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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

On Terunobu Fujimori
Thomas Daniell
Scenes from the exhibition "Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO Scenes from the exhibition "Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO
The cheerful misfit at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale was the Japanese Pavilion, a disarming celebration of vernacular building and amateur handcraft. It didn't exactly ignore the Biennale theme of "Cities, Architecture and Society," but it certainly contrasted with the majority of exhibits and their grim focus on metropolitan statistics. The commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion is himself a cheerful misfit: Terunobu Fujimori, Japan's leading architectural historian and critic, who in the 1990s reinvented himself as a practicing architect. That's a dangerous move for a critic -- every architect in Japan was watching and waiting for the results, and no doubt some were sharpening their knives. Yet Fujimori has consistently avoided any "revenge" criticism through his utterly counterintuitive design approach. Making no attempt to flaunt his own erudition, the designs are visceral rather than cerebral, unsophisticated and naive in the best possible sense. He clearly puts so much energy and joy into actually building the structures (together with his students and friends) that to criticize them would just be spoiling the fun.

In fact, Fujimori has long been an activist critic. In 1974, he formed a group called the Tokyo Architectural Detective Agency, which became the basis for ROJO (Roadway Observation Society -- in Japanese, Rojo Kansatsu Gakkai), established in 1986 by Fujimori together with artist and novelist Genpei Akasegawa, illustrator Shinbo Minami, writer Joji Hayashi, and editor Tetsuo Matsuda. In Situationist-style investigations of the city, they still wander about the streets of Tokyo taking note of things that tend to be ignored by the average person. ROJO's photographic documentation of the weird and inadvertently beautiful scenes they stumble across has been a major influence on the research of younger figures such as Atelier Bow-Wow. The Venice exhibit comprised highlights of Fujimori's architectural projects and ROJO's research. It has now been brought back to Japan, and an expanded version installed at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.

Together with models notched into tree trunks, color photos of the architecture, and wonderfully inept sketches, there is a display of the materials and building tools used by Fujimori and his helpers, recreations of traditional implements along with newly invented ones. In one space, visitors take off their shoes to walk across cushions woven from wisteria vines, and the whole gallery is infused with the smells of the natural materials used to build the designs and the plant life that tends to infest them. There is a narrated slideshow of ROJO images housed inside a small domed hut made from woven rope.

In case it seems that Fujimori is only interested in the small-scale and humble, the show also includes a nine-meter long model of his Tokyo Plan 2107. Set in the aftermath of global warming floods, it's a utopian vision of Tokyo as farms and forests, with a scattering of free-form white towers reminiscent of Hundertwasser. Windmills float offshore, and a miniature ruin of Tokyo Tower lies in a corner. The proposal is more than whimsical images: Fujimori is proposing that his towers be naturally ventilated timber-framed structures clad in coral-based plaster, both materials serving to keep carbon dioxide locked out of the atmosphere.

Fujimori's aims are ultimately not about reviving historical styles, Japanese or otherwise. He's looking for architectural essences that are primitive and intuitive -- almost pre-cultural, or at least present throughout the earliest human civilizations. A degree of authenticity is unavoidably lost when architectural intelligence is applied to the vernacular, but Fujimori's outsider experiments are now having a surprisingly large impact on the world of contemporary Japanese architecture.
Scenes from the exhibition "Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO Scenes from the exhibition "Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO
1-4: Scenes from the exhibition "Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO: Unknown Japanese Architecture and Cities" held at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
Courtesy of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and ROJO
Tokyo Opera City / http://www.operacity.jp/ag/exh82/e_index.html
14 April - 1 July 2007

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Thomas Daniell
Thomas Daniell is a practicing architect based in Kyoto. He is currently on the design faculty of Kyoto Seika University and an editorial consultant for the Dutch publications Volume and Mark. His texts on contemporary art and architecture are widely published, and he is a frequent guest speaker at schools and symposiums throughout the world.


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