Japan Arts and Architecture in the 20th Century

By | January 25, 2022

In the modern age, between the periods of the Taisho reign (1912-26), Showa (1926-89) and the current Heisei reign (1989-), the expressive forms of Japanese art directly participate in the various movements and currents of contemporary art, as regards both Yōga production and Nihonga trends. All the historical avant-gardes (including Italian Futurism) feed the creative process of Japanese artists between the two wars; many travel abroad, or move to Europe; some adhere to the so-called Paris School. On the threshold of the Second World War, an exasperated nationalism leads to the repression of associations and groups which, moreover, after the conflict are fully inserted in the panorama of contemporary art. Among the movements of international scope, with exhibitions, events-shows, Gutai (“Concreto”), born in 1950 and for just over twenty years a reference model on the outcomes of informal and pop-art, and the Monoha group (“School of things”), which in the 1970s promoted the research on the materials of the work of art and the relationships between it and the environment. Both in painting and sculpture, but also in graphics and industrial design, Japanese artists experiment with new forms and new languages. The cultural identity of tradition intervenes in the formulation of proposals and research which also use, as means and forms of expression, the tools of computer graphics, video art, virtual reality systems and installations.

According to Beautypically, between 1917 and 1922 FL Wright built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the first great example of his encounter with Japanese architecture. Remarkable influence is also exercised by the permanence in Japan by A. Raymond (1888-1976), who interprets the forms of Japanese architecture through the spirit of the modern movement. In the period between the two wars, contacts are established between Japanese architects and the major European masters: W. Gropius, L. Mies van der Rohe, B. Taut (who has worked in Japan since 1933) and Le Corbusier. The results are fruitful, as those same elements of rationality proposed by Western rationalism are typical of the Japanese architectural tradition. At the end of the First World War young people, influenced by international modern architecture, move away from the trend that imitates more traditional European tastes: Shin’ichirō Okada and Riki Sano follow the rationalist current, while Kikuji Ishimoto, Sutemi Horiguchi and Mamoru Yamada are closer to expressionism. Also worthy of mention are Bunzō Yamaguchi, Isoya Yoshida and Tōgo Murano. The involution of the regime halts the tendencies towards the modern movement, even if there are attempts to reconcile Japanese architecture with Western architecture by, among others, Shin’ichirō Okada and Chūta Itō. Yoshida Isoya is credited with having modernized the traditional sukiya style of residential architecture with taste and intelligence.

After the Second World War, the debate on architecture resumed thanks to Tōgo Murano, the American A. Raymond and young people, such as Junzō Sakakura, Kenzō Tange, Kunio Maekawa, Kiyonori Kikutake: the work of the latter does not arise as a continuity but as a critical break with the same ideals of functionalism, in a research that imposes itself as highly original and autonomous in the face of world architecture. The new attitude, since the 1950s, can be seen not only in individual buildings or complexes of profound spiritual significance (Peace Park in Hiroshima, Olympic Stadium and Cathedral in Tokyo, Tange; Kyoto Civic Center in Maekawa) but in the daring vision of the new city, elaborated above all by Tange and his group, which is also responsible for the new city hall of Tokyo. In addition to examples of urban planning progressively realized in Japan, the proposals (marine city, space city, etc.) of avant-garde groups such as Metabolism and, in the last quarter of the 20th century, by Fumihiko Maki, Arata Isozaki, Kazuo Shinohara, Kisho Kurokawa, Tadao Andō, Toyo Itō. Also following the slowdown in economic growth of the 1990s, Japan has stopped the season of great competitions and futuristic architectures that hinged on the most advanced technological solutions and the most innovative materials, just as the initiatives of avant-garde that even the most qualified Western architects had recalled to Japan Alongside the most striking creations of Makoto Sei Watanabe, Shin Takamatsu, Itsuko Hasegawa and Kurokawa, linked to an emphatic architecture still of technological derivation, original trends have gradually established themselves that have recovered the traditional essentiality of local architectural taste. Interpreters are Teronobu Fujimori (Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum, Nagano, 1991; Akino Fuku Museum, Shizuoka, 1998), Shoei Yoh (Children training house, Kanada, 1994; community center and nursery school, Naiju, 1997), Kengo Kuma (center cultural Hayaa, Kanagawa, 1999), Hiroshi Naitō (Sea-Folk Museum, Shima, 1995). Isozaki’s own architectures have been affected by this change (Museum of Contemporary Art, Nagi, 1994; tea house, Tokyo, and pavilion for worship in the prefecture, Toyama, 1996) as well as the latest works by Itō, Andō and Maki. Among the exponents of the younger generation should be mentioned Hiroyuki Wakabayashi, Mika Koizumi, Shigeru Ban, known for his emergency constructions in cardboard tubes (paper church, Kobe, 1995) and the Sanaa studio of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, both an international reference point of the minimalist current.

Japan Arts and Architecture in the 20th Century