Reviewed by Jon Leon
Post-war Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006) has proven to be a great interpreter of his own work. Known as much for his architectural theory and as an educator at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (where he gave birth to the “Shinohara School”) as he is known for his houses, Shinohara’s work is often described by himself and other critics as being “phasic.”
The present volume notes a continuum of four distinct styles, each one building on its predecessor while adding to the architect’s mythic reputation. In the numerous, rigorously controlled texts that accompany the presentation of his work, Shinohara alludes to many more sub-phases and tangential concepts. Theories either attributed to Shinohara by critics and academics or invented by Shinohara himself include descriptors like: cubic void, anti-space machine, progressive anarchy, dry androgyny, zero degree machine, savage machine, heretical space, fictionality, Tokyo chaos theory, fissure space, transversal, geno-form, and so on. Then there are the various heavy-duty thinkers to which his work is often connected, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari, and others.
I’ve reveled in my own theoretical and aesthetic philosophy (“waste wave,” “gaze daze,” “patio life,” et alia) and as much as I enjoy doing so I’d like to break from the purely abstract order to render my association with the thingness of these structures. I don’t mean to waver between the two extremes of pure abstraction and built reality, nor am I discounting the very real canonical significance of Shinohara’s dialog with Japanese architectural history and urban theory. I do however wish to bring my consideration to the material body of these structures. I’d like to consider their design outside of context if I may. After all, I’m only able to experience these works through the book, the photograph, and the text. I understand this may read as a break from iterations of culture as context with which I have concurred in the past; however, context remains here, it’s simply dispersed.
For me, Shinohara’s work is unimaginable, and perhaps that is what is so fascinating about it. As a person with little remaining imagination I don’t feel the drive to put House with an Earthen Floor (1963) back into a Japanese highland where I’ve never been. Furthermore, as Shinohara’s development persisted through the high-tech 1980s the architect himself seemed to reject the agglomeration of meaning that inscribed his work. Writing for Yale Architecture’s Perspecta in 1983 Koji Taki notes: “In the course of time, Shinohara ultimately manifested his rejection of a world full of superficial meaning. If there existed an approach to the zero-degree of style—a style in which the image is the meaning—then it would follow that the role of the structural and functional elements would come into dominance.” While I wish to simply accept this dispensation of meaning (and thereby this very essay) and stand in awe of the conceptual prism casting its light around me I’m also moved to set about Taki’s dare to evacuate the architectural language in order to arrive at an illiterate, “characterless,” space.
Throughout my brief stint as a student of interior architecture I maintained a favorable opinion of the essentialism and inherent dignity of indigenous architecture—from the polygonal huts used by Afghan pastoralists to unadorned castles to the Mediterranean community architecture found in Myron Goldfinger’s Villages in the Sun (1969). The vernacular I may be most familiar with in the Southeast US: whitewashed wooden farmhouses, weather-beaten beach cottages on stilts around Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, or perhaps even the mobile home. Likewise, in 1954 Shinohara began to play with traditional Japanese architecture. He didn’t oppose it directly but rather opened its historical schemata to the ambivalent and disorienting big-space of the “House as Art.”
The Japanese house is the ground of being for Shinohara both figuratively and literally (three of his built projects utilize Earthen floors). From there he developed an autonomous research-driven practice unlike any other at the time, one that seemed to simultaneously transcend and perfectly contain his era. In a conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist recently republished in Quaderns (#265) Shinohara remarked that his chaotic bent was very “un-avant-garde” at a time when the architects of the International Style prioritized the near fascist ordeal of total order. One gets the impression that Shinohara was kind of out there: too cool for the Metabolists, too intellectual for paper Modernists, evasive of the press, exalted by his students (Ito, Hasegawa, Sakamoto), and highly respected by his clients who were more often than not other artists, writers, poets, art directors, film producers, and intellectuals of all stripes. He is revered by contemporary Japanese firms like SANAA and Atelier Bow Wow. Shinohara is an architect’s architect if there ever was one. His reputation for uncompromising integrity is flawless. To this end, he maintained strict control over the publication of his work.
Complete Works covers 42 built projects spanning the years 1954-1990. The materials used progress from regional woods like cypress to concrete to corrugated aluminum, glass, and various slick metals. Plans evolved from horizontality to verticality—from squares and cuboid forms to quarter-cylindrical surfaces to cavity spaces, path obstructions, soaring skylights, and angular visages that look like a pile of cut-up origami pinwheels. It would be impossible to exhaust the intricacies and implication of each project here, so I would like to draw attention to an exemplar in the Shinohara corpus: The House under High-Voltage Lines of 1981. Due to the peculiar constraints of the site this house presented a unique design challenge. Regulations prevented the roof from crossing into two circular demarcations governing the clearance around a string of power lines running north-south overhead. Shinohara’s solution tested the limits of these regulations by allowing his design to conform precisely to the shape of the prescribed parameters. What results is a double-barreled concave roof that traces the path of the electrical grid. The roof falls to the west of the exterior elevation and creates a rather intense master bedroom on the interior. The design is further augmented by ribbed concrete floor slabs, wide blue and green column supports, glass masonry units in the frontage, and a circular stairway indoors. Ribbon windows and a roof terrace complete the whole. It is, simply, one of the toughest looking houses ever built. 1920s Modernism set to rights.
To my understanding Kazuo Shinohara had already become a cult figure by the 1980s. His reputation was enhanced by traveling exhibitions in Europe during the late 1970s and then in the US in the early 1980s at The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (1981-1982), Yale School of Architecture (1982), and Harvard Graduate School of Design (1983). His work on Centennial Hall at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (1987) confirmed his international status. Yet the intervening years were quiet and Shinohara’s accomplishments were not widely known in the West until 2011 when Gustavo Gili published a monograph of his houses with accompanying essays by Shinohara and others (2G N.58/59). This was in itself a coup as Gili’s proposal was initially rejected by Shinohara while the architect was still living. After the architect’s death in 2006 it fell to his heirs to revive the project. Now, thanks in part to the present volume, it seems there is a renaissance of sorts. Those interested will find more blog posts, articles, and recent pictures of the architect’s houses on the web. An exhibition, On The Thresholds of Space-Making, opened earlier this year at The Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis. Rarely seen original sketches, construction drawings, models, and period photographs were displayed for the first time in the US.
Yet for all that has come after, in my opinion it is the restrained geometry of the first 14 houses (1954-1970) that are the jewel of Complete Works—light frames, soft rooms, sliding partitions, diffuse light, sunken floors, tiles, decking. There is something incredibly perfect and special about a black and white photograph of indigo carpet or the meticulously arranged interiors of the early houses, much of the simplistic furniture in which Shinohara designed himself. In my mind he has become the quintessential Japanese architect. Extraordinary ability to push the boundaries of a given tradition, and his success as an experimenter, is made possible by an exceptionally thorough understanding of what came before (no doubt encouraged by his early training under Kiyosi Seike). His doctoral dissertation, “A Study of Spatial Composition in Japanese Architecture” (1967), reveals his foundation in a tradition that he transformed and revitalized to noble effect. Through Shinohara, we receive access to tradition through accumulation of obscure traces that bear an unnerving, occult perfection.
Kazuo Shinohara: Complete Works in Original Publications (JA 93, 2014)
Image from Kazuo Shinohara: Complete Works in Original Publications