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New Architecture in Japan by Yuki Sumner and Naomi Pollock with David Littlefield

Japan is now producing some of the world’s most creatively charged work

Flicking through the opening pages of this book, three key images present contrasting traits of Japanese architecture. There is of course much more to come, with over 600 photographs, two essays and over 100 case studies. Nevertheless, these introductory images seem particularly well chosen. Shot by photographer Edmund Sumner - with text by wife Yuki and co-authors Pollock and Littlefield - Atelier Bow-Wow’s Gae House, Sou Fujimoto’s Final Wooden House and Terunobu Fujimori’s Takasugi-an illustrate the curious nature of contemporary Japanese architecture by setting an ingeniously planned domestic building alongside the nation’s love of traditional craft and fascination with the absurd.

In one of the project’s most celebrated images, Sumner’s enthusiastic manner persuaded the client of Gae House to pose in his sunken study, where he prepares literary critiques with bikes hanging overhead and shoes neatly aligned next to the front door. With equal fluency, the photographer’s interpretation of Fujimoto’s rustic bunk barn shows how the interior regularises but preserves the wilderness of the surrounding forest, while his ungrounded image of Fujimori’s tree/tea house amplifies the manner in which this maverick architect takes history with a pinch of salt, as he takes tea within his own curious bird box.

’Whatever the context - be it city, suburb or woodland clearing - Sumner’s shots surprise and delight, giving this book equal appeal to anyone with an interest in the culture or nature of this fascinating country. And, for those who want to delve deeper, essays bring first-hand accounts of the current architectural scene’

Perhaps a victim of the tried and tested (and popular) intro-essay-case-study publishing format, there is little connection between Edmund and Yuki’s observations in the book. The fact that the Sumners work so closely together, reading architecture in different media, could have produced far more critical tension had a more bespoke format been used to record their combined efforts. That said, however, the project texts are clear and concise and two essays cover the common ground of Japan’s haphazard and chaotic condition while successfully making their own mark. Yuki leads the narrative with a piece entitled The Residue of Japan-ness, in which she wrestles with describing the ambiguity of Japan-ness, saying that as ‘a comfort zone from the nation’s traumatic past … subtle subversions of the norm offer temporary escape from stifling rules and regulations, rituals and protocols that plague its society’, before focusing on two current dualities. First, the recent trend to embrace visual chaos, which goes against the tactic epitomised by Tadao Ando, who traditionally built solid walls to contain interiors.

Second, the duality between ‘the jagged, earthy work of Fujimoto and Fujimori on one side; and the smooth, transparent, more refined output of Ito, Kengo Kuma and SANAA on the other’. Pollock also discusses variations of Japanese normality in her essay Architecture in Japan: In Context. Here she quotes architect Hitoshi Abe to describe the current post-bubble condition, saying that ‘until about 20 years ago, you often heard Japanese culture being dismissed as “all copies no originals” … [but] it’s now an indisputable fact that Japan has become a nation that exports culture.’

In accordance with Abe’s claim, this book clearly shows that the best from Japan is now all original, producing some of the world’s most creatively charged work in response to its remarkably energetic environment. With one or two niggles, such as the omission of a contents map, this is by far the best book on Japan’s recent architectural exports.

New Architecture in Japan

Authors: Yuki Sumner and Naomi Pollock with David Littlefield

Photography: Edmund Sumner

Publisher: Merrell, 2010

Price: £29.95


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