The 20th Century’s rush to modernize pushed traditional architecture aside in favor of new technologies and today, Japan can easily be called one of the most exciting architectural landscapes on the planet. There are few architecture environments as adventurous as Japan: a place where microhouses are built on microscopic building sites, where skyscrapers rise on seismic quake lines and where material and form are pushed to revolutionary new heights. It is a constantly changing architectural landscape in which buildings rise and fall more often than prime ministers leave office.But the price for this constant reinvention is often environmental: Japan is a huge producer of construction waste and the (worldwide) construction industry is responsible for a large percentage of carbon emissions. While leading the way in new building technologies, the practicalities of traditional architecture have often been forgotten – and the charm of historic buildings and neighbourhoods has often been destroyed in favour of the bigger, the newer and the more profitable.
Pritzker-prize winning architect Fumihiko Maki has described Japan’s distinctive architecture as a result of its geocultural character: Japan has had to respond to its equally rich and volatile natural environment, as well as the push and pull of its own history and globalization.
This seems even truer in light of recent events: with global economic uncertainty and the triple disasters of March 11th, Japan has had to again rethink how it wants to go forward. It could just be the beginning of a
quiet architectural revolution, as architects and urban planners – as well as the general public – seriously question the country’s architectural ideals since 1945 and ask: howcan this be done better?
What kind of communities and structures should we be building? How do we balance issues like environmental suitability and sustainability, energy efficiency, safety and even beauty with economic and social factors? Generally, where do we go from here?
Now, with reconstruction in Tohoku only beginning, the need and desire to find innovative and sustainable ways of building is only growing. Even before the March disasters, many Japanese architects had already been looking for answers not only in new technology and design but in the past. Japanese architecture has traditionally prized and worked in response to nature, so it is unsurprising to see architects and their clients not only looking to new green technology but also back to Japan’s architectural traditions; a shoji screen can be as relevant as a solar panel in sustainable architecture.
REVIVING OLD JAPAN
One of the interesting trends in recent years has been contemporary renovations of historic buildings. For generations, especially in the expensive real estate market of Tokyo, an older building was viewed as a something to be destroyed and replaced by something newer, bigger, and more profitable. Safety concerns were frequently cited as a reason, but considering the expertise available in seismic retrofitting, restorations are often a choice.
Sensitive renovations of historic buildings have been a forte of architect Kengo Kuma. The architect has said his aim is to ‘recover the tradition of Japanese building” and reinterpret it for the 21st century. Many of his projects – from an elegant restoration of the 100-year-old Fujiya Ginzan Onsen in Yamamgata to the major remodelling of the much loved Nezu Museum and gardens in Tokyo – do just that; effortlessly blending history, contemporary style and the latest technology. These works carry the hallmarks of the best of environmentally aware architecture: respect for context and history; use of local craftsmanship and materials where possible; and innovative mixes of Japanese traditions and contemporary innovations.
SMART ENERGY DESIGN
Energy efficiency is a big issue in green architecture. As Japan grapples with questions about new energy sources, architectural experiments are trying to discover how to make smaller energy footprints using both low and high tech solutions.
Atelier Tekuto’s A-Ring House in Kanazawa Prefecture is an experiment with aluminium to create sustainable, energy efficient housing. Using geothermal energy and the natural heating and cooling of aluminium, the silvery structure is a high-tech, ‘zero operating cost’ house.
Less futuristic but no less experimental is Coal House designed by Terunobu Fujimori, a respected architectural historian and architect whose work challenges all preconceptions about contemporary Japanese architecture. In contrast to the polished seamless surfaces and forms common to contemporary architecture, Fujimori embraces the traditional and the handcrafted, and finds ways to bring them into a modern context.
Coal House was part of the Sumika Project in which Tokyo Gas enlisted four architects (Toyo Ito, Taira Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto and Terunobu Fujimori) to each design an energy-efficient home based on ‘primitive’ living. Fujimori chose the cave as his inspiration, resulting in Coal House, a characteristically mix of playful experimentation, sophisticated craftsmanship and a broad frame of reference ranging from the Japanese teahouse to the caves of Lascaux.
More energy experiments are being attempted by hi-tech companies like Panasonic, which is working with other Japanese companies on an energy-efficient “smart town” on the outskirts of Tokyo. Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is being built on the site of an old Panasonic factory. The town’s design features an intelligent network of electricity grids that will permit energy conservation, sharing and storage. There will be a system of electric car sharing, solar panels, LED lights and smart appliances that communicate with a main network to conserve energy. Passive energy sources will also be tapped with “wind paths” and strategically placed greenery. When completed in 2014 (at an estimated cost of 60 billion yen), it will support 1000 households for approximately 3000 people and should, according to Panasonic, reduce normal carbon emissions by 70%.
THINKING ABOUT URBAN PLANNING
Dense and expensive urban landscapes mean that more of life in Japan is lived in public spaces. Where apartments and homes might be smaller, public spaces offer alternative places for people to work and socialize. Japan’s cities are leading the way in transforming urban infrastructure into extensions of the home, making public spaces – from schools to cafes – cozier, more sustainable and user-friendly.
A leading project is Klein Dytham Architects’s new T-Site Daikanyama . Designed for Tsutaya (the major Japanese CD/DVD/book seller), it covers a 12,000m2 site with a cozy, low-rise complex of shops, eateries and an art gallery organized around a public green space with old growth trees. The whole space acts like a public living room; cafes and patios are almost always packed with people working, eating and socializing. With its more subtle approach to commerce, generous amount of space for greenery, and user-friendly way of organizing public space, it has proved incredibly popular with both the public and the architectural cognoscenti. It is a prototype that will no doubt inspire similar projects in Japan’s dense and often chaotic urban landscapes.
GOING GREEN, LITERALLY
The lack of space in dense cities is also creatively addressed with Tezuka Architects’ extension to their awardwinning Montessori Fuji Kindergarten in Tachikawa, in greater Tokyo. Called “Ring around a Tree” , it is a language lab encircling a full-growth tree and makes going to school like playing in your backyard (something most children in crowded Tokyo do not have). Like the Fuji Kindergarten itself, the project uses the site’s trees as starting points for an architecture that inspires learning, imagination and play.
Tokyo’s popular Azabu Juban shotengai (shopping street) often sees buildings come and go as businesses look to attract customers with fresh buildings and designs. Among the latest crop is an elegant plant-clad project by Edward Suzuki Architects. Called the “Vent Vert” or “Green Wind,” its nine-storey facade will be covered by live greenery which, when completed this spring, will give both tenants and passersby the visual and tactile pleasures of a vertical garden on a dense city street. Similar walls of green can be found in projects around the city including Shigeru Ban’s Nicolas G Hayek Center- a commercial building owned by the Swiss company Swatch in Ginza – and the Yoyogi Village by Kurkku , a restaurant complex designed by Wonderwall as a tranquil, green filled retreat in busy Shibuya.
Hiroshi Nakamura and NAP Architects – who earlier created a house, House C , with a living roof in Chiba– are now attempting a small forest in Tokyo on top of the new Tokyu Plaza Omotesando. Opening in April, the shopping complex will feature a roof like a bouquet of trees, a symbolic nod to the famous zelkovas of Omotesando Dori and inserting an ecological note into a glamorous consumerist boulevard.
So despite the endless non-descript towers that continue to pop up all over the built landscape, the architectural mood in Japan looks to be moving towards a more subtle design aesthetic, reflecting a growing awareness of the need to always consider the environment, both built and natural. Post-March 11, Japan’s geo-cultural reality has again put it in the unique situation in which the country could potentially lead the way in green design and technology.
The seeds have been planted, but will they grow? Either way, 2012 may well mark the beginning of the next phase of Japanese architecture.