Travel Blog: The Japanese Art Of Assemblage

by | 29. Oct 2013


Construction near the Gekū shrine complex in Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg

By Martin Søberg

Assembling diverse elements in configurations of greater or simpler complexity is the task of every architect. Arcspace went to Japan to experience the truly superior performance of this art at its most sophisticated level.

Visiting the cities of Tokyo, Ise, and Kyoto, I discovered a country in which culture and nature are less dichotomized than in Western thought. In which construction and growth are contrasted but also endorsed by the disassembling of totalities. Whether attending to the old or the new, the vernacular or the skillfully designed, the constant presence of clever assemblage – and its counterpart of destruction – attunes you to a world in which every entity, every stone and every beam, is fused into an animated whole.


Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop. Photo by Martin Søberg

Tokyo: construction and rupture in the modern metropolis

Outside and inside amalgamate in Junya Ishigami + Associates’ Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop (2010). This one-story building is set up to allow students to undertake design projects on their own in an open workshop equipped with various crafting tools and machines. The workshop has no dividing walls, but 305 columns, almost all of which have different sections, are unevenly distributed and placed at different angles. These columns group in sections so that certain spatial tensions are experienced throughout the otherwise fluid space.


Interior of Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop. Photo by Martin Søberg


White curtains provide shade. Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop. Photo by Martin Søberg


White paint provides the construction with a certain airy lightness further emphasized by the floor-to-ceiling glass panel façades. The roof consists of parallel bands of skylights flooding the interior in natural light. Large green plants contribute substantially to the nearly exterior atmosphere of the workshop by creating luxuriant spatial focal points.


Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Companies Tokyo Offices. Photo by Martin Søberg


Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Companies Tokyo Offices. Photo by Martin Søberg

During the 1960s and 70s Japanese Metabolist architecture was highly inspired by nature’s principles of structuring. Kenzo Tange’s Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Companies Tokyo Offices (1967) in Tokyo’s Ginza district consists of a cylindrical trunk-like core from which office spaces protrude like the pruned branches of a bonsai tree. Placed on a corner plot of only 190 square meters, the building rises 57 meters high above several busy streets, a highway, and a train line. The façade is clad in black aluminum which adds austerity as well as graphic definition to this sculptural landmark.

Read more about the Metabolists here.


New Sky Building No. 3. Photo by Martin Søberg


New Sky Building No. 3. Photo by Martin Søberg

The Metabolists’ blend of natural structure and Space Age technology was pursued even further in Yoji Watanabe’s New Sky Building No. 3 (1970) in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area. Set between Koreatown and Shinjuku’s cluster of rather dubious bars and love hotels, this 14 story apartment and office building displays references to modern movement architecture and its fascination with technology by conceptualizing the house as a machine, a spaceship or aircraft, rather than a traditional house.

The façade consists of a repetitive pattern resulting from twisting constructional elements in order to allow more daylight into the capsule-like apartments. A few years later, Kisho Kurokawa developed the idea of the capsule apartment building even further in his Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972).


Koizumi Lighting Theater. Photo by Martin Søberg


Koizumi Lighting Theater. Photo by Martin Søberg


Koizumi Lighting Theater. Photo by Martin Søberg

Deconstruction as the antidote to clear and rigid construction is the starting point for this project by Peter Eisenman and his Japanese collaborator Kojiro Kitayama. Koizumi Lighting Theater (1990) is a showroom and office building for a lighting equipment company. Until the 1980s, few Western architects – with the notable exception of Frank Lloyd Wright – had had the opportunity to build in Japan.

The façade is almost completely covered in a grid of frosted glass panels, while twisted cubes interrupt the upper Southeastern and lower Northwestern corners. This suggests a sequence of movements and results in an interior of splits and cracks that allow for a variety of lighting conditions. The plastered intersecting elements were originally painted in muted tones of pink and green, a color-scheme developed in collaboration with American painter and theorist Robert Slutzky, yet today unfortunately changed to white.


Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center. Photo by Martin Søberg

Assemblage may be taken rather literally as this building by Kengo Kuma demonstrates. The Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center (2012) is situated near the Sensō-ji temple in the lively historical Asakusa area in Tokyo and facing its Kaminari-mon Gate. A stack of one-story houses results in an eight-story high construction in which the roofs of each house conditions the spatial configuration of the interior spaces. On the 6th floor, for instance, a terraced theater is created following the slope of the roof below. To the exterior, the consequence of the stacking is a façade of rhythmic zigzagging. The exterior is clad in wooden boards whilst wood panels are also used inside to create shifting lighting conditions and spatial diversity.


Naikū shrine area, Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg


Naikū shrine area, Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg


Ise and Kyoto: tradition and the assemblage of nature and culture

Building, demolishing, and rebuilding are foundational aspects of Japanese architectural culture. This is particularly visible in Ise in the Mie prefecture. The Ise Grand Shrine is the most important shrine in Shino culture and consists of Gekū, the outer shrine complex, and Naikū, the inner shrine complex dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu-ōmikami, goddess of the sun.


Gekū shrine area, Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg


Gekū shrine area, Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg    

The shrines are wooden constructions with thatched reed roofs. This type of architecture dates back to the Kofun era 250-538 C.E. According to tradition, the temples of this shrine complex are rebuilt every 20th year alternating between adjacent sites. The old buildings are subsequently reassembled. This year, 2013, saw the 62nd iteration of the shrine complex. The new temples had been built, but the old ones not yet reassembled when arcspace visited the site. As a result, it was possible to experience the old next to the new, a phenomenon which may only be observed for a short period of time every second decade.


Kawasaki area in Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg

In the Kawasaki area, along the Seta River in the Northern part of Ise, you will find some nice examples of traditional Japanese urban architecture with intricate wooden facades. The timber is often mixed with various other materials such as more mundane metal plates, painted in subdued colors.


Wooden table in Ise. Photo by Martin Søberg

Even the simplest piece of furniture can be a precise demonstration of the intelligent assemblage of elements: A table standing in front of a house in Ise’s Kawasaki area is constructed by five rectangular wooden plates.


The Ginkaku Pavilion. Photo by Martin Søberg


Model of the Ginkaku Pavilion shingle construction. Photo by Martin Søberg


Ginkaku temple buildings and garden. Photo by Martin Søberg

The Zen temple of Ginkaku in Kyoto was originally constructed as a retirement villa. Its most striking piece of architecture is the so-called Silver Pavilion – the two-storied Kannon-den – the construction of which began in 1482. The roof of the pavilion consists of wooden shingles made from Japanese cypress tree. Each shingle is 30 centimeters long, but only 3 centimeters remain visible.


Ginshadan at the Ginkaku Temple. Photo by Martin Søberg


Kogetsudai at the Ginkaku Temple. Photo by Martin Søberg

The Kannon-den pavilion is part of a large complex of temple buildings set in a lush garden on a hillside in the Northwestern part of Kyoto. The original garden is supposed to have been designed by the painter and landscape artist Sōami. An impressive sand garden was installed during the 18th Century, including the Ginshadan or ‘sea of silver sand’ and the Kogetsudai, a two-meter high sand cone, possibly resembling Mount Fuji: Natural materials shaped into exquisite abstractions of nature.