Japanese Active in the Olympics of Architecture
The Venice Biennale of Architecture can be referred to as the Olympics of architecture. In the gardens of The Giardani, the main venue of the event, permanently installed pavilions of different countries are lined up as if in an Expo. During this event, the best exhibition is awarded. Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards, is another important venue that relates to the overall theme. Both venues are located within a 10 minute walk of St. Mark’s Square. Aside from these two venues, different nations and organizations also rent places to hold architecture exhibitions in the city. As its name suggests, the Biennale is held once in 2 years, and alternatively they have Art Exhibitions and Architecture Exhibitions. Now, there are many kinds of international exhibitions all over the world. Even in Japan, we have local art festivals such as the Yokohama Triennale and the Aichi Triennale, but among them all, Venice is the oldest, largest, and most important international exhibition.
Japanese architects have delivered exceptional results on the world stage. The Japan Pavilion hosted by the Japan Foundation won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation in 1996 and in 2012. Terunobu Fujimori’s (born 1946) exhibition in 2006 was mentioned as a pavilion that made outstanding achievements and actually won 2nd place. Individuals who won the Golden Lion Awards were Toyo Ito (born 1941), SANAA, Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006), and Junya Ishigami (born 1974). While the Venice Biennale Art Exhibition has 120 years of history, the Architecture Exhibition started officially in 1980, and, because of some irregularities, it has currently been held 14 times. So far, Japan has collectively won the most Golden Lion Awards. Remarkably, the Japan Pavilion has been participating in the Art Exhibition for 60 years, since 1952, but never won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Considering that, it is a brilliant achievement that the Japan Pavilion has won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation for architecture twice since its first official participation in the 1990s.
Biennale in 2010: “The Year of Japan”
The Venice Biennale of Architecture of 2010 will be remembered as the year that Japanese architects received a lot of attention. To start with, Kazuyo Sejima (born 1956) of SANAA was appointed as director. This was the first time for a Japanese person to play such an important role in the Architecture Exhibition as well as the Art Exhibition. And, at least in the Architecture Exhibition, Sejima was the first female director. An unforgettable Biennale was realized with many installations due to Sejima’s bold exhibition rule. Also, Arsenale, a large space usually filled with multiple exhibitions, was reduced to only one exhibition. During this time, the Golden Lion in Memoriam award was presented to the late Kazuo Shinohara for his lifetime achievements. In Arsenale, Junya Ishigami, a young architect, won the Golden Lion for the Best Project in the People Meet in Architecture exhibition, the top award in the Architecture Exhibition. In the Japan Pavilion, Ryue Nishizawa (born 1956 and 1966) and ATELIER BOW-WOW exhibited an urban residence. One of the important themes of Japanese architecture is how to design a house in a narrow land.
Shinohara Kazuo, chosen for the Golden Lion in Memoriam, incorporated symbolic nature and tradition into a housing space. He had great influence on architects such as ATLIER BOW-WOW, who studied in the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and as well as Kazuyo Sejima and Toyo Ito. Ishigami’s “Architecture as Air” was a controversial work that caused heated debate among the judges before he was awarded the Golden Lion. It was a structure of micro carbon pillars, each 0.9 millimeters in diameter and four meters in height. The ultimate architecture could hardly be seen and was so delicate that it would break if a child ran into it. As a result, the awarding was an “incident,” but it was a piece of art that attempted the most challenging experiment and pushed the envelope the furthest. Moreover, it presented an aspect of Japanese architecture, sophisticated, like craftwork, in the most radical way. In 2008, when the writer was appointed as the commissioner of the Japan Pavilion, Ishigami built a greenhouse in the surrounding garden. This was also made of ultra-fine pillars and ultra-thin glass that made the space blend in with nature and the plants. The Japan Pavilion always surprises the world with different ideas. Although it did not win the Golden Lion, there were also subcultural exhibitions such as “OTAKU: persona = space = city (OTAKU:人格=空間=都市)”of 2004 and “City of Girls (少女都市)” of 2000 and both attracted attention.
How to Face Catastrophe
The two times that the Japan Pavilion won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation, the contents were about major disasters. Arata Isozaki (born 1931) planned the Japan Pavilion exhibition in 1996, the year after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Isozaki brought rubble from the affected areas, and his exhibition theme of “Fracture” won the Golden Lion Award. At the same time, Ryuji Miyamoto (born 1947) exhibited photos of the ruined landscape of Kobe on the walls, and Katsuhiro Miyamoto (born 1961) directed how to place the rubble on the floor. Miyamoto is known as the architect who remodeled/reinforced his family’s house, regarded as completely destroyed, and revived it as the “Zenkai-House (「ゼンカイ」ハウス)”. In an international exhibition introducing new architecture, the Japan Pavilion must have had a powerful impact by being the only one exhibiting destroyed architecture. In fact, Japan started importing western architecture from the Meiji Period (1868-1912), but it was only when they experienced the Noubi Earthquake(1891) and The Great East Japan Earthquake(1923) that Japan became aware that they were under different circumstances compared to western countries when it came to land conditions. Brick buildings were easily damaged, so Japan started research earthquake-proof structures, and developed an advanced and unique technology.
In 2012, Ito became the commissioner and took the Great East Japan Earthquake as an opportunity to turn back to the roots of architecture. He set a concept to design a gathering place for people, the “Home for All (みんなの家)” with architects of the next generation. This was co-designed by a line-up of young, internationally rising architects: Sou Fujimoto (born 1971), Akihisa Hirata (born 1971) and Kumiko Inui (born 1969). They realized the “Home for All” in Rikuzentakata, a city that was greatly affected by the Tsunami. The building is forested with pillars and has a house-shaped roof. Its primitive appearance boldly displayed new architecture. Naoya Hatakeyama (born 1958), who is originally from the area, took photographs of the situation in Rikuzentakata and made a great panorama to surround the walls inside. Isozaki brought rubble from Kobe to display the end of architecture, but Ito brought in a large number of logs from Rikuzentakata and was praised for his positive way of searching for the beginning of architecture. Japanese architecture has repeatedly faced the dynamism of destruction and regeneration to generate creativity.