Terunobu Fujimori’s Plausible Dystopia

The modernist architect’s struggle to harmonize a reinforced-concrete-and-glass box with encircling trees and gardens, flowing slopes and streams, has proved vastly influential.

poster for

"Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and Rojo" Exhibition

at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
in the Shinjuku area
This event has ended - (2007-04-13 - 2007-07-01)

poster for Terunobu Fujimori

Terunobu Fujimori "Four and a half mat Maison"

at Maison Hermès
in the Ginza, Marunouchi area
This event has ended - (2007-03-17 - 2007-06-10)

In Features by Michael Balderi 2007-07-03

Occasionally, the struggle arises from words—sweeping doctrinaire words. Tadao Ando, for instance, recently turned up on cable TV, waxing lyrical on the socio-historical virtues of planting a forest in the center of Tokyo. In solemn tones quite daunting to his unlucky cub interviewer, he discussed this 2016 urban plan as an embodiment of the Asian reverence for nature. ‘Millennial’ would be the byword here. Yet, for the man on the streets, the hitch looms large. Anyone who has ever seen, let alone snapped, an aerial photograph of the busy circuit between the Imperial Palace and Omotesando knows that the chances of the architect’s neo-Arcadia advancing beyond the concept stage are slim to nil. After all, as part of this recherché scheme a generous slice of Tokyo’s twelve million inhabitants would be forced back to nature—into utopia, undeniably, but utopia set in scare quotes and punctuated by a question mark. Never mind, one figures, that Ando’s Omotesando Hills shopping mall was itself planted over the charming (Bauhaus) 1927 Dojunkai-Aoyama apartment complex.

Ando can hardly be blamed for such drafting-board oversights. The modernist, or rather, post-modernist architect’s enterprise continues to be freighted with contradiction. This irreconcilability goes back to Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier). With his neat tailored suit, neater horn rims and high-end sobriquet, Corbu believed that what the proletariat needed, more than quaint little bungalows, were spartan ‘machines for living’. Since then, modernism’s doublethink has endured, leaving a hush of megalomania from the clouds scratched by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York to the forlorn pool atop Corbu’s own Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. ‘People’ and ‘nature’, these often seem little more than design elements in many an architect-titan’s rhetorical sphere. But while the visionary force of designs past and present may be graced with talent for aphorism, words are not deeds, much less buildings.

 Tokyo Opera City’s recent exhibition on Terunobu Fujimori featured an NHK video documentary marking the halfway point of Unknown Japanese Architecture and Cities, a tweaked version of Terunobu Fujimori and the ROJO Society’s 2006 Venice Biennale exhibition. ROJO Society founders, architect-architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori, artist-novelist Genpei Akasegawa and illustrator-essayist Shinbo Minami idle along a country path in Fujimori’s hometown, Miyagawa Takabe, Chino City, Nagano prefecture. Off in the distance, a kind of tree house mounted on spindly chestnut pillars hovers above the mountain fields, lean-tos and rice paddies. Spotting it, Minami remarks, ‘…kind of weird…and cute’, an evaluation that certainly sounds of a piece with the title Fujimori has given the slightly imbalanced structure: Takasugi-an (Too-High Teahouse). The design sprang from Fujimori’s ongoing badinage with that coziest of Japanese traditional spaces. In the video’s establishing sequence, we have seen Fujimori in his baseball cap and work boots barreling through the forest looking for chestnut trees; during construction, there he is, kicking up mud, vigorously directing the action while chopping wood and pouring concrete. Akasegawa and Minami, along with other surviving ROJO founders, publisher Tetsuo Matsuda and essayist Joji Hayashi, spread earthen plaster along the wall bases and bend copper for the roofing. At one point, since Fujimori sets great store by rough, non-uniform finishes, we witness a communal copper tramping. The payoff arrives as this unassuming triumvirate stroll beyond the outskirts of Miyagawa Takabe towards the pendulous fruit of their labors, climb up the rickety wooden ladder, take stock of the minimalist enclosure and its modest details (the essential brazier, a sun window set in a gold-leafed chimney), then stretch out like skiving school kids on the rattan. Akasegawa’s running critique is suitably felicitous: ‘It’s a bit scary climbing up, but this swaying is your reward…a light swaying, like a gondola, or an airship.’

Thus we are gently cast into the atavism and urbanity at the core of Terunobu Fujimori’s work. Awash in the flood of architecture exhibitions that have dotted the Tokyo museumgoer’s must-see list over the past year or so were many video presentations, that is, much padding: overlong specialist interviews and flashy graphics, eagerly enough skirted. Here, mutatis mutandis, the Takasugi-an video’s interstitial placement braids the buildings’ rather intransigent material and conceptual strands. Shots of the ROJO Society in the hills building Takasugi-an enliven the introductory presentation of Fujimori’s favored tools (an unsoundly displayed chainsaw, a jackhammer, an adze) and surfaces (slabs of moss, slate and charred cedar). They also segue into the ROJO Society reportage and addenda, which comprise the show’s closing passage. Most strikingly, they lend the architect’s words, if not exactly gravitas, then a more consoling quality.

Good for master and man alike, that quality falls somewhere between credibility, on a broad, public level, and sincerity, on a more intimate, personal one. For Fujimori shares with his ROJO Society collaborators a delight and faith in commentary. The audio accompaniment to the slide show that has been arranged in a basket-like viewing hut features the ROJO founders riffing on a string of treasured photographic puns: De Chirico’s Wall, Kyoto is a canted house photographed from just-the-right angle; Yves Klein, Mie is a rambling, corrugated tin shed painted cerulean. Such structural peculiarities, when observed by seasoned eyes, are sources of humor and insight. The sustaining message is that toying with De Chirico and Klein’s earnestness does not so much diminish as reflect the profound ways in which art informs our views of the world. Nourished by this fondness for art-historical tropes, Fujimori addresses ‘the aesthetic conflict between artificial structures and plants’. It is an issue he has derived from Le Corbusier’s canonical Five points of a New Architecture. To couch Corbu’s trip-ups on the second of the five points, the roof garden, Fujimori slyly “imagined growing plants on architecture like downy hair growing from human skin” and “planted leeks on the roof” in his 1995 design for Akasegawa’s home, the Nira House (the Leek House). Inventiveness, it seems, is blunted only by the constraints of engineering or by the daring of the client. Fujimori’s preliminary plans involved leeks as well as—get this—a drawbridge. (Picture the outcome had Akasegawa, a radical thinker in his own right, an artist convicted, after a prolonged trial-cum-installation piece, of counterfeiting yen notes for a gallery invitation, not found the medieval embellishment a touch extreme.) Residential drawbridges, ingrown leeks—with modernism’s prescriptive cant upended, words for this unconventional architect are, as it turns out, buildings.

And ‘unconventional’ would be the byword here. Like Ando spouting off on forestation, Fujimori, reaching a bravura peak in the Opera City show, muses about the future of Tokyo. Realized in a sprawling table-model by Nobumichi Oshima, his projection gives us end-of-history Tokyo in the year 2107. Iconic Tokyo Tower lies half-submerged in a ruined heap; glass baubles encasing what might be arboreal biomaterial rest on patchy tongues of sand; trees and agricultural plots sprout up on the mainland, signaling pastoral reconstruction, bountifully underway; windmills, energy-beacons in the rising sea, are poised in vanguard formation; cactus-shaped, excessively windowed domes of wood and coral-plaster have replaced today’s steel and glass monoliths. Essentially, the architect-historian has imagined a plausible dystopia, of sorts, contrary to Ando’s implausible utopia. A sense of human touch divides them. Just as Fujimori’s exquisite teahouse and residential design models convey, to this reviewer, the jagged candor of the Edo Period sculptor Enku’s single block Buddhist carvings, his vision of 2107 Tokyo refers back, far past modernism, to elemental construction’s ‘real party feel’. He deems the party has been swinging ‘since the pyramids’—or, alternatively, since the formative years of his Nagano childhood, when ‘the whole village turned out to help thatch a house.’

Origin disputes aside, that spirit of comity flows most touchingly into Takasugi-an and Fujimori’s other teahouse designs: the Right Angle Teahouse, the One Night Teahouse…During a recent ROJO Society symposium organized in tandem with the Opera City show, Fujimori noted that only in number of completed teahouses does his oeuvre surpass that of his prolific contemporary, Ando. This is a funny, evenly scaled distinction. The teahouse presents many of Fujimori’s ideas in full light, since the object behind their design is, by his own description, ‘to create a miniature universe separate from the outside world.’ If there is a defining rhetorical strophe in this show, then that is it. Further cultivating his miniaturist garden, Fujimori has recently overseen construction of four pre-Edo monk hideaways (‘temporary places to sleep in and invite friends to for meals’) on the eighth floor of Renzo Piano’s Hermes building. Maison Hermes is an emblematic, art-deco inspired glass gem, located fittingly in the heart of Ginza. As a kind of epigram to Opera City’s comprehensive Fujimori and ROJO exhibition, the juxtaposition—of buildings within a building—reminds us that the most trenchant revolutions are sometimes quiet ones.

Michael Balderi

Michael Balderi. Born 1975, year of the rabbit. Lives in Tokyo. » See other writings


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