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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 Yasutaka Yamazaki
Thomas Daniell
Gallery interior Zenko-ji Betsu-in Gan'ou-ji Temple
Gallery interior
Zenko-ji Betsu-in Gan'ou-ji Temple

Born in 1935, Yasutaka Yamazaki is an interesting figure in the lineage of modernist architecture in Japan. From 1960 to 1970 he worked for Junzo Sakakura, who had trained in Le Corbusier's Paris atelier from 1931 to 1936. Sakakura adopted Le Corbusier's Modulor (a proportioning system based on the dimensions of the human body) in his own architecture, but when he put the young Yamazaki in charge of designing a Japanese-style inn, the latter began by developing an alternative system to fit typical Japanese body proportions. This became the Yamazaki Module, which he has used throughout his subsequent work.

Yamazaki's final project as an employee of Sakakura was the Luna Hall in Ashiya (1970), a radically innovative theater design that omitted the proscenium in order to bring the audience and performers into direct proximity. Controversial before construction even began, Yamazaki simultaneously upset the traditional theatrical world and became a hero to the avant-garde. Figures as diverse as Kobo Abe and Shuji Terayama publicly expressed support. Many of Japan's experimental artists came to visit the building site, and later performed and exhibited there.

Luna Hall was finished a year after Junzo Sakakura's death, with Yamazaki generally acknowledged as the creative force behind the design. This led directly to his first commission as an independent architect: in 1971 Jiro Yoshihara, founder of the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association), invited Yamazaki to design a "Gutai Museum." Although never built, primarily due to Yoshihara's death in 1972, it's an extraordinary proposal, expressing some of the prevalent themes of its time as well as prefiguring today's most experimental architecture. An irregularly shaped tower combining structure and skin in an external truss system (developed by computer in collaboration with an engineer), the Gutai Museum was to be a single vast space that could accommodate even the largest artworks. Visitors were to ascend by elevator, then descend by open flights of stairs.

The recent weeklong exhibition of Yamazaki's work at the Asphodel gallery in Kyoto comprised thirty of his buildings from Luna Hall onward. They were displayed as vertical strips of computer printouts arrayed like kakejiku (hanging scrolls), each with a color image affixed to the center, while photographs of the actual buildings were projected at one end of the space. This was also the backdrop and entry hall to a series of artistic installations on the upper level of the gallery. Each day, a small group of artists from a distinct genre (sound, light, body, object, space) presented their work, while Yamazaki's wife performed tea ceremonies downstairs. The whole event was timed to coincide with the Gion Matsuri, Kyoto's most important annual festival (the FOBA-designed Asphodel, owned and operated by Naomi Ota, is itself an annex to one of Kyoto's most venerable geisha teahouses).

The exhibition focused on Yamazaki's many inventive designs for theaters and various other building types, yet parallel to his avant-garde pursuit of the new is a strong interest in preservation -- or more precisely, in the balance between preservation and invention. The award-winning Zenko-ji Betsu-in Gan'ou-ji Temple (1975), for example, is not a traditional temple design, but is constructed of wood taken from the building it replaced, visibly scarred and discolored with age. Similar examples of weathered surfaces and recycled materials appear elsewhere in Yamazaki's body of work. This interest in the aesthetics of decay has deep roots in Japanese culture, but also recalls Jiro Yoshihara's original Gutai manifesto, which has no doubt influenced Yamazaki's thinking:

"What is interesting in this respect is the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters in the course of the centuries. This is described as the beauty of decay, but is it not perhaps that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics?" *1

More than a simple contrast between old and new elements, however, Yamazaki's intention is to make their respective identities ambiguous, selectively placing traditional materials in experimental configurations and vice versa. As he writes in an early essay, entitled "Oldness and Newness":

"The act of making is fated to always have to challenge this 'oldness.' In the endless cycles of death and rebirth of the world around us, it is because old life decays and new life grows that change is ongoing, and it is because culture is inherited through this process that there is forward progress. It is because of 'oldness' that meaning emerges in 'newness.' Mere novelty can be easily achieved, but that would cause our short lives to end without any deep involvement or intimacy between people. Rather, the creation of a 'newness' transferable into the places where this 'oldness' exists is what may truly be called making." *2

*1: Jiro Yoshihara, The Gutai Manifesto, 1956. The full text is available in English on the Ashiya City Museum website:
*2: Yasutaka Yamazaki, "'Furusa' to 'Atarashisa' to" in Shinkenchiku vol. 51 (Shinkenchiku-sha, January 1976), pp. 238-241 (my translation)

Gutai Museum project, 1971 Ashiya Luna Hall, 1970 Yasutaka Yamazaki
Gutai Museum project, 1971
Ashiya Luna Hall, 1970
Yasutaka Yamazaki

Photos 1, 2 courtesy of Yasutaka Yamazaki
Photos 3, 4, 5 taken by Thomas Daniell

Yasutaka Yamazaki Exhibition
Asphodel /
8 - 14 July 2007

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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