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Parallel NIPPON
Thomas Daniell
Parallel NIPPON 1 Parallel NIPPON 2
The buildings are shown with photos on wall-mounted panels.
Photo by Koji Koseki
The sculptural form of Shin Takamatsu's Tianjin Museum.
Presented by Architectural Institute of Japan (AIJ)
The Architectural Institute of Japan, in collaboration with the Japan Foundation, has this year produced its third decennial exhibition of contemporary Japanese architecture (full disclosure: I co-curated the show, together with Riichi Miyake, Taro Igarashi, Yoshitake Doi, and Yasuhiro Teramatsu). The initial opening was at the Images & Technology Gallery of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, following which the exhibition will tour internationally, in a slightly modified form, for most of the next decade. The buildings are shown with photos on wall-mounted panels, and in a few cases with models or virtual reality video environments. The choice of the Museum of Photography as the venue also provided the opportunity to include a selection of architectural photography from the museum's permanent collection.

Covering the period from 1996 to 2006, many of the works on display date from a traumatic time in Japan, the aftermath of an extraordinary confluence of catastrophes -- the collapse of the speculation-driven economic bubble, the devastating Kobe earthquake, the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Through a selection of 110 representative buildings, the exhibition traces new relationships between architecture and society from the immediate transitional period into a more somber economic and cultural environment. All the buildings included are as innovative and sophisticated as might be expected, yet overall there is clearly less of the indulgence and excess that was enabled by the absurd budgets of the bubble. Along with a few buildings by foreign stars invited to build in Japan, there are some important projects by Japanese architects in other countries, notably China. The range of expression is captured by the contrast between the structural bravura of Shin Takamatsu's Tianjin Museum and the cool abstraction of Riken Yamamoto's Jian Wai SOHO housing in Beijing.

In fact, the central concept of the entire exhibition is contrast, the juxtaposition of thematic pairs: expanding metropolises and shrinking local communities, ostentatious international cultural facilities and small social facilities for children or the elderly, developer-driven megaprojects and artisan-based minor interventions. The exhibition also groups the projects in pairs, making contrasts at the level of architectural technique, in building materials, planning strategies, and spatial compositions, as well as in their impact on human behavior and physical context. Thus, SANAA's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa is juxtaposed with Yoshio Taniguchi's Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum: a transparent round structure accessible from every direction versus a solid square box with a single entry point. Kazuyo Sejima's House in a Plum Grove is juxtaposed with Jun Tamaki's Hakama house: in the former the walls are minimum thickness structural steel, while in the latter the huge apparent depth of the white-plastered exterior walls contrasts with the tall curtains used as interior partitions. Yoshio Taniguchi's design for MoMA is juxtaposed with Shigeru Ban's Nomadic Museum: two New York projects by Tokyo architects, one a vast expansion for the most prestigious modern art collection in the world, the other a temporary gallery on the Manhattan waterfront for the work of a single photographer. Roppongi Hills is paired with Omotesando Hills; both are commercial developments by the Mori Building Company, yet one is a menagerie of architectural styles master-planned by Jon Jerde, and the other is a work of cool minimalism entirely designed by Tadao Ando. And so on.

The bubble period was undoubtedly beneficial for Japanese architects and architecture, turning promising young talents into stars with well-funded project portfolios almost overnight, and allowing them unprecedented levels of experimentation. The post-bubble restraint has necessitated a different kind of innovation, with less emphasis on individual genius. The show includes a number of collective practices -- Atelier Bow-wow, Mikan, C+A -- as well as architects specializing in low budgets and the maximization of ordinary building materials, in a sometimes-innocent, sometimes-ironic exploration of the unavoidable constraints on architectural design in 21st century Japan.

Parallel NIPPON 3 Parallel NIPPON 4
Walls of minimum thickness steel in Kazuyo Sejima's House in a Plum Grove.
Photo by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates
Presented by AIJ
Tall curtains used as interior partitions in Jun Tamaki's Hakama house.
Photo by Kei Sugino
Presented by AIJ
 
Parallel NIPPON: Contemporary Japanese Architecture 1996-2006
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography / http://www.syabi.com/details/parallel.html
21 October - 3 December 2006
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