One of the reasons that I recently traveled to Tokyo was to view the work of the architect Atsushi Kitagawara, as I am contributing to a monograph on his work. I spent several days seeing his designs in and around Tokyo, and it reminded me of the two main streams in contemporary Japanese architecture that have continued to fascinate me. One, and this is what we see most of these days in the West, is a minimalism that, in the case of the work of architects such as SANAA, is so extreme that it makes Mies van der Rohe’s work seem monumental. Or, by contrast, in the work of the vastly overrated Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA, so heavy as to be oppressive. This is work that photographs beautifully and makes most of us feel slightly ashamed for our demands for more space, stuff, and structure.
The work that we see less of these days is that which first came to the fore in the designs of architects such as Arata Isozaki. It is easy to dismiss it as Postmodernist, but I would argue that it has both deeper roots in Japanese culture, and is just as radical in its own way as reductive minimalism. It is a condensation of the complexity that is the modern Japanese environment, itself a collage of Western and Eastern traditions, materials, and programs. It delights in packaging and presenting simple things in elaborate forms. It is highly theatrical, leading you from space to space with strong contrasts and highly articulated frames.
Kitagawara is an excellent practitioner of this kind of work. I first learned about his architecture by seeing images of the Rise Cinema, a 1985 project whose main façade consists of a metallic curtain pulled back to reveal part of the concrete structure. Since then, he has continued to reveal and represent, throwing together fragments of disparate materials and geometries.
We traveled out to the Japanese Alps, where he in 2007 designed a museum for the Nakamura Collection of Keith Haring’s work. In the forest, you come across a concrete structure, splayed and whooping up into the trees with a parabolic curve. You enter into the reception area, then ramp down a narrow space until you turn into a dark antechamber and then a room where the light concentrates on Haring’s work, hung at angles on sloping walls. Jarred into his akimbo world, you calm down in a more or less normal gallery, then turn again to find space exploding up in the room where the parabolic curve soars above you while the artist’s sculpture disports itself on a sloped wooden floor. A narrow hallway and stairs lead you up to the roof, which doubles as a performance space. The whole experience is one of episodes in which cones, curves, and slots lead you on.
By contrast, the Toshima Gakuin School that Kitagawara has been expanding for the last 15 years has few odd angles, but it does consist of bars, bridges, courtyards, double-height slots and cut-off containers, each clad in a different kind of metal or concrete. Portal windows make some of the spaces feel like ships, while other slots open to sky or classrooms. This is a dense community, its forms reinforcing a shared, but complicated identity. Against this complexity, the simplicity of the 2002 Japanese headquarters for the PEN writer’s club is deceptively simple, but elusive: a black ovoid vibrating among Tokyo’s intensity.
My favorite structure was the 1998 Big Palette Fukushima, a conference center to the North of Tokyo. Like all such structures, it is a big box with a flexible space. Kitagawara animated the building with a roof structure whose tension members extend into a canopy of perforated carbon tubes. These also form a large porch that leads you up splayed steps into an entry area, crossed by a bridge and leading into another long slot. Everywhere the structure expresses itself with cables, bolts, rods, and beams, creating rhythms and focal points. Kitagawara has choreographed the idea of coming to and attending a conference by designing stage sets that make you feel as if you are framed and foregrounded, contained and drawn towards the audience of which you are also part.
Kitagawara’s work is not easy or conventionally pretty. It is too complicated and has too many cut-off forms. It is exactly that collage of too much and not enough, the making of more than the building needs, that makes his structures so good. It is an architecture that refines and intensifies the world in which it exists, giving it back to us in a heightened manner. This is modern baroque, a masque for the modern age.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.