Japanese architecture – building the impossible

Mikimoto Ginza 2
Mikimoto Ginza 2, Tokyo, Japan, Architect Toyo Ito + Taisei Design Pae, Mikimoto Ginza 2 Daytime Exterior View. (Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
'Ihyou' is a concept that runs through much of modern Japanese design - in searching for it, architects challenge the limits of form.
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Japanese architecture has captivated the imagination of the Western world since the latter half of the 19th century, when the Meiji era ended centuries of isolationism and Japan became a willing participant on the world stage. After the initiation of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan’s ensuing rush to modernise, and to a great extent Westernise, led to radical changes in approaches to architectural design and construction. The following decades brought about a tumultuous and far-reaching transformation in Japan’s built environment in which the destructive forces of modernisation, major seismic disasters such as the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and finally the massive devastation from World War II led to extensive rebuilding. Throughout the 20th century, much of what replaced traditional Japanese structures represented a copy of Western designs, from prewar European-style municipal buildings to the postmodern edifices of the 1980s.

However, with the approach of a new millennium, Japanese architects began to chart a new course for their craft. Radically contemporary and increasingly independent from Western styles and methods, Japanese architecture has once again found its identity. In many respects, this new quality represents a compelling future for architects worldwide, as evidenced by the fact that, since 2010, half of the architects to win the Pritzker Prize – the highest honour for architects internationally – have been Japanese. Although contemporary Japanese architecture can often be identified due to its attention to material craft, conceptual purity, and spatial resourcefulness, no particular or overarching style guides its development. Nevertheless, there is a singular quality that pervades these works – a fundamental aspect that is as omnipresent as it is curious – which is the element of surprise.

In Japanese, one word for surprise is ihyou (pronounced ‘ee-hyoh’), which means something unexpected. This nuance is important for a term that guides contemporary Japanese design, which rarely seems gratuitous or shocking. Rather, surprise, in this case, refers to the subtle yet powerful manipulation of expectations in the mind of the beholder. By raising the user’s consciousness and inviting interrogation, today’s Japanese designs leave an indelible impression. There are various methods employed to achieve this phenomenon regardless of a building’s size, programme, or construction type. In this essay, I will describe three fundamental approaches for ihyou, named after what Japanese architects aim to express in each case: impossibility, incongruity, and totality.

Impossibility might seem an odd aspiration for architecture, but this is just what some of the most influential Japanese architects today aim to embody in their work. The impossible is that which defies natural physical laws. Walls that appear to float, materials that seem incomprehensibly thin, or entire sections of building that are devoid of visible load-carrying structure are all manifestations of impossibility.

‘I have a deep interest in what is fictional,’ says architect Kengo Kuma. ‘What I like is when something real is hovering just a little bit’. Kuma bases his pursuit of impossible architectural strategies on the desire to awaken the user’s consciousness, and this connection between awareness and reality defines his work. When asked why reality is somehow authenticated by the unreal, he responds: ‘If it is a little unreal, there is a little bit of a surprise. If there is no surprise with something, it is not real, because it goes unnoticed’.

One of the architectural champions of the unreal is Tadao Ando. Many of his admirers appreciate his attention to the interplay between light and shadow, the thoughtful assembly of platonic volumes, and the relentless drive towards material perfection. An equally important, although little discussed, objective in many of his works is the apparent defiance of natural laws. Specifically, Ando incorporates details that intentionally express an uncanny lightness, as if gravity is not a governing force. This seeming implausibility is enhanced by the heaviness of a predominant material language of reinforced concrete.

One example can be seen in Ando’s Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan. This ‘art museum in the earth’, as its name translates from the Japanese, is built underground, with a series of courtyards and skylights designed to bring daylight in from above. These spaces are defined by Ando’s signature architectural ‘fair faced’ concrete, which serves dual functions of façade and structure – including retaining the large mass of earth above the museum. In one three-storey tall courtyard, Ando designed an uninterrupted diagonal slit on an otherwise solid wall that frames two sides of the volume. This narrow void cuts across the surface, notably continuous at the corner, and no columns or other vertical supports are visible. This strategy is a clear expression of ‘gravitational escapism’ on Ando’s part – as if the architect is daring visitors to imagine a weightless earth.

Another example may be seen in the Ando Museum. Located on the east side of the same island, this is a gallery of the architect’s own work. A small subterranean chamber is illuminated solely by natural daylight that enters via a conical skylight above. The skylight itself is not visible from within this room, however, for the ceiling consists of an expansive concrete disc. Sunlight reaches the space around the perimeter of the disc, creating an optical effect akin to a solar eclipse. The viewer gradually becomes aware of that which is absent: an indication of structure. If the ring of light – which emanates from a single, central source – is uninterrupted, where are the shadows cast by the disc’s supports? In short, how does this heavy slab seemingly hover in mid-air, without any physical attachment?

As indicated above, Kengo Kuma is similarly enamoured with the subversion of physical laws in architecture. In the 1990s, at an early phase of his career, Kuma became focused on the development of material details as a way to celebrate the refinement of craft while also critiquing standard practices. His obsession with bringing natural light indoors led him to declare his wish to ‘erase’ architecture, not in the sense of razing buildings but in dematerialising facades. A conceptual approach based on so-called ‘particles’ of light motivated the design of porous, light-transmitting skins in a variety of materials. Like Ando, Kuma’s material selections often amplify a sense of the unreal.

A case in point is the Lotus House located in a remote, mountainous region of eastern Japan. The linear structure, which flanks a lotus pond, is clad in a chequerboard facade of small panels. At first glance, the materiality is not evident, and in broad daylight appears to be a surface of white and black tiles. On close inspection, however, the dark tiles are revealed as voids in between the white tiles which, because of their incredible thinness, belie any sense of physical depth. Are these made of a stretched textile or paper, perhaps? No, they are composed of stone! The wall surfaces were conceived ‘as countless holes’, the architect explains. ‘I have wished to create light walls that the wind would sweep through, using the massive material that is the stone’. This impossibly thin detail is composed of 30mm thick travertine sheets suspended from barely visible 18 ¬ 6 mm flat bars of stainless steel. For a material that has historically been employed because of its sturdy, load-bearing capabilities, its use as an ephemeral curtain here is startling.

The agility with which Kuma and Ando approach concepts of solid and void in architecture is connected to a deeper understanding of traditional Japanese architectural principles. Western architecture is largely defined by walls and windows – also known as ‘punched openings’, as if literally punched out of the wall. The frame that results creates a static boundary between subject and object. In contrast, the predominant framing elements in Japanese architecture are the floor and ceiling, not the wall. As a result, the subject and object commingle in a single space, despite the fact that the interior portion is protected from the elements. ‘In such a case, the main concern of planning is the introduction of a sequence and speed into a continuous space’, claims Kuma. ‘One cannot help but introduce into the building the parameter of time as well as the parameter of space. As a result, space takes on the character of a dynamic image, and space and time become inextricably entwined’.

The aperture thus enables a significant function in Japanese architecture that is distinct from its role in the Western tradition: it is a spatial connector. Architects Takaharu and Yui Tezuka embrace this capacity of the aperture as a defining element of their work. Their projects seek to eradicate conventional boundaries between inside and outside, as evident in the names of buildings like House to Catch the Sky and Temple to Catch the Forest. In their Echigo-Matsunoyama Natural Science Museum, for example, the architects designed one aperture out of an immense sheet of submarine-grade acrylic capable of withstanding the loads from the heavy snowpack that the region regularly experiences.

Whenever possible, they seek to make the aperture operable. Entire sides of their buildings can slide away, creating a continuous space between interior and exterior. In their Wall-Less House, for example, three sides of a rectangular building can be made completely open, from floor to ceiling, as retractable windows slide into a core wall on one side. In a contemporary manifestation of traditional Japanese design, walls are truly transitory. Even the columns that keep the upper floors from collapsing are barely visible. According to Takaharu Tezuka ‘… we always feel that to open a window has a stronger meaning, and makes better architecture. And so I think our projects are really dependent on the window. The window must be open’.

Most buildings today are surprisingly predictable. Through the standardisation and homogenisation of the constructed environment, we have come to anticipate many building cues without being conscious of this expectation. We regularly look for tell-tale signs of an edifice’s use, floor locations, structural load paths, entrances, circulation sequences, and material logics without an awareness of this ongoing analysis.

Thus, another approach pertains to the development of intentionally incongruous means of expression in the built environment. Incongruity refers to something that is out of harmony with its context or out of keeping with conventional practices. One way Japanese architects achieve this result is by questioning everything: materials, construction techniques, programme, spatial configuration, massing, and so on. Tezuka Architects identify technology as a fertile area for interrogation: ‘… we think that technology is the key to expanding the boundaries of architecture’, says Takaharu Tezuka. ‘Otherwise, if one always sticks to the same parameters, one can expect the same results’.

One way architect Toyo Ito commonly achieves the unexpected is by undermining preconceptions of structural behaviour. For lay audiences, the results are not impossible so much as nonsensical. For example, a series of Ito’s works focuses on the use of diagrids, or diagonally framed structures. Buildings that eschew vertical columns are rare; however, Ito’s unusual approaches, which incorporate irregular spacing and member sizes, set his projects even farther apart from conventional practice.

Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion 2002, London, United Kingdom, Architect Toyo Ito. (Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ito’s temporary 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London, designed in collaboration with engineer Cecil Balmond, was a single-volume building whose facade and structure were completely integrated. Conceived as the manifestation of a series of intersecting lines placed at different angles, the resulting envelope – composed of an intricate pattern of trapezoidal and triangular shapes – readily accommodated the binary functions of transparency and solidity. All structural loads were conveyed through this interdependent frame, without the separate vertical columns that would be a standard feature. The memorable result received many accolades, with The Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey calling it ‘one of the most exquisite and revolutionary buildings of recent times’.

Ito’s design for a stand-alone store for Tod’s in Tokyo in 2004 continued this structural approach, in this case utilising an irregular diagrid of reinforced concrete reminiscent of the Zelkova trees lining Omotesando Avenue. In 2005, construction was completed on the architect’s Mikimoto 2 store in Ginza, a nine-storey rectangular building exhibiting yet another investigation of this concept. In the case of Mikimoto 2, Ito treated the facade as a structural tube composed of two layers of plate steel with concrete poured in-between. Like the other projects, the building is otherwise column-free. By softening the edges of the apertures with rounded corners, Ito further disguised the presence of an internal diagrid. The finished project is visually striking due to its departure from several norms of high-rise construction: there are no continuous vertical load pathways, the solidity of the corners is repeatedly violated, there are no discernible floor lines in the solid portions of the envelope, and there are no perceivable construction joints that indicate boundaries between individual steel plates. Together, the absence of these common visual cues of structure and construction results in an extremely curious, and unforgettable, edifice.

Other methods of achieving incongruity focus on the smaller scale of material details. Architect Jun Aoki approaches material applications as the fundamental means to undermine traditional expectations in buildings. His Aomori Museum of Art employs two primary material languages: brown earthen construction that rises from the ground and white volumes that descend from the sky. In the latter case, Aoki uses brick in a highly unconventional way. The brick wraps all surfaces, including the undersides of cantilevered volumes – something one never sees except in the case of vault structures, which are not present here. Upon closer inspection, the visitor realises that the soffit bricks are not dimensional modules but thin sheets applied like ceramic tiles. Although the effect is subtle, particularly given that the surface is painted a homogeneous white colour, the use of brick (as opposed to stucco) lends an uncanny quality to the hovering masses.

‘A material is perceived according to a code – a social code. And so we can manipulate the code itself’, says Aoki. ‘This is a very interesting idea for us. If we make a new kind of code through the realisation of our architecture, the people’s code will transform accordingly. The material will therefore be recoded’. This reconceptualisation can be seen in his Louis Vuitton Ginza Namiki store in Tokyo. Aoki sought to create a facade of engineered stone that would convey an unanticipated lightness. The final design employs glass-fibre reinforced concrete panels that incorporate inset pieces of translucent marble. The concrete and marble are similar in colour and finish, so the facade appears homogeneous during the daytime. However, at night the interior lighting glows through the stone, revealing a previously undetected visual porosity. The architect conceives such material details as experiential transformations. Discussing a similar integration of fibre optics and limestone in the Louis Vuitton Roppongi interior, he says ‘…you might be held in suspense by the question of whether it is a stone or an image; however, it is actually not a stone, nor an image. It is just a transition’.

Incongruity is also attained by rethinking the relationship between a building’s programme and its physical form. This connection is a fertile territory for reimagination precisely because it has become so predictable. We can look at the Grace Farms designed by SANAA in New Canaan, Connecticut as one example of this reconceptualisation. The project’s programme consists of a variety of different uses including an auditorium, cafe, library, and gymnasium, all set within a rolling landscape. The typical approach would be to create several small independent structures, each with its own grade level – similar to Philip Johnson’s estate located in the same town. However, SANAA decided to create a single structure that unites the disparate activities under one roof. The building assumes a serpentine form that traces the ridges of the landscape like a river, its open colonnades providing views of the surrounding forests beyond. According to urbanist Sam Holleran, the unexpected manifestation is akin to ‘an ant farm – channeling through the earth, popping up from below, and dropping down into the folds of hillside’.

Ryue Nishizawa, one of the two principals of SANAA, adopted the opposite strategy in the design of a house for Yasuo Moriyama in Tokyo. In this case, the standard approach for a residence in a suburban block would be to create a single detached structure. However, Nishizawa created a series of standalone structures, one for each activity, with a network of exterior spaces in-between. These structures include private spaces for the client as well as rental units for on-site tenants. ‘In this house, the client is given the freedom to decide which part of this cluster of rooms is to be used as a residence or as rental rooms’, states Nishizawa. ‘He may switch among the series of living and dining rooms or use several rooms at a time according to the season or other circumstances. The domain of the residence changes after his own life’.

One of the most effective means of making an indelible impression is to treat architecture as a totalising experience. This goal is attained by maximising architecture’s signal-to-noise ratio, which is to say by emphasising meaningful material and spatial cues, while minimising superfluous aspects of design and construction. This strategy entails reducing the material palette to as few products and systems as feasible, while hiding or eliminating extraneous elements. In this way, architects maximise the experiential stories conveyed by their projects.

A common theme in contemporary Japanese architecture pertains to the aggregation of many similar material units. Both Kuma and Aoki are well-known for this approach. Kuma’s Sunny Hills store in Tokyo, for example, is a veritable cloud of timber slats that constitutes a kind of thickened, borderless facade. Inspired by the construction of bamboo baskets, the thin wooden members form a micro-diagrid that is several layers deep. The timber thicket is also reminiscent of a congested forest through which dappled sunlight enters during the day. Another noteworthy project is Kuma’s Folk Art Museum at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, China. Designed as a set of terraced volumes set against the hillside, the museum features a facade that blends with its tiled roofs. Just outside floor-to-ceiling glass walls, thousands of repurposed roof tiles are suspended with stainless steel cables. The result is a field of hovering ceramic elements that not only bring shade to interior spaces, but also visually connect with the building’s predominant roof material.

Jun Aoki’s White Chapel in Osaka takes a similar approach to creating a multilayered envelope. In this case, the facade is composed of steel rings assembled to form truncated tetrahedrons. The rings’ different angles cast intricate patterns of shadows against white interior curtains, diffusing direct sunlight while generating visual interest. The facade of Aoki’s Louis Vuitton store in Roppongi Hills has a similar circle motif, but in this case, the architect uses glass tubes instead of steel rings. Specifically, nearly 30,000 10cm-diameter clear glass cylinders are encapsulated between two plates of glass to create a facade that is over 30cm deep. Despite the transparency of all the glass used, this layered composition amplifies reflected light to create a shimmering field of optical distortions. In addition to material refinement, a related and characteristically Japanese approach to creating an immersive experience is to unite a building’s interior with its exterior. Like Kuma’s discussion of the window above, bridging indoor and outdoor spaces creates continuity and establishes a more dynamic condition than that of a fixed window frame. For example, SANAA’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art is a single-storey gallery (with additional subterranean spaces) that is composed primarily of floor-to-ceiling glass walls sandwiched between the roof and ground planes. The tall panels of low-reflectivity glazing emphasise the visual connections between the building and its lush site.

The Glass Pavilion is an example of literal continuity; however, Japanese architects also design figurative connections between architecture and landscape. For example, the same firm’s Rolex Learning Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland functions more as a site than a building. Its expansive floor plate undulates extensively in sections, creating a sheltered field of artificially rolling terrain. Junya Ishigami’s KAIT Workshop at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology houses a single, rectilinear volume of space surrounded by glass. The roof is supported by over 300 thin steel columns that vary in spacing and orientation. In this case, the floor is entirely level, but the number and placement of the columns impart the feeling of a forest. By varying the density of the columns, Ishigami was able to suggest spatial hierarchies and different functional uses without building physical walls. Another project makes both literal and figurative connections: Sou Fujimoto’s Naoshima Pavilion is a visually permeable structure composed of triangulated steel mesh panels. The porosity of the single-volume folly enhances relationships with its context; meanwhile, the mesh panels also form an artificial topography near the base, inviting visitors to climb the constructed ground plane.

A related totalising strategy seeks minimalism in the extreme. When visual noise is eliminated, the visitor’s sensory impact is maximised. Artist and designer Tokujin Yoshioka understands the potency of rarified material experiences. His installations and structures are often inspired by ephemeral natural phenomena that he seeks to capture in inert physical form. For example, his Lexus L-Finesse exhibition at the Museo Della Permanente in Milan consisted of 700km-worth of transparent fibres that were suspended from the ceiling in a white room. The density of the fibres, which barely touched the floor, conjured up the sense of a thick fog. Artist Shinji Ohmaki’s Liminal Air installations are similar works, although the fibres are hung at different heights to suggest a topographic surface underneath the dense material.

Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum, which he designed in collaboration with artist Rei Naito, is an exemplary work of totalising experience. Located on Teshima Island, the gallery is a single volume of space contained within an oblong, flattened dome structure. The roof consists of a 25cm-thick structural shell of white concrete and is punctured by two oculi – both open to the air – and one at each end. The absence of columns and lack of control joints, form ties, or other signs of construction give the impression that the roof is impossibly light. What is even stranger is the floor: water slowly percolates up from nearly invisible holes in the jointless concrete. Over time, as the water gradually beads up on the hydrophobic concrete surface, it gathers with nearby droplets, and small rivulets run down imperceptible slopes into an undetectable drain. As visitors sit quietly within the large, resonant chamber, they become conscious of the slow passage of time – focusing on the movement of water, the soft shuffle of feet, and the birdsong that enters through the open portals.

The three strategies of impossibility, incongruity, and totality all seek to induce a state of ihyou in audiences by generating novel experiences. Obviously, novelty is a relative state defined by some departure from ordinary circumstances. According to Japanese designer Kenya Hara, the key to understanding a baseline condition is to gain an appreciation for the sum of experiences and habits each individual has formed related to the built environment. The designer can then manipulate fundamental aspects of this set of experiences. ‘A designer creates an architecture of information within the mind of the recipient of his work’, states Hara.

The approaches employed by contemporary Japanese architects to evoke surprise relate to theories of cognitive science. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that much of visual perception is ‘half visual experience, half thought’. In the article ‘Imagination and Perception’, philosopher P.F. Strawson discusses Wittgenstein’s scrutiny of the viewer’s moment of surprise: ‘He is particularly impressed by the case where they [visual contents] undergo a change of aspects under one’s very eyes, as it were, the case where one is suddenly struck by a new aspect’, he writes. This ihyou phenomenon is enhanced when approached with sophistication and nuance. ‘I always try to convey the surprising moments of my designs with a degree of subtlety,’ says designer Oki Sato of Nendo. ‘Large surprises are quite easy, like saying ‘Boo!’ I’d like to make the surprises as small as possible, in order to enhance the process of discovery’.

In short, ihyou is about making the common uncommon. By manipulating the everyday fabric of experience, today’s Japanese architects recalibrate their audiences’ expectations of what is possible within the built environment. At the same time, they infuse the user’s daily activities with delight, intrigue, and even awe. In the best cases, the work blurs distinctions between what is real and what is fictional. ‘Experiencing [new buildings in Japan] is a process of suspending architecture in a perpetually evanescent and temporary state of ‘in-between’ where becoming and fading away, growth and decay, presence and absence, reality and fiction, silence and speech take place simultaneously – or perhaps are one and the same thing’, writes architectural historian Botond Bognar. ‘It is in this sense that many of these designs evoke the images of elusive phenomena, of twilight, shadows, clouds, or mirage, and gain a certain ephemeral or fictive quality’.

This essay originally appeared as Evoking Ihyou in Japan’s Past and Present, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

Blaine Brownell

Blaine Brownell is an architect and Professor and Interim Department Head at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. He has written four 'Transmaterial' books: catalogues of new materials that are reshaping the world.

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