable under the economical circumstances. Although they criticized its economic/political planning side only, and carefully bypassed talking about the design, leaving it undetermined.
Herbert Muschamp wrote an incredible homage for the building in the New York Times. Using it as a spring board, he criticized the common sense among today's leading architects. As I once had a hard time working with Steven's materiality and detailing, it might be possible that there is prejudice against the well crafted object among Japanese architects, including myself, who have been reacted against Japanese tradition of craft.
Muschamp wrote that "And it's rigor, I suspect, that disturbs some architects. ... It has the authority of a True Faith. And we're not supposed to believe in that concept anymore. We're supposed to be allergic to the sort of canons laid down by the modern movement. ... Perhaps this building's disturbing power is that it challenges the True Faith of relativism, pluralism and the mediocrities that those beliefs have sent spinning in the world."
What I found as a Japanese regional aspect based on Japanese condition can be a common topic beyond the different background, while being acquainted with the difference each other. Modernism certainly provided us a table around which to sit and talk. However, we should not forget that what we know about Modernism is still the one viewed from our regional eyes. Japanese modernism is not the same as the one in Europe, European modernism is not quite the same as the one in the USA. There is no use and need to make the world monolithic. Instead, we can enjoy, be surprised, inspired and stimulated by the differences.
Muschamp ends the article as follows: "It upholds a belief in reason that predates the modern movement. It is 18th century, not 20th, in the outlook, and the outlook is fine. The enduring value of European Enlightenment: that is what's right about Violy's contribution to modern Japan."
I myself am not fond of this ending. One: the quality that appeared in the middle of Tokyo is not of the 18th century, but of now. Although it may resemble the 18th century rather than the 20th, and it may be discussed so as its origin. However since it such impressed Muschamp, who is a critic of this time, there must be something significantly valuable for today. Two: After all Tokyo may not be rescued, if the quality that delivered in the building was just the "enduring value of European Enlightenment" from the 18th century. What I am curious about is what kind of quality, evident in 18th century, still makes him so excited at this moment of our time.
This question takes me back to the idea of "aggressive detailing". Ignoring the accuracy of the definition of the term, "aggressive detailing" can be easily found, without returning to the 18th century, among many important works by the pioneers of modernist architecture: from FL Wright, Loos, Rietveld, Chareau, Mies, Aalto ,Schindler... to Kahn, Scarpa, Roche... (even in the works of Le Corbusier). Is it only a "remnant from the pre-Industrial Revolution"?
The "aggressive detailing" can be found in the designs which evoke "spatial experiences''. Ones new experiences through materialities, details and the way things come together are an important part of experiencing spaces.
"Falling Water" tells me that intimately scaled small things can contribute to the whole space together with larger things having a scale of building.
Scarpa's works may reveal a chain of universes in a gradation of scales from tiny joints to environment. The Barcelona Pavilion may introduce the concept of how independent materials come together to evoke the relative spatial fabric. The successors of modernism lost such functions that motivate perceptual readings. Post-modern buildings might have re-introduced this mechanism, however, they celebrate only nostalgia with a game of signs, which never keeps generating new experiences.
As felt by Muschamp, Tokyo Forum has an ability to provide varied experiences with surprises. "Aggressive detailing" can be found in here, as well as gigantic compositions. And the whole appeared in the middle of Tokyo as an undefined object that can remind someone of the 18th century Europe, or "one of a gigantic debris deposited by the bubble economy" for another. Unlike modernism buildings, it sends synchronic impulses, and even is modest unlike many commercial monstrous buildings.
4. Un-defined object on North Fork
Our "House on North Fork" was built on the tip of North Fork, Long Island.
The North Fork area, unlike South Fork, escaped the luxury developments built for millionaires. The society is generally rather modest and conservative. However, they own wonderfully preserved landscapes with rich histories. There are many historical buildings, but very few new designs.
People are earnestly concerned about the preservation of the environmental/historical landscape including farm fields. It is maybe true that people considered our building to be quite antagonistic in its context. That might have been a part of the reason that it took six months for us to get a cost estimation from a local lumber yard, in addition to the building's complexed geometry. And it affected the local contractors approach to this job, causing an unexpected delay to the construction. It was probably lucky for us that we did not realize seriously about this circumstance until a little later. We would have been scared if we had been a little more sensitive about it. After the completion, we started meeting the neighbors. We heard more than a couple of times from them that "I like it, although not everybody does". However, it did not take long before people started to enjoy this building as "quite different, still not so bad".
People's generous tolerance to accept alien objects was much superior than the conservative paradigm. The Historic Society included this house on their annual house tour. Visitors understood positively the experiential spaces, spatial continuity, openness, ... as well as the cabinets concealing intimate inner spaces.
5. "Cyber nomad"
We can increasingly see the buildings designed by foreigners built in different contexts, as Fukuoka Housing Project was, Tokyo Forum is (and "House in North Fork" also). It is rather a surprising matter, in this modern time, that the cases are still not many. In Japan, Wright built, Le Corbusier did and, after them, you might have a hard time to find the cases until recently. It is even the same in the USA, except for the executions by the emigrants. Information about architecture, rather than built form, reaches all over the world. While the realised buildings still show some differentiation, paradigm can be changed through the information exchanges.
Paradigms based on real things, as they used to be, have been giving place to the ones based on information. And the information is always limited in certain ways. They could see in magazines, not so long time ago, only the black&white pictures, for instance.
Computer information is providing equal resources to everybody, from any era of history, from anywhere in the world. The world based on information is obviously becoming more and more homogeneous and synchronic.
Paradigm=Society format becomes less effective, instead Paradigm=Identity becomes more basic. Computer information networks may push the last button to reform the remnant of local/cultural paradigms. Fragmented differentiation become attached to the individual person and individual object. People need to have a new kind of sensitivity to survey their own location in the "sea of information", among this diversity of individual differentiations. Experiential perceptions with no reference to old paradigms may become more important. People may be excited by finding differences between reality and virtual reality, instead of locations.
The "Cyber-nomad" may be newly born.
[Bio:] Hideaki Ariizumi is an architect born in Japan and currently living and working in New York.
TRANSPLANT? NEIN, DANKE
Japanese use to call the child of a mixed couple a 'half'. An English friend of mine bothered by the diminishing connotation of the term, objected that it was more appropriate to call these kids 'double'. But the first naming, a deformation of the proper English word which is half-caste, was ambiguous as the Japanese use to think that these so-called halves are especially pretty. This anecdote gives an idea of the intricate aspects of the relation that Japan has to the outer world. Attraction and repulsion, use of a foreign word to describe a situation rather usual, transformation of the original word into a foreign-Japanese one, written in a special alphabet (katakana characters) made for non-Japanese words. Architecture as a cultural artifact and a Western concept shares the same complex understanding.
Historically speaking it is true to say that in Japan, architecture as a discipline was conceived in the wake of the Meiji period at the end of the 19th century. It was one element within the broad political attempt by Meiji's autocrats to cope with economical, technical and military superiority of the West. But it is also true to say that nowadays, no architect finds any difficulty in including masterworks of traditional carpentry or even minor wooden houses as part of the architectural patrimony. On the contrary Japanese architects make constant references to these roots, and present foreign critic usually loves to portrait, even to caricature these correspondences. That is to say in other words, that there is an attempt, generally thought as anti-Modern or Post-Modern, to emphasize the relation with local conditions. The debate is still open, but Modern thought as a style is probably alien everywhere, because it is bound to an ideal man, which do not exist even in Western countries. Modern as an attitude is summarized by those words of Mies, who once said that modernity is a dilemma only for those who do not see that everything around them is such. Besides, it never meant homogeneity and this criticism misses its target with examples, between others, like Aalto who is deeply rooted in Finland, or Niemeyer's work which is an answer to tropical conditions. If Modernity was once the Project of a reform of the society expressed by the French Enlightenment, nowadays it does not belong to any country in particular. To pretend the contrary, reminds me of the claim made by Asian or African authoritarian political systems which consider democracy as a foreign import, and any attempt to bring it to their own country, as an unbearable post colonial attitude.
As a European citizen (I own a French passport, but I do not consider relevant to call myself a French architect) leaving and working for more than ten years in Tokyo Japan, I was once asked to express the differences between the architecture of each country. I got confused and tried to comment on variations in the use of materials and colors, the relation to natural and artificial lighting. From the start it was assumed that differences should exist, which is totally obvious. What was the point?
Universal against local? I do not see any clear answer because fortunately they tend to be mixed. For this reason I feel difficult to speak of Japanese or French architecture but prefer comment on one or another architects of these countries.
To take a few examples of what I would call the mixture, what to think about Le Corbusier's project of 'la ville radieuse' being realized to some extent in Hong-Kong new towns, or in Singapore? Is it only a void shell, a meaningless borrowing of a modern icon, or the result of a world wide spread of mass culture? Is it still a Western model, when it is realized on a scale never reached in Europe? Japanese department stores also use to have large gardens on their top floors, a Babylonian (i.e. Asian) feature, also described but never fully realized by Le Corbusier as a modern paradigm. I also once experienced a surprising correspondence between a display found in many recent public social housing in Hong-Kong and an applauded French architectural memorandum, which influenced the construction of an experimental collective dwelling in Paris suburb by architect Yves Lion. Because of an extreme lack of space, the Chinese architects had all the service rooms on the outside balcony (basic kitchen sets, toilets, shower, etc.). The French had also decided to place all the humid rooms on the periphery of the dwellings to provide them with natural light and ventilation, to put the 'soft', where it is independent from the construction process, and at least to express a new hedonistic vision. Not to mention modular and post-beam traditional Japanese architecture and its influence on Europe through Bruno Taut's astonishment. Present world wide economy and widespread means of information will increasingly lead to such exchanges, making it less and less easy to trace the original models. Even more important than the historian or the professional knowing their sources, is that the local people (but one is always local) do not even see these urban or architectural artifacts as alien manifestoes. It does not mean that the economical concrete blocks of dwellings, what I would call the Hilberseimer syndrome widespread all over the world, is not connected with social problems, but that it is considered by people more like a technocratic gesture than a Western or a universal import.
If I now consider the architectural practice of a foreign architect in a country which culture is far from his own, how do I react? I do not even consider the fact that I may be different in my educational and cultural background, because I try to act as a philter between the wishes expressed by a client or program and the conditions of construction (function, location, physical context, technologies and materials available, etc.).
Contextual may be the right word to express this working process. In Paris or Los Angeles the answer would be very different. I also do not consider that architecture has to express a strong political or social statement, which is most of the time seen as the authoritarian dream of the creator. I will try to be more allusive, somehow ironical with conventions. To deal with habits, without taking them for granted. The approach itself has nothing to do with a special location, but it needs a location to find its expression.
Although there are increasing relations between world wide architectural culture, there is always at the same time an appropriation and a related adaptation to local conditions. If stylistic similarities are sometimes striking, displaced or even ridiculous, they remain superficial. They are part of a never ending process of assimilation. Like Thomas Jefferson's dream of a democracy in the New World is far from Palladio's original involvement with rich Venetian merchants, Western like buildings made out of bricks (an alien and dangerous way of construction in a country shaken by strong tremors) at the turn of last century in Japan always shows some changes in the proportions, the techniques of construction, which make them look relocated, re-rooted. I am confident that there is a dialectical and permanent centripetal versus centrifugal process which goes again the generic metropolitan condition that Rem Koolhaas is talking about.