Mori Art Museum

Director Fumio Nanjo on the Spirit of Japanese Architecture

By Sophie Richard and Wakako Tezen

The D.T. Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa, Japan, by Yoshio Taniguchi and Associates, 2011, Photo: Kitajima Toshiharu

Tokyo - The resounding success of last year’s exhibitions The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 at the Barbican in London and Japan-ness: Architecture and Urban Planning in Japan since 1945 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France attests to the western public's fascination with the architecture of Japan. In Japan, the subject is also of the moment, and Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation, a new exhibition opening today at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, explores the field by retracing its lineage from the past to the present.

Fumio Nanjo, the director of the Mori Art Museum, Courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

“The Mori Art Museum has organised exhibitions on architecture every three or four years, although the latest interval has been longer so I thought the time had come for a new show on the subject,” says director Fumio Nanjo. “Looking towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I wanted to question the identity of Japanese art and culture, both internally and internationally.” With 2018 marking the 15th anniversary of the redeveloped Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo district of which the Mori is the heartbeat, and 150 years since the start of the Meiji Period, which saw the construction of new buildings inspired by the west, this year presents a particularly good opportunity to rethink the meaning of modernisation in Japan.

Institute of Technologists, Life-size replica of Sen no Rikyū's Tai-an Tea House, 2018

Architectural exhibitions present specific challenges, the main one being that the buildings under discussion cannot actually be displayed. The Mori Art Museum has taken a creative approach, ensuring that through the 400 pieces on show, visitors will have the opportunity to encounter architecture in all its manifestations. Complex blueprints have been kept to a minimum, while instead the Mori’s spacious galleries feature works such as a full-scale model of Tai-an, a 16th-century tea house designed by the seminal tea master Sen no Rikyū, which was designated a National Treasure by the Japanese government. Also on display is a large 1/3-scale model of architect Kenzō Tange’s own home and an interactive installation by Tokyo-based design firm Rhizomatiks that recreates, with the help of fibre lasers, several famous examples of historical and contemporary buildings that visitors can “enter”.

Power of Scale installation view, by Rhizomatiks Architecture, 2018

Japanese architects have been in huge demand abroad in the last two decades, leaving an indelible mark on the west. The number of museums they have designed – from New York to Aspen and from Lens to Dundee – gives an idea of how inescapable they are. In fact, as Nanjo explains, “architecture might well be the most internationally valued aspect of Japanese culture today”. Is this because elements at the roots of Japanese architecture, embodied for example by the use of natural materials or a taste for minimalism, have been transmitted ceaselessly from generation to generation? Or is it due to the architects’ ability to break with tradition, as well as provide solutions to today’s environmental issues? By exploring traditions stretching back to ancient times, encompassing experimentation and the impact of encounters with the west, this exhibition allows visitors to find answers for themselves.

Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 25 April – 17 September

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