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Tracing Le Corbusier’s legacy in Japan

The National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo, is home to a collection dedicated to Western thought and art. It is also the only building by Le Corbusier in East Asia, a building of such “artistic significance and beauty” that it rivalled the paintings inside, or so remarked the New York Times upon its opening in 1959.
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The museum was commissioned to house industrialist Matsukata Kojiro’s private collection, returned to Japan by the French government after WWII on the condition that a French architect build it. The project as such took on another identity, as a symbol of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France.

Today, the National Museum of Western Art is a celebrated building with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. But at the time of its proposal, in a postwar Japan struggling to define its cultural identity, the museum and its architect garnered mixed reactions.

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The modernist style of Le Corbusier was not universally embraced, with some opposing the lack of perceived traditional Japanese architectural styles and materials, such as wooden-beam structures or pitched roofs. Instead, the building follows Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture: the internal galleries are set in a square plan, raised by pilotis, and ramps are deployed throughout. The facade, a prefab concrete cuboid on steel brackets, exemplifies the distinctive Brutalist style Le Corbusier has become synonymous with.

As the architect Arata Isozaki writes in Japan-ness in Architecture: “By the 1930s Le Corbusier had already begun to depart from the sophisticated, minimalist composition of Japan-ness in the direction of a new brute mentality, voluptuous freshness, and free-form composition,” noting that as a result, the “architectural public concluded that Le Corbusier was therefore uninterested with Japan-ness. Some even said that he did not have the sensibility to comprehend it.”

Jonathan M. Reynolds notes in Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture that the architect Satō Takeo categorised Le Corbusier as both “a materialist and as an idealist,” admitting that this duality made it “difficult [...] to understand” him and complaining “he is too impatient. He is still too poetic. He is extremely arbitrary.”

The 20th century saw periods of rapid social change in Japan, as society transformed from pre-modern to modern while reckoning with the devastation caused by two world wars. It was within this context that modernism in architecture was introduced to Japan, concurrent with what Isozaki describes as the “identification of Japan-ness” for an external gaze.

The need to rebuild Japan’s cities was imperative, but the desire to do so in a way that reflected global modernity clashed with the insistence on retaining elements of “Japaneseness”. As Isozaki notes: “For Japanese modernists [...] it is impossible not to begin with Western concepts.”

Although this conflict predated Le Corbusier, the allure and aversion to his work brought the conversation of modernism and Japanese sensibility into sharp relief. A contradiction best summed up by the thoughts of architect Yoshiro Taniguchi: “How is it that this man Le Corbusier can grasp hold of my heart, overpower it, and not let go? [...] And yet, I have not simply offered myself up to him in an idealising fashion as if I were a blind follower.”
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Despite an alleged disinterest in Japanese architecture, Le Corbusier enlisted three Japanese apprentices to assist with drawings and supervise the construction of the National Museum of Western Art: Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka. All were early proponents of his work, having trained with him in Paris, and would become key figures in Japanese modernist architecture.

Maekawa in particular devoted himself to introducing modernism in a way that was compatible with Japanese society. He continued to apply Le Corbusier’s philosophy throughout his career, amassing a body of work containing many large, concrete public buildings. His Bunka Kaikan music hall, which sits opposite the National Museum of Western Art and was designed a few years after its completion, is a modernist structure with a heavy, overhanging concrete roof reminiscent of Le Corbusier.

In the years that followed the National Museum of Western Art’s opening, emerging modernist architects like Kenzo Tange, a former student of Maekawa, began to imagine even more ambitious cities built at sea and in the air. They formed the architecture movement of Metabolism, which sought to create megastructures that could adapt to changing societal needs. The movement’s most iconic building, the Nakagin Capsule Tower, consisted of 140 stacked shipping container-esq capsules. It was made for Tokyo’s salarymen to stay in during their notoriously busy work week and each 2.5m × 2.5m × 4.0m capsule was fitted with the then most up-to-date necessities for daily life: a bed, storage cabinets, a bathroom, a colour TV, clock, refrigerator and air conditioner. In many ways, the Nakagin Capsule Tower can be viewed as the totemic conclusion to Le Corbusier’s belief that the “house is a machine for living in.”

Le Corbusier’s impact on modern architecture is undeniable, but it was his decisive nature and duality that proved most irresistible to Japan – a country then grappling with its own contradictions, striving to be at once traditional and modern. While Le Corbusier may not be the first name that springs to mind when considering Japanese modernist architecture, it cannot be uncoupled from the long shadow cast by him.

Image credit: Cemal Emden
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