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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.

Building with Wood
Thomas Daniell
Building with Wood Building with Wood
Toyo Ito, Relaxation Park in Torrevieja Divided by partitions of wooden slats













Located west of downtown Tokyo in a corner of Koganei Park, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum comprises a menagerie of reconstructed buildings from Tokyo's past. Famous for having provided inspiration to Hayao Miyazaki when he was designing the backdrops to his animated film Spirited Away, it is arranged like a tiny village: streets lined with farmhouses, townhouses, hybrid Japanese-Western residences, shops, religious structures, and even a reconstruction of the home Kunio Maekawa (one of Japan's early modernist architects) built for himself. This year is the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the museum, and the celebrations include a series of exhibitions on the history of Japanese architecture. The first is entitled Mokuzou Kenchiku no Miryoku, translated by the organizers as Attractiveness of Wooden Buildings, and it will be followed by an exhibition called Tatemono to Natsu (Summer x Architecture) later this year.

Divided into three rooms (traditional, modern, contemporary) by makeshift partitions of raw wooden slats, the gallery space is filled with the scent of freshly cut timber. The first item on display is wood itself, partly debarked chunks of the four main tree types used for buildings in Japan: sugi (Japanese cedar), hinoki (Japanese cypress), keyaki (zelkova), and pine. There are also full-size examples of the notched, nail-less jointing methods used in traditional joinery, together with scale models and sectional drawings of Buddhist temple architecture. An extraordinary rendering of Izumo Shrine (one of the earliest and holiest structures in Japan) shows it supported 48 meters above ground level on enormous tree trunk columns. Historically, Shinto shrines have been ritually rebuilt from new timber at defined intervals, and the theory is that Izumo Shrine moved closer to the ground with each rebuilding over its history.

The second room shows the ways traditional carpentry techniques have been adapted to modern, primarily Western building styles, and the ways those old techniques were utilized by foreign architects; the display includes a model of Kunio Maekawa's Morinaga Candy Store, and window frames salvaged from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Jiyugakuen Myonichikan. The third and final room contains a range of contemporary projects that reinterpret timber construction in new scales and idioms: Toyo Ito's Relaxation Park in Torrevieja, Tadao Ando's Japanese Pavilion for Expo 92 in Seville, Shin Takamatsu's Henjoutou and Dairengu projects, Hiroshi Naito's Sea-Folk Museum, and Terunobu Fujimori's Takasugi-an Teahouse.

The use of wood in architecture, as both structure and surface, is essential to Japanese tradition. Beyond mere convenience and availability, there is a quasi-religious veneration of the trees themselves. Yet timber buildings have been scarce in recent decades. Following the firestorms that devastated Japan's cities during the closing months of World War II, the government began enforcing the use of concrete or steel for most new construction. Since 2000, however, individual prefectures have been permitted to set their own building codes, and the use of wood in Japanese architecture has been steadily rising. The undoubted beauty of traditional wooden structures aside, the final set of projects on display here show that the potential for innovation is far from exhausted.

Building with Wood Building with Wood
Hypothetical rendering of Izumo Shrine Model of the Syofukuji Zizoudou
Building with Wood Building with Wood
Four tree types: sugi, hinoki, keyaki, and pine
Shin Takamatsu, Henjoutou and Dairengu

All photos by Thomas Daniell
Japanese Architecture 1: Attractiveness of Wooden Buildings
Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
28 March - 1 June 2008
image
Thomas Daniell
Thomas Daniell is a practicing architect based in Kyoto. He is currently an associate professor at Kyoto Seika University and an editorial consultant for the Dutch publications Volume and Mark. His book After The Crash: Architecture in Post-Bubble Japan is forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press.
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