Monuments to a Japanese Era


Adam Nathaniel Furman


Newsletter, preservation, historic preservation, docomomo, 1993
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1993 was the year in which the delirious asset inflation of the Bubble era, that saw property selling in Ginza for $750,000 a square meter, and which meant the land on which the Imperial Palace sat in Tokyo was calculated to be worth more than all the real estate in the whole of California combined, finally -and decisively- ended, ushering in what has come to be referred to as the country’s “Lost Decade” of low growth and asset depreciation.


Together with stratospheric stock prices and hyperactive economic growth, the increase in land value had fuelled an unparalleled explosion in construction activity, a boom that coincided with a particularly unique and rich moment in Japanese architecture. Small developers in cities across the country were maximising the value of their land by redeveloping often tiny plots, with designs achieving a level of ambition and complexity only possible in such a feverishly speculative climate.


In the froth over ever-abundant money, gigantic corporate complexes, gem-like bespoke office structures, dizzying retail environments, vast stations and infrastructure projects, completely outsized museums in the smallest of regional centres, civic centres, and much else besides were erected in every corner of the country. By 1993 the boom was well and truly over, however the nature of construction meant that there was a lag between the economic reality of a fallen powerhouse, and the pipeline of buildings still being built, which had been planned, approved and financed in the tail end of the bubble year. Being amongst the very last examples, these four projects perfectly embody the architectural ambition and intensity of Japan’s economic miracle.

Hiroshi Hara’s Umeda Sky Building is a vast, interlinked double-skyscraper project in Osaka. Originally called “Sky City” the project was meant to be twice as large, with four interlinked towers, but was scaled back as the economy faltered. Intended to look like an ethereal vision of villages in the sky -like something out of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”- the tops of the towers are covered in both the evocation of clouds, and the shapes of smaller architectures, which together fragment out of the mirrored flank of the main office structure below. The bridge between the two towers is punctured by a conical crater, which the architect refers to as a “vestige” from “where a spaceship has flown away”, a never to be used docking platform much like the one at the top of the Empire State Building, only this one never having been intended for actual use at all. Two dramatic escalators rise through the void high above the city, theatricalising the ascent into the city in the clouds of Hara’s imagination. Easily one of the strangest corporate high-rise projects ever to have been realised, the Umeda Sky Building remains to this day, floating on the skyline as an exquisitely ineffable enigma from a lost time of almost incomprehensible and thrilling excess.

Shin Takamatsu produced a remarkable body of work throughout the 1980s, mostly in his home region of Kansai, creating buildings that managed to embody the hyper-futuristic, but simultaneously dark and brooding atmosphere of Japanese popular and intellectual culture in that period, a kind of super-expressive palladian high-tech, perhaps most succinctly conveyed in his Syntax building of Kyoto (1988-90, now demolished), and his Kirin Plaza in Osaka (1987, now demolished). In 1993 he completed his largest commission to date, the Kunibiki Messe in Matsue, Shimane. Emblematic of this period, it is an unusual mix of programs, for a regional urban centre, contained within a forcefully suggestive and symbolic envelope. Various sized conference halls, and a trade fair venue jostle within the volume with a large public space populated by unprogrammed geometric forms and their free interiors, while the rest of the building contains offices for the regional bureaucracy.

The incredible quantity of projects that were going up in the period, and the desire for unique design approaches that would mark the building out as singular and worthy of notice in some way, led to a certain number of foreign architects getting opportunities to build designs that they would never have been able to produce in their home countries. Nigel Coates, with his practice Branson Coates were producing some extraordinary projects, which are still sadly underappreciated and under-documented to this day. One of the most intriguing foreign-designed buildings from the whole era is the Wood Carving Museum in Inami, by the British architect-teacher Peter Salter. In a small rural community that is famed for its wood carving tradition -still very much alive today- dwells a moody, complex, and intensely crafted building that stands in often jarring contrast to the sometimes-kitsch displays it contains. A sprawling building that constantly presents a different face to the visitor, it is comprised of a sequence of highly differentiated spaces, each of which displays the skills of local craftspeople in a distinct manner. A large, bulbous, Samurai-like architectural form looms over the whole complex, announcing its presence from afar, and on the interior, there are constant tectonic surprises, from bending concrete stalactites, to bizarre, hanging, copper-lined wood light-funnels that look for all the world like they intend to scoop you up, and deliver you to some secret location elsewhere. The local craft museum for a small village, with ambitions in architecture and scale to rival major cities in other countries, designed by a foreigner whose projects were considered too difficult to realise almost anywhere else, the Inami Museum stands like a rupture in reality, on the edge of a village that has returned, post bubble, after 1993, to its quiet, quotidian, wood carving existence.


Like Takamatsu, Hiroyuki Wakabayashi, a Kyoto architect, produced a highly consistent and unique body of work throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. His Humax pavilion in Tokyo perfectly summarises his whole oeuvre, and captures both his simultaneous impulse to be technologically fantastical as well as moodily historical, and his desire to encrust the entire form of the building, inside and out, in a bristling cacophony of brooding ornament. As he put it “it is an irrational instinct for man to long for the future while latently having a desire to refer back to the past, this architecture is the best embodiment of this instinct.” His utterly fantastical Humax pavilion -a building full of retail units- looms with unmatched theatrical menace over Shibuya, like a gigantic, ancient, futuristic artefact, a grounded rocket forever frozen in attempted take-off in 1993.

Like the projects shown here, the first half of the 1990s in Japan saw the completion of some of the most architecturally fascinating buildings the world has seen, cumulatively forming a unique legacy that marks a highly particular, and never-to-be-repeated moment in Japanese -and world- history. Sadly, due to the winds of stylistic fashion, many of the most artistically important and discrete works from this period have been overlooked in the general dismissal of any architecture that might display traits of evocation, ornament, intense expressiveness, or narrative. In purveying a form of aesthetic minimalism that remained fashionable, architects like Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando continued to build their careers and went on to gain international stature, however a bustling cohort of expressive practitioners from Hiroshi Hara to Wakabayashi, Shin Takamatsu, Takefumi Aida, Kiko Mozuna, Takasaki Masaharu, and Makoto Sei Watanabe, amongst others besides, inexplicably sank from critical view. It is long overdue that we look to this period not only in Japan, but around the world, and teach ourselves once again to see what is so patently evident, that there is an abundance of brilliant and overlooked architecture which we have a duty to reflect upon, respect, appreciate and hopefully, one day, celebrate and preserve.

About the Author


Adam Nathaniel Furman is a London based designer whose practice ranges from Architecture & interiors, to sculpture, installation, writing and product design. He pursues research through his studio 'Productive Exuberance' at Central St Martins, and the Research Group 'Saturated Space' which he runs at the Architectural Association, exploring colour in Architecture and Urbanism through events, lectures and publications. He was Designer in Residence at the Design Museum in London for 2013-14, received the Blueprint Award for Design Innovation in 2014, was awarded the UK Rome Prize for Architecture 2014-15, was one of the Architecture Foundation's "New Architects" in 2016, a L'Uomo Vogue Design Star 2016, was described by Rowan Moore, architecture critic for the Observer, as one of the four 'rising stars' of 2017, and is a ‘Rising Talent of 2018’ for Elle Decor Italia. He has worked at OMA Rotterdam, Ron Arad Architects, Farrells and Ash Sakula, and has written for Abitare, the RIBA Journal, Icon, the Architectural Review, and Apollo Magazine, amongst others. In all his work Adam explores the relationship between memory, imagination, history and communication at multiple scales, always with a critical eye towards the way in which sensual architectural form, in a dialogue with the past and the future, can communicate complex issues through eloquent and expressive shapes, colours, and environments.