New York

“New Public Architecture: Recent Projects by Fumihiko Maki and Arata Isozaki”

Japan House

Fumihiko Maki and Arata Isozaki are unquestionably the two major internationally recognized Japanese architects to emerge in the last ten years. They were paired in this exhibition because of the significance of their work, and because of their contrasting intentions in mediating a course between the weight of tradition and the promise of technology Each architect’s work was represented by three major projects—an art museum, a sports complex, and a mixed-use facility; for each architect one building was completed, one was a project under construction, and one a project in design development and refinement. The exhibition was designed and installed as a discourse on ideologies, sources,design processes, and the relationship of craft and technology. Most persuasively conveyed was the idea that tradition and innovation are not combative adversaries; in both Maki’s and Isozaki’s work, they are inseparable forces.

In the past thirty years Japan’s driving growth, productivity, and design efficiency have generated global respect and curiosity. The conditions that have encouraged the remarkable confluence of a traditional craft culture and advanced technology have been calculated with shrewdness and tenacity in Japanese society. In both Maki’s and Isozaki’s architecture a strong orientation toward craft has been translated skillfully into technological finesse. Differentiating themselves from the constant cry in all design fields for a return to a craft sensibility, these architects demonstrate that there is an alternative to mindless nostalgia for another age; their work’s contemporaneity is its potency.

The six projects in the show are all major public works. Unlike Europe and the United States, Japan does not have a tradition of public architecture, and, in a culture committed to privacy Maki and Isozaki have proceeded as pioneers in this area of design. The two mixed-use projects exemplify this. Isozaki’s Tsukuba Center Building, 1979–83, and Maki’s Wacoal Art Center, scheduled for completion late in 1985, represent both a continuum and a departure for each architect.

Located in Tokyo, the Wacoal Art Center is inserted into a dense urban site. The client, a manufacturer of women’s lingerie, decided to use art and architecture to upgrade its pedestrian image. The new media center includes exhibition space, a theater, a café/restaurant, public space, and a stepped enclave for private functions atop the building. The aluminum-and-glass street facade is a catalogue of 20th-century architectural innovations and clichés. Maki’s compositional excursion into historicism combined with juxtaposition of the formal building blocks of Modernism is a very in joke, which may give the architectural community a knowing giggle while leaving the public mystified or indifferent.

Wacoal is subtle, compressed, refined, and slightly witty; by comparison, Isozaki’s Tsukuba Center is positively theatrical. Isozaki also uses historical references; his application is ironic, allegorical, and exuberant but restrained. Isozaki’s project is the focus of Tsukuba Science City, constructed to relieve the density of nearby Tokyo and concentrate various private and governmental research activities in one place. The Center includes a concert hall, an information center, a hotel, and shops, and was conceived as the magnet that would draw resistant urban dwellers to this new, quasi-suburban setting. Built around a sunken oval plaza that appears to be in a state of deconstruction or decay, the buildings have rusticated bases and aluminum sheathings on the upper stories, giving the newly constructed center a feeling of age and authority often missing in ambitious and overscaled new towns.

Isozaki began his career as a maverick, but the traditional values that he rejected are now being reabsorbed into his work. Maki, faithful to tradition from the beginning, is challenging now at mid life the manifestations of traditional culture. The once-dramatic differences between Maki and Isozaki now seem not those of strangers, but of siblings with a shared and acknowledged heritage.

Patricia C. Phillips