James Kirk Architecture
© James Kirk 2010-2016
comments to    
cookies

Re-reading Japan: SANAA's Relational Architecture

Re-reading Japan: SANAA's Relational Architecture (pdf 8.8mb opens in new window)

SANAA and the interaction between Japan and the West

The experience of seeing a SANAA building is visceral. This experience is despite the ephemerality of appearance achieved by Sejima and Nishizawa and is little reduced upon first glimpse by anticipation, or by knowledge of previous works. Whether a glass and concrete garden emerging from a meadow in an Alpine city; a perforated cube deposited in a post-industrial Bauhaus landscape; or a bright white disc raised on a glass wall, punctured by a mass of solid white forms set within a Japanese city scarred by the remnants of a supposed architectural future, SANAA’s “extreme abstraction and perfect clarity” of built form is astonishing. There is more to these works however, which operate decisively within the public realm and employ spatial complexities internally that require a greater degree of analysis than has been afforded them.

The Japanese culture, and the architecture that emanates from it, has been wilfully misunderstood by Western critics, practitioners and clients due to a historical cultural hegemony, and the fetishization of Japanese cultural forms and products by the West, and throughout Japan’s modern history Western artists, architects and others have appropriated Japan’s perceived remove to promote their own ideas. The idiosyncratic appearance of published works in the West and the lack of rigour in the critical analysis of the works is indicative of this wider cultural phenomenon, and a cause for concern. SANAA is a prime example of this, and we can analyse their work to identify the wider cultural issues.

Typical of Western discourse on the cultural exchange between Japan and the West is the assertion that Japan is an ‘other’ culture, promoting the sense that the culture has evolved independent of outside intervention, and thus is an alien culture with the potential to subvert the existing state of affairs, economically, culturally or societally. This assertion is however demonstrably untrue, and the reality is that the technological, social and economic interaction between Japan and the West has been rich and diverse from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.

Japanese architecture is however fundamentally different from its Western counterpart, and though the significant technological and cultural interventions of the 20th century have united the two somewhat, a series of differences between the praxes has maintained a separation that has caused misunderstandings. By exploring a series of contemporary lineages in Japanese architecture, the thesis identifies that relationships are emphasised in Japan, over Western precepts of materiality and form. This notion of an architecture of relationships is misunderstood because it is a part of Japanese practice alongside the craft and tradition that dominates discourse about Japan in the West. Again, SANAA are characteristic of this combination of themes and this is expressed through the extraordinary visual quality of their architecture. In focussing purely on the visual aesthetic, the Western critic is able to disregard the importance of the relational qualities of the architecture, which employs a nuanced and subtle architectural method that does not engage in the hubris of the tradition of their well-known counterparts in the West, particularly characteristic of the 20th century. SANAA’s architecture is a subtle, intricate architecture of interpersonal relationships that aims to restore the social bond through its materiality and form and to alleviate antagonisms related to the social structures of the locations of their works.

Relational Aesthetics

Happening concurrently with the establishment of SANAA as an international practice was a Western art movement that promoted a similar set of values to this relational architecture. Relational Aesthetics was a term defined in the early 1990s to bring together a group of artists who diverted their attention from visual aesthetics, to embrace an aesthetic of relationships and encounters, an art that focussed on the experimental production of new social bonds. The thesis highlights the significant crossover in the approaches and aims of the relational artists of the 1990s and the relational architecture of SANAA and their followers. It is however important to contextualise the relational work (both for art and architecture) in any critical analysis, and it is essential to judge the work of relational architects in these terms; we should not assume that all interpersonal relationships are positive, and conducive to a better society.

As the West endeavours to emerge from the worst recession of a century, it is more important than ever to understand the recent cultural history of Japan where the collapse of the asset bubble caused a traumatic period of loss and stagnation that has lasted decades. The young architects of Japan have developed their professional methods in this period, and SANAA have built an international reputation. This thesis identifies that by re-reading Japan and understanding how one group of architects has learned to operate in a world that is totally different from that of their mentors, the West can begin to learn how to remake a society in crisis.

This thesis includes the author’s reflections on a journey through Western Europe to witness three buildings by SANAA, alongside reflections on two other SANAA buildings visited previously. The journey provides some of the primary evidence for this thesis.

A travel diary provides a first hand account of the pilgrimage taken in the summer of 2011 to three SANAA buildings in Western Europe. This had been preceded by visits to two SANAA galleries in Japan and the United States the previous year. The case studies that make up the evidence in the thesis are as follows:

- The EPFL Learning Center, Lausanne, Switzerland

- The Zollverein School of Management & Design, Essen, Germany

- The New Museum, Manhattan, NY, USA

- The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan

- Also visited, was the Kunstlimie in Almere, The Netherlands

James Kirk Architecture
© James Kirk 2010-2016
comments to    
cookies