Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture examines the way Japanese architecture is presented in graphic presentations. It covers the last twenty years of architectural design in commercial, civic and domestic fields. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn designs, plans, cross-sections, isometric elevations, 3D renderings and frames of CAD – alongside hybrid forms. These drawings are not rough sketches, working drawings or technical blueprints; they are representations made specifically for public display. They are pared down to their essence, conceptualised and aestheticised. There is an emphasis on clean space, elegance and clarity and a preference for schematic presentation over realism, as is common in the field. The layout of this book emphasises the clarity and sparseness of much Japanese architectural design.
Meystre discusses advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to drafting, including hybrid techniques and physical models, all viewed from the perspective of the digital age. There is a discussion of photographs of miniatures, an innovation from the Twentieth Century still used. Meystre notes the artistry of the photographer of models, commenting that frequently in Japan the photographer is credited with more creative input and control of these photographs than the architect or the builder of the model. As one would expect in a book dealing with architect presentations, there are no photographs of completed buildings. The author’s interviews with architects Ryūe Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima and others inform his discourse, with quotes illuminating views of practitioners.
The author notes that there is a generational change in Japanese architecture, which determined the 20-year limitation to his study. “One notable phenomenon of the recent history of Japanese architectural criticism is that whereas architects such as Kazao Shinohara, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki wrote intensely and regularly throughout their careers, their younger colleagues have been very discreet regarding their theoretical positions.”
[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, My Vision for Tokyo (2009) © Hideyuki Nakayama]
In the last two decades, information technology has also radically altered the way architecture is presented and understood by creators and public. Meystre notes that the increasing sophistication and flexibility of imaging technology has allowed architects greater flexibility and permitted experimentation that would have been costly, difficult or time consuming previously. One example is the use of radically reduced-scale images, which has become more commonly lately. “There is no limit to zooming within a window. The upshot is that digital lines, intrinsically, have no scale. […] The result is a common tendency among many architects to make the lines of their drawings spiderlike, to the point of invisibility.”
Use of computers has allowed the development of multiple isolines – hypothetical lines linking positions sharing a common property, such as height, light, temperature, barometric pressure and so forth. The lines map not structures or physical features but qualities. These linear matrices are accurate in visual terms and which produce images that are almost unrecognisable (almost arbitrary) when compared to conventional plans and come close to abstraction. Isoline projections can act as aids to contemplative thinking, in that they disrupt our standard assumptions about what a built structure is and reveal unseen and unconsidered aspects of it, prompting us to think in unexpected ways.
[Image: Ryūe Nishizawa, Hiroshi Senju Museum, Karuizawa (2013) © Ryūe Nishizawa]
The question of how Japanese these presentations are is reflected in the way designs are seen and discussed. In the Japanese language, words describing space have value connotations: omote is “front surface” and “superficial” (something similar to the use in English of “façade”); ura “hidden side” and “authentic”; yami “near darkness” which limits persons and objects in darkness to a level where they are sensed rather than seen, has its origin in the Shinto concept of intuition; yūgen (noun and adjective functioning as an epithet, attribute or noun) meaning (variously) “remote/enclosed/profound/calm/dark mystery/secrecy/depth”, of Buddhist origin, has multiple aesthetic and spiritual attributes. Thus the Japanese ascribe associations and an attendant codified hierarchy of values to their spatial vocabulary.
[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2010) © Hideyuki Nakayama]
In practical terms, Meystre suggests this attachment to yami qualities of muted or dim light is reflected in a partiality towards depicting architectural spaces in light that is generally less intense than that encountered in typical Western presentations. However, Meystre goes on to point out that in Japanese architectural practices most cardboard models are made in white and photographed (or altered digitally) in ways that generate over-exposure. This apparent contradiction between a preference for muted light and overexposure in photography is not resolved by the author.
An oddity of the language used by new architects in Japan is the use of kawaii, “cute”, in the vocabulary of design. The term is usually used in relation to low art, animation, manga and discussion of attractiveness, especially in relation to animals and young women and girls. Kawaii in architecture is about ornamentation of plans through use of plants, decoration, furniture and moveable items.
[Image: Junya Ishigami, Row House, Tokyo (2008) © Junya Ishigami]
When these objects are included in illustrations they are necessarily miniaturised, those enhancing their kawaii quality through reduced toy-like, dream-like or charming appearance. This charm offsets the sparse clinical appearance of plans. Another reason the Japanese is linguistic or conceptual; inclusion of small utensils in Japanese designs – something Western designers usually omit – is partly due to the Japanese distinct conception of furniture. Kagu means “utensils for the house”, not differentiating from tables, beds and cutlery. Thus, for the Japanese, there is no threshold between the larger items and the smaller ones – which generates kawaii – whereas Western architects perceive firm qualitative differences between a vase and a table a Japanese does to a lesser extent.
Practicality and reality are not addressed in drawings, as is usual in such schemes. Like painters who cover their under-painting, ruler lines and adjusted positions with a final layer of paint – thereby concealing the secrets of their art – these architects show their final position as clear, unaltered and almost inevitable. There is a section which shows parallels between recent architectural projections and ukiyo-e colour woodblock prints. New designs even quote classic prints, linking illustrations to revered art. There is an essay about the genealogy of prominent architects of the last century and the way influence has been transmitted between them.
There are limitations to the book. The author intends this book to survey new aspects of architectural imagery from Japan rather than familiarise us with any single project. Dimensions are generally not included and rarely are settings or surrounding structures shown in designs. Although examples of approaches discussed in the text are shown, the priority is the overall survey of graphic representation rather than a close reading of any single image or project through a concentrated body of text and illustrations. (Many of the captions within illustrations are illegibly small, as we are not expected to read images in search of specific information.) It might have been illuminating to have a single building presented through various illustrations emphasising particular qualities.
Readers are left somewhat in the dark as to how effective the illustrations are at conveying an accurate or useful impression of the proposed structure. While Meystre is very good at presenting and explicating modes of illustration, he does not assess the efficacy of any of the modes nor of specific examples. Without that expert assessment, we – as lay readers – are left uncertain as to the usefulness and efficacy of the modes that are characteristic of recent Japanese illustration. Surely, functionality is one aspect that may be if not the primary then certainly a significant matter in our understanding of the material illustrated here.
Overall, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm offers a refreshing perspective on architectural presentation, giving a well-researched grounding for an analysis of recent developments and current trends in Japanese conceptualisations of architecture. It will also be of use to those interested in Japanese visual and linguistic culture.
Oliver Meystre, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture, Park Books, 2017, hardback, 240pp, 165 col. illus., English version (German version available), ISBN 978 3 03860 054 1
© 2018 Alexander Adams
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