ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY AND THEORY
Changing Interpretations of Otherness in English-Language Accounts
of Japanese Architecture
School of Architecture, University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, HI, USA
This paper surveys foreign accounts of Japanese architecture published in English from the
reopening of Japan in the 1850s up to the year 2000. It shows how European and American
perceptions of Japanese buildings evolved from initial dismissal, through acknowledgments of
merit, to positive admiration in less than ﬁfty years. It is suggested that the consistent thread
running through these shifting interpretations was an assumption of the inherent otherness of
Japanese architecture, but that the nature of this perceived diﬀerence has frequently been
adjusted to ﬁt changing international architectural agendas.
Received 18 December 2018
Accepted 30 September 2019
According to G.W.F. Hegel, human identity is con-
structed, and an important part of the making of
the self is the notion of the Other.
In the middle
of the 19
century, geography and history com-
bined to make Japan the perfect Other to a Europe
looking for new inspiration. A better subject could
hardly have been invented than an island nation at
the opposite end of the globe that had deliber-
ately isolated itself from the outside world for two
and a half centuries. Indeed, Japan was so
thing could be said of it without fear of contra-
diction by facts.
The constructed Other is, by deﬁnition, distinct
from the self. Only diﬀerences matter, and these
mer are typically ignored, but have often been
used as a justiﬁcation for imposing the values of
dominant cultures on others through literal or cul-
tural colonization. If the Other appears to have
superior features, however, the tendency is to try
to acquire them without losing one’sownidentity
in the process, and, as Hegel explained, this was
a particular characteristic of the 19
It is not enough for the self to recognize the
Other, however. It also needs the Other to acknowl-
edge it in return, and Japan duly obliged. Not only
did Europe and the United States ﬁnd the otherness
of Japanese culture helpful as a means of aﬃrming
their own identities but Japan also reciprocated in
a relationship of mutual othering.
2. Objectives and methodology
The objective of the research was an understanding of
the historical development of foreign perceptions of
Japanese architecture. The primary method used was
a chronological survey of Englishlanguage publica-
tions on Japanese architecture written by non-
Japanese between 1853 and 2000.
3. First impressions
Most of the early English-language accounts of
Japanese buildings were written by non-experts
who were generally unimpressed that they did
match Western models. In 1861, for example,
Lieutenant James Johnston of the US Navy set the
tone for many subsequent accounts when he
declared that “Architecture is not known among
them as an art. Their temples, palaces and dwell-
ings, being all low and temporary structures, gen-
erally of wood –the frequency of earthquakes
preventing them from bestowing the care and
expense upon their buildings which they would
Two years later, the British diplomat Rutherford
Alcock was similarly dismissive, again lamenting the
lack of building height and permanent materials,
and oﬀering the following explanation: “They have
no architecture. They live on a volcanic soil, the
CONTACT Kevin Nute email@example.com School of Architecture, University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, 2410 Campus Road, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA
See, for example, Kain (2005,39–59) . The image of Japanese otherness in the West has been a subject of many previous studies, including many focusing
on art, the only one speciﬁcally discussing the otherness of Japanese architecture, however, would appear to be Löﬄer’s(2015,88–112).
Hegel, The Philosophy of Mind, as quoted in Hegel and the Other, 53.
Johnston (1861), as quoted by Ellen Roberts (2006, 47).
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group on behalf of the Architectural Institute of Japan, Architectural Institute of Korea and
Architectural Society of China.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
surface of which is aﬀected with a tertian ague
fatal to all architectural pretensions or excellence.”
The next wave of foreign commentaries involved
trained designers, and tended to be more objective.
Having been recruited as the ﬁrst professor of archi-
tecture at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo,
the British architect Josiah Conder was better informed
than most Westerners of the time about traditional
Japanese buildings, and in his report to the Royal
Institute of British Architects in 1877 he praised the
famous shrines at Nikko as “the most splendid and
attractive buildings to be seen.”
The Scottish designer Christopher Dresser spent four
months travelling in Japan as an oﬃcial guest of the
Japanese government during the winter of 1876–77,
and his book based on this visit, Japan: Its Architecture,
Art and Art Manufactures (1882), likewise left no doubt
about the architectural credentials of Japanese buildings
in general –and those at Nikko in particular: “None could
look upon either the great temples of Shiba or of Nikko
without feeling that the architect of these glorious build-
ings understood perfectly the principles both of construc-
tion and of beauty”(Dresser 1882, 225, 243). While Nikko,
a hundred miles north of Tokyo, was on every foreign
tourist’s schedule by the 1880s, Dresser was one of the
ﬁrst Westerners to visit the Shinto shrines at Ise, which he
described enthusiastically as “a series of buildings of the
greatest possible interest,”and even illustrated in
detailed hand drawings (Dresser 1882, 166).
It was a scientist rather than a designer who was to
write the ﬁrst in-depth analysis of Japanese residential
buildings. The American biologist Edward Morse had
been hired as the ﬁrst professor of Zoology at the
Imperial University of Tokyo in 1877, but had soon
taken a keen interest in the Japanese dwelling. At the
time of its publication in 1886 Morse’sJapanese Homes
and Their Surroundings was unique among English-
language accounts of Japanese architecture, not only
in its detailed analyses but also in pointing out the
ethnocentrism of previous European commentaries
(Morse 1886 1876, 11, 12).
Morse was not only the ﬁrst foreigner to analyze
Japanese buildings in detail but also one of the ﬁrst to
suggest that they might have important lessons beyond
Japan: “Within ten years some progress has been made
among the better class of American houses in breaking
away from this false and tiresome idea [of bilateral
symmetry]. . . . In decoration, as well, we have made
great strides in the same direction, thanks to the inﬂu-
ence of Japanese methods. . .. many of these features [of
the tatami room] might plainly be adopted without
modiﬁcation for our rooms”(Morse 1886 1876,
As late as 1890, however, Western prejudices were
still apparent even in the accounts of several specialists
on Japanese culture. The British Japan scholar Basil Hall
Chamberlain, for example, then professor of Japanese at
the Imperial University in Tokyo, had lived in the country
for almost twenty years, but dismissed the Japanese
pagoda as insuﬃciently tall, and the Tokugawa shrines
in Nikko as "decorative art" rather than genuine archi-
tecture (Chamberlain 1890, 34, 35).
As the only detailed account of the Japanese dwell-
ing available in English during ﬁrst ﬁfty years after the
reopening of Japan, Edward Morse’sbookhadamajor
inﬂuence on American perceptions of the Japanese
house. We can be reasonably sure, for example, that
the young Frank Lloyd Wright had thoroughly digested
Japanese Homes long before his own ﬁrst visit to Japan
During that same year, Wright’s fellow
American architect, Ralph Adams Cram, took Morse’s
approach to another level in declaring that:
Japanese architecture is seen to be one of the great
styles of the world. In no respect is it lacking in those
qualities which have made Greek, Medieval, and Early
Renaissance architecture immortal: as these diﬀer
among themselves, so does the architecture of Japan
diﬀer from them, yet with them it remains logical,
ethnic, perfect in development.
Criticism of the shrines at Nikko, however, re-
emerged in Cram’s account, in which they were dis-
missed as representing an essentially imported decora-
. .. the Nikko shrines, together with those of Shiba and
Uyeno in Tokyo, are marvels of exquisite art. The dec-
oration is masterly, the dramatic and pictorial eﬀect
triumphant, but it is the triumph of prodigal decora-
tion, not of architectural achievement (Adams Cram
1905, 26, 54, 55).
The assessment of the buildings at Nikko as unrepre-
sentative of indigenous Japanese design has often been
associated with the German modernist Bruno Taut in the
1930s, but this view appears to have been commonplace
among earlier foreign commentaries (Taut 1939a, 20, 21).
The American architect Ralph Adams Cram was
equally critical of the shrines at Ise, which could hardly
Alcock (1863, 240, 243). Alcock was equally dismissive even 15 years later, when he stated that “In architecture, the Japanese, like their neighbors the
Chinese, have produced scarcely anything –not even as much, indeed, as the latter, for these may claim the pagoda as a creation of their own . . . ”Alcock
Conder (1878, 186). Reports by American architects of the time were similarly neutral and descriptive. See for example, Anon (1876,26–27).
See, for example, Nute (1993,36–46).
Adams Cram (1905, 29). Okakura Tenshin (Okakura 1906 1964, 30), for one, clearly appreciated Cram’s commentary more than previous ones, having
commented in The Book of Tea that “To European architects brought up on the traditions of stone and brick construction, our Japanese method of
building with wood and bamboo seems scarcely worthy to be ranked as architecture. It is but quite recently that a competent student of Western
architecture has recognised and paid tribute to the remarkable perfection of our great temples.”
have been further removed from the richly-decorated
structures at Nikko. Yet these pareddown structures
were dismissed for the opposite reasonas “ugly and
barbarous”(Adams Cram 1905, 85/86). Cram was eﬀu-
sive, however, in his praise of the unusual staggered
pagoda at the temple of Yakushi-ji in Nara, describing
it as one of the most daring and original structures in
Japan, and as “marking the birth of national Japanese
architecture”independent of Chinese models (Adams
Cram 1905, 38, 39). Like Morse before him, however, it
was the Japanese dwelling that Cram believed America
could learn most from as “a permanent lesson in the
value of simplicity, of modesty, of frankness, of natur-
alness in art”(Adams Cram 1905, 136, 137).
European and American appreciation of traditional
Japanese culture, including its architecture, reached
a peak in the years immediately following Japan’sstun-
ning victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. After
the appearance of Crams Impressions in that year, how-
ever, there were to be no more full-length English-
language books on Japanese architecture for almost
three decades. By the time they reappeared in 1930s,
the need to introduce Japanese architecture to foreign
audiences had long passed, and these accounts were as
much about promoting Western architectural agendas
as they were about traditional Japan.
4. Projections: imposing the self on the other
Having seen what being associated with Japanese art
had done for the careers of Avant Garde European
painters half a century earlier, by the 1930s modernist
architects began to seek similar credibility through asso-
ciation with the traditional buildings of Japan.
The ﬁrst to attempt do so was Frank Lloyd Wright,
who eﬀectively claimed traditional Japanese architec-
ture as his own by declaring it “organic.”The latter
term had a long history in European aesthetics, but n
the ﬁeld of architecture it was most closely associated
with the functionalism of Wright’s mentor, Louis
Sullivan. In Wright’s hands, however, the word
assumed multiple interpretations. Most notable
among these was the notion of the organic whole,
although this appears to have reached Wright, not
through Sullivan, but rather via one of the leading
Western authorities on Japanese art at the end of the
In 1878 Edward Morse had recommended the
young Harvard-trained philosopher Ernest Fenollosa
to teach philosophy and political economy at the
Imperial University in Tokyo. Much like Morse before
him, however, Fenollosa’s interests quickly turned to
Japanese culture, in his case classical painting, and
with the aid of his former student, Kakuzo Okakura,
he undertook the ﬁrst comprehensive survey of tradi-
tional Japanese temple art.
In the 1880s Western knowledge of Japanese art
was limited mainly to woodblock prints. The prints
were considered more popular entertainment than
art in Japan itself at the time, however, and in 1882
Fenollosa established his credentials as an expert on
the subject when he dismissed the French writer Louis
Gonse’s account of Japanese painting as a “Hokusai-
crowned pagoda of generalizations”Fenollosa (1885).
Fenollosa subsequently embarked on a campaign to
convince both the Japanese and his fellow Americans of
the value of traditional Japanese art as an exemplar of
what he argued was a deﬁning characteristic of all
artistic form: organic wholeness. It was an interpretation
rooted unashamedly in classical Western philosophy,
and more speciﬁcally in the aesthetics of Immanuel
When Fenollosa visited the United States as part of
an oﬃcial Japanese Fine Art Commission in 1887, the
19 year-old Frank Lloyd Wright was working at the
Chicago oﬃce of Fenollosa’s cousin, the Shingle Style
architect Joseph Silsbee, and Wright later suggested
that he may have obtained his ﬁrst prints through this
Wright was certainly well aware of Fenollosa’s work
in Japan, and there are indications that his own inter-
pretation of the woodblock print as “organic”was
inﬂuenced by Fenollosa’s similar interpretation of
Japanese art in general.
Wright’s description of the
woodblock print, for example, centered on the Kantian
view that, like the organic whole, all of its parts were
mutually interdependent, giving it a formal “purpo-
siveness”that could be appreciated aesthetically irre-
spective of any knowledge of its actual purpose.
Writing in 1891, Fenollosa had explained:
. . . A true synthetic whole cannot have a single part
added or subtracted without destroying the peculiar
character of its wholeness, without disturbing the per-
fect equilibrium of the mutual modiﬁcations. Thus such
a synthetic whole is an individual, a separate entity,
[with] a peculiar organic nature, an unchangeable
possibility, a foreordained unit from all eternity.
Now [the] Japanese feel that every case of artistic
beauty is just such an individual synthesis.
Twenty years later, Wright described the woodblock
print in similar terms as “a thoroughly structural Art . . . .
See Wright, “The Print and the Renaissance,”tape transcript, Taliesin, November 1917, also Wright (1977, 228).
The parallels between Wright’s and Fenollosa’s organic interpretations of Japanese art are discussed in more detail in Nute (1993,74–98).
Kant suggested that the aesthetic appeal of forms stemmed from a perception of their wholeness or apparent purposiveness: an ordered arrangement of
mutually interdependent parts which appears purposeful, but which can in fact stem either from genuine adaptation to objective functions or be purely
formal. On this basis he explained the special appeal of the organic form thus: “In such a product of nature every part not only exists by means of the
other parts, but is thought of as existing for the sake of the others and the whole, that is as an (organic) instrument.”“...An organised product of nature is
one in which every part is reciprocally purpose [end] and means.”Kant, as quoted in Kant’s Kritik of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (1892, 277, 280).
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING 3
The word structure is here used to designate an
organic form, an organization in a very deﬁnite manner
of parts or elements into a larger unity, –a vital whole
(Wright 1912,5–6). Fenollosa had also directly applied
this organic aesthetic to architecture (Fenollosa
Wright’s use of the term “organic”to describe
Japanese art and architecture also encompassed
a range of other meanings, including the notions of
functionalism, environmental adaptation, and the hon-
est expression of life:
. . . Japanese art and architecture really did have
organic character. Their art was nearer to the earth
and a more indigenous product of native conditions
of life and work, therefore more nearly modern as I saw
it, than any European civilization alive or dead (Wright
Japanese buildings also matched another of the
characteristics of Wright’s concept of organic architec-
ture –adaptation to place:
. . . it is in the nature of any organic building to grow
from its site, come out of the ground into the light –
the ground itself held always as a component basic
part of the building itself (Wright 1954, 41).
Look at the clusters of straw-thatched villages nest-
ing in the nooks of the mountainous land like birds
nesting in trees. Or clinging, like the vegetation itself to
Wright also praised the Japanese house for its
straightforward use of materials, which he contrasted
with the typical American home of the time (Wright
1938, 196). While Wright saw all of these organic char-
acteristics reﬂected in traditional Japanese buildings,
however, most of them actually had their origins in
Western thought. The notion of honesty in the use of
materials, for example, was common in 19
European architecture, where it was promoted by ﬁg-
ures such as the Gothic revivalist Augustus Pugin and
later by William Morris in the Arts and Crafts.
The concepts of functional and environmental
adaption, likewise, had their roots in Europe in the
new science of biology, and reached American archi-
tecture in the late 19
century via the evolution-based
theories of ﬁgures such as Herbert Spencer.
European origins meant that many of the principles
underlying Wright’s organic architecture were actually
shared by several of the international modernists he
often sought to distance himself from, some of whom
also recognized these characteristics in traditional
The German modernist Bruno Taut, for example,
had travelled to Japan in May 1933 to escape the
growing oppression of Jews in Nazi Germany, and
ended up staying for three years. Taut is best known
in Japan as the ﬁrst foreign architect to recognize the
signiﬁcance of Katsura Rikyu. In so doing, Taut was
actually taking sides in an internal Japanese debate
over whether or not Japanese architecture should
abandon internationalism and return to its nationalist
By preferring Katsura, with its seemingly “modern”
appearance, over the highly-decorated shrines at
Nikko, Taut was knowingly intervening on the side of
the Japanese progressives. He did so in two seemingly
contradictory ways, however: by pointing out the vil-
la’s“universal”qualities, and at the same time the fact
that –in contrast to the “imported”style of the build-
ings at Nikko –the “modern”aesthetics of Katsura were
actually part of the native Japanese tradition
(Taut1939a, 20, 21). For Taut, the most important of
the modern characteristics exempliﬁed by Katsura was
its straightforward response to its purpose:
I have stated on former occasions that the most impor-
tant basis for the further development of modern
architecture lies in function. My sentence, “all that
works well looks well,”has been misunderstood, and
at times misinterpreted as referring only to utilitarian
necessities and actual functions. In Katsura I found in
an ancient building, absolute proof of my theory,
which I regarded as a valid base for modern architec-
ture (Taut 1937, 291).
As with Wright before him, the idea that traditional
Japanese architecture expressed universal design prin-
ciples was central to Taut’s perspective. He was una-
pologetic in explaining that he was only interested in
what Japanese shared with the world, and not in what
made it uniquely Japanese: “The general public thinks
Japan interesting because she is decidedly diﬀerent,
and it seeks and ﬁnds the very things which are least
interesting to the architect because of their local sig-
niﬁcance”(Taut 1939a, 9, 10). Indeed, even diﬀerences
were interpreted by Taut as simply the result of the
same universal principles at work under changed local
circumstances: “. . . what is diﬀerent in the Japanese
house and the Japanese way of living from that of
Europe and America is the simple consequence of the
climate and nature of the country . . . ”(Taut 1937, 97).
Fenollosa (1891), bMS Am 1759.2 (54), 5–7, 13-14. Compositions by Ernest Francisco Fenollosa 1853-1908, the Ernest G. Stillman Papers, by permission of
the Houghton Library, Harvard.
Wright, An Autobiography (1932), Bruce Brooks Pfeiﬀer (1992, 244).
On the history of the concept of honesty in architecture, and in particular its role in modernism, see Watkin (1977).
Sullivan expressly admired Herbert Spencer’s explanation of the practical causes underlying the development of organic form: “In Darwin he [Sullivan]
found much food for thought. The Theory of Evolution seemed stupendous. Spencer’sdeﬁnition implying a progression from unorganized simple,
through stages of growth and diﬀerentiation to a highly organized complex, seemed to ﬁt his own case . . . .”(Sullivan 1924 1956, 254/5). Philip Steadman
makes a good case that the American architect Leoplold Eidlitz, who linked functional and environmental adaption, was similarly inﬂuenced by Spencer’s
Writings (Steadman 1979, 147).
Three decades later, Taut’s compatriot, Walter
Gropius, took essentially the same approach in explain-
ing that what really mattered were principles that
transcended individual cultures:
We should compare with each other the deeper
motives of our existence, to be able to ﬁnd out what
unites us rather than what divides us. . . . East and West
must adapt their attitudes and enrich each other, dis-
carding what is weak and obsolete on both sides
(Gropius 1968, 108, 109).
Again, the assumption was that the Japanese of the
centuries had come to many of the same
essentially logical conclusions as modern European
architects: "The traditional [Japanese] house is so strik-
ingly modern because it contains perfect solutions,
already centuries old, for problems which the contem-
porary Western architect is still wrestling with today”
(Gropius 1968, 120).
A few years before writing his own account of tradi-
tional Japanese architecture in the late 1960s, Walter
Gropius had been asked to introduce Heinrich Engel’s
compendious study of the Japanese dwelling. Engel
was clear from the outset that his objective was to
correct the many false assumptions that had been
made about traditional Japanese architecture through
the projecting of outside agendas: “Many Western
publications on Japanese architecture are strongly
biased by the wish to ﬁnd aﬃrmation of current the-
ories in architecture and do not show serious attempts
to uncover the real backgrounds”(Engel 1964, 24).
Engel suggested that the main source of the mis-
understanding of traditional Japanese buildings as
“modern”was the assumption that similar forms must
have derived from the application of the same princi-
ples, i.e., the central argument that had been advanced
by both Taut and Gropius. Engel went on, however, to
seemingly agree with them; stating that the similarities
between modernist buildings and traditional Japanese
architecture were to be found at the level of under-
lying thought: “The signiﬁcance of Japanese architec-
ture has been found on a much deeper level, in the
discussion of cause rather than eﬀect, of motivation
rather than reaction, of source rather than product"
(Engel 1964, 485).
The interpretation of medieval Japanese art and
architecture in terms of 18
century German aesthetics
by Americans such as Fenollosa was a clear instance of
cultural universalism that ignored many of the unique
characteristics that deﬁne Japanese culture. In their
similar search for “common causes”the European
modernists Taut, Gropius and Engel reﬂected essen-
tially the same pursuit of the universal at the expense
of the particular. To assume that the products of
another culture are reﬂecting one’s own principles is
a form of appropriation, and this brings us to the next
phase in the West’s relationship with Japanese archi-
tecture, which involved eﬀorts to acquire it more
5. Acquisitions: procuring the other
When the Other is seen as having positive attributes
which the self lacks the natural response is to want to
somehow acquire those characteristics. The challenge,
however, is to do so without losing one’s identity in the
process. Both the beneﬁts and risks involved in such
eﬀorts are evident in European and American attempts
to acquire Japanese building forms and design
Many of the ﬁrst replicas of Japanese buildings
constructed in Europe and North America were built
by the Japanese themselves, and were generally seen
as promoting Japanese culture. Structures such as
the Japanese Dwelling at the 1876 Philadelphia
Centennial Exposition and the Phoenix Hall at the
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for
example, played a key role in encouraging Americans
to attempt to recreate “Japanese style”designs of their
Initially, at least, such imitations seem to have
been considered harmless, and even ﬂattering, as con-
ﬁrmation that Japanese culture was admired
The next stage of the reuse of Japanese building
forms by foreign designers was more subtle. Rather
than obviously Japanese-looking styles, this phase
involved the use of simpliﬁed underlying forms, and
was exempliﬁed by Frank Lloyd Wright. While very dif-
ferent in its three dimensional appearance, for example,
the plan of Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo seems to
have had at least part of its inspiration in the plan of the
Japanese pavilion in south Chicago. The three-part plan
of the Phoenix Hall, representing the body and out-
stretched wings of the mythical bird, reappeared in an
extruded form in the plan of the Imperial , with the two
wings being given over to guest rooms and the central
spine to public functions (Figures 1 and 2).
The three-part plan that Wright used in several of his
public buildings, likewise, appears to have had its origin
in one of the Tokugawa shrines Wright saw at Nikko in
1905. The gongen-style parti of the Nikko Taiyu-in con-
sists of three elements: the honden, a sanctuary reserved
for the deity; the haiden, an oratory for worshippers; and
a narrow intermediate corridor connecting these two
primary spaces, which was originally simply a covered-
way sheltering priests as they moved between the two
main structures. The plan of Wright’s Unity Temple simi-
larly accommodated two distinct but related functions
that needed to be physically linked (Figures 3 and 4).
The distinctive staggered section of Wright’s 1927 St
Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie project likewise appears to have
The best source on American adoptions of Japanese style buildings is still Lancaster (1962).
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING 5
had part of its inspiration in the famous east pagoda of
Yakushi-ji temple near Nara, so admired by Ralph Adams
Cram. Although the St Mark’sTowersprojectremained
unbuilt, its unusual staggered section was eventually
realized twenty years later in the form of the
S. C. Johnson Research Tower (Figures 5–7). If the canti-
levered mezzanine ﬂoors of the Johnson Research
Tower were in fact based on the pent roofs of the
pagoda at Yakushi-ji, however, in this case the reuse of
the form would have involved a radical change of pur-
pose, from unoccupied outdoor sloping roof surfaces to
inhabited ﬂat interior ﬂoors.
There would seem to be two primary ways that the
reuse of forms from another culture can potentially
cause harm: by diluting that culture’s identity, or by
causing oﬀense to its members.
To cause such harm,
however, a form needs to be both culturally signiﬁcant
in its original context and recognizable in its new one. It
could reasonably be argued that only members of the
originating culture are in a position to judge cultural
signiﬁcance. But even leaving this question aside, it
seems that few Japanese would have recognized the
forms of any of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings dis-
cussed here as having any connection to Japan, sug-
gesting that their reuse would have caused little harm,
either to Japanese sensibilities or cultural identity.
There remains the ethical issue of whether or not it
was appropriate for Wright to use these forms –with or
without the awareness of the Japanese –and even if it
was, whether he should have acknowledged his sources.
It is diﬃcult to imagine who might have been in
a position to have given him “permission”for the reuse
of such forms, but acknowledging his sources was clearly
within Wright’s control, and, initially at least, he chose not
to do so.
Viewed in the larger context of this paper,
however, in abstracting the underlying forms of selected
Japanese buildings, Wright appears to have found an
eﬀective way of absorbing the essence of the Other with-
out either diluting Japanese culture or compromising his
Figure 1. Plans of the Ho-o-den, Jackson Park, Chicago, 1893,
and Wright’s imperial hotel, Hibiya, Tokyo, 1922.
Figure 2. Plans of the Ho-o-den, Jackson Park, Chicago, 1893,
and Wright’s imperial hotel, Hibiya, Tokyo, 1922.
Figure 3. Plan of the Taiyu-in-byo, Nikko, 1653.
Figure 4. Plan of Unity Temple, Oak Park, IL, 1906.
On the issues surrounding the topic of cultural appropriation, see for example Malik (2017), and the response by Bradford (2017). Also Rogers (2006,
Wright later hinted that he felt bad about this, describing Japan as “the great insulted.”See Wright (1970, 110).
6. Emulations: ﬁnding the other in the self
Following the pause in foreign publications on
Japanese architecture caused by World War II, the
Allied occupation of the country together with the
rise of air travel combined to create a resurgence of
interest in Japanese culture during the 1950s. Part of
that process was the ﬁrst acknowledgment that
Western architects had not only recognized modern
characteristics in traditional Japanese buildings but
had also derived some of them from this source.
The ﬁrst indication of this development came in 1954
when a traditional Japanese house was constructed on
the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art in New York
City. The catalog of the exhibit made it clear that “The
Museum has chosen a Japanese building for its third
House in the Garden because of the unique relevance
to modern Western architecture of traditional Japanese
design.”Indeed, the Museum’s director, Arthur Drexler,
who published a full-length book on The Architecture of
Japan to accompany the exhibit, directly linked several
characteristics of the traditional Japanese house to
developments in modern architecture (Drexler 1954).
Not all US commentators on Japanese design were
comfortable with its association with international mod-
ernism, however. The year before the MOMA exhibit,
Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of America’s leading pop-
ular home magazine of the time, House Beautiful,and
apparently with the encouragement of its ﬁercely anti-
communist owner William Randolph Hearst published,
a famously controversial essay “The Threat to the Next
America”associating the aesthetics of the International
Style with left-wing totalitarianism (Gordon 1953). The
article alienated many leading American architects,
although not Frank Lloyd Wright, who applauded it,
but appears to have drawn the approval of the US
Statement Department, who, a few years later, invited
Gordon to do a major feature on traditional Japanese
design, apparently as part of a wider government eﬀort
Figure 5. Section of the east pagoda of the temple of Yakushi-
ji, Nara, Japan, ca. 730.
Figure 6. Section of the St Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie towers
project, New York City, NY, 1927.
Figure 7. Section of the S.C. Johnson research tower, Racine,
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING 7
at the height of the Cold War to have Japan reaccepted
as an ally by ordinary Americans.
The August and September 1960 issues of House
Beautiful were devoted to the Japanese aesthetic of
shibui (Gordon 1960a,1960b). The feature was based
on three premises:
that this concept lay at the core of Japanese notions of
beauty; that it was applicable beyond Japan; and that
it represented a deeper alternative to the simple
minimalism of European modernism.
In interpreting shibui, Gordon relied heavily on the
advice of Soetsu Yanagi, widely regarded as the founder
of Japan’s folk art movement. Yanagi had laid out six
“elements of beauty”central to shibui that were repro-
duced in House Beautiful: simplicity, integral quality,
humility; tranquility; naturalness; and yugen (often trans-
lated as mystery).
Coming from such a respected
source, no one could say these interpretations of shibui
were incorrect, but the more adjectives that were
attached to the term the less clear its essential meaning
seemed to become, at least to many non-Japanese. In
relying so heavily on Yanagi’s opinion, moreover,
Gordon overlooked the fact Yanagi himself had been
strongly inﬂuenced by the British Arts and Crafts move-
ment, whose founder, William Morris, had in turn been
an admirer of Japanese decorative design. In other
words, more than a century earlier, traditional
Japanese aesthetics had to a large extent already
become woven into modern Western taste.
In order to demonstrate that the principles underlying
shibui were relevant beyond Japan, Gordon and her staﬀ
listed examples of non-Japanese artifacts produced
before the reopening of Japan that seemed to possess
similar characteristics. These objects included Mexican
Oaxacan black clay jars, American Shaker furniture, 18th-
century European pewter, and German salt-glazed pot-
tery. The implication was that the West had, at certain
times and places, already developed an appreciation for
the simple, honest use of materials, independently of
Japan, and that these principles transcended culture. To
prove her point, Gordon proceeded to develop a new line
of “American shibui”products, from furniture and carpets
to upholstery and paint ﬁnishes, which achieved consid-
erable commercial success.
In their eﬀorts to uncover the ideals underlying
shibui, the 1960 House Beautiful issues marked a new
attitude to Japanese design, as a source of principles
rather than form. In explaining these ideals, however,
they expressed the same assumption as Wright and
the European modernists had: that the best design
principles automatically transcend culture.
It was to be another three decades before the next
attempt to interpret Japanese aesthetic principles for
a non-Japanese audience. In the early 1960s almost no
one outside Japan had heard of the term shibui. The
world was very diﬀerent, however, by the time Leonard
Koren attempted to interpret the much better known
but still only vaguely understood concepts of wabi and
sabi in the 1990s, which he diﬀerentiated as “a way of
life”and “an aesthetic ideal" respectively (Koren 1994).
Koren suggested that one of the reasons that the
precise meanings of these terms had remained obscure
wasanunspokenreluctance among many Japanese to
accept that they could or even should be translated. The
implication was that the Japanese may have felt that
these were not “universal”design principles at all, but
rather intrinsic parts of Japanese identity. Undaunted,
Koren proceeded to take up two of the themes
Elizabeth Gordon had begun in 1960: that these tradi-
tional Japanese principles could be applied beyond
Japan, and that they were distinct from modernist
A decade later, Robyn Griggs Lawrence used the same
hyphenated combination of these two terms, but simi-
larly explained that wabi and sabi had quite distinct
meanings. For Griggs, however, these were both clearly
aesthetic: wabi was interpreted as “humble and simple,”
and sabi as “rusty and weathered”(Griggs Lawrence
2004, 23). Griggs also took up the same contrast with
modernism initiated by Elizabeth Gordon, explaining that
“in recent years, traditional minimalism has begun to give
way to a more wabi-sabi-like minimalism, a kinder, gen-
der aesthetic that allows for some imperfection . . .. ”
Like Gordon and Koren before her, Griggs also cited
a number of non-Japanese examples of wabi-sabi,includ-
ing Shaker and Arts and Crafts furniture, as well as the
work of the contemporary Japanese American furniture
maker George Nakanishi, who was himself an admirer of
both of these Western traditions.
Unlike most of the Japanese forms discussed earlier,
the aesthetic ideals of wabi, sabi and shibui are are pub-
licly associated with Japanese culture. Yet many non-
Japanese artifacts that seem to reﬂect these qualities do
not look obviously Japanese. So does appropriating
across cultures at the level of principle rather than form
render the process benign? Or is any deliberate eﬀort to
emulate the ideas of another culture inherently proble-
matic, whether or not the end products seem to derive
from that culture?
Parallel to these eﬀorts to assimilate Japanese aes-
thetic ideals beginning in the 1960s has been
Yanagi claimed he used the word shibui rather than the closely term related term wabi, because it was more commonly used in his era. For Yanagi the
source of shibui was unselfconscious serendipity, and he believed that no other culture had a developed an equivalent, arguing that “The lack of the
word will mean the lack of the idea and fact”(Yanagi 1972).
Griggs Lawrence, p.55.
a seemingly equal and opposite eﬀort to keep
Japanese culture at a distance by emphasizing its
essential diﬀerences from the West. In the ﬁeld of
architecture, the subject of time has been central to
these eﬀorts. Although the notion that traditional
Japanese buildings were designed to express time is
now widely accepted, however, this interpretation has
only emerged since the 1960s. None of the pre-war
English-language accounts, for example, made any
mention of time.
A sense of responsiveness to time was certainly
implied by the change and growth expressed in
many of the Metabolist projects introduced at the
World Design Conference in Tokyo in May 1960, but
the word “time”itself never appeared in the famous
manifesto Metabolism 1960.
Three years later, however, a team of Japanese
researchers led by the architectural historian Teiji Itoh
and a young Arata Isozaki published an inﬂuential article
on Japanese urban space in the Japanese architectural
journal Kenchiku Bunka, in which, under the title “Space-
Time Value,”Japanese space was apparently interpreted
in terms of the temporal for the ﬁrst time.
major event in the linking of time and space in commen-
taries on traditional Japanese architecture was Gunter
Nitschke’s well-known 1966 article in Architectural
Design,“MA: The Japanese Sense of Place,”in which
Nitschke acknowledged his reliance on the Kenchiku
Bunka piece of three years earlier.
The Itoh group’s
earlier interpretation of activity-dependent spaces as
essentially temporary places was eﬀectively conﬁrmed
by Nitschke, who combined these ideas in explaining
the notion of ma:
The Japanese sense of space is ma, best described as
a consciousness of place, not in the sense of a piazza,
an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather as
Hans Scharoun used word ‘Platz’in his ﬁrst Berlin
competition . . . places of central activates (Nitschke
The conﬂation of the Chinese character for interval
(間) with the notion of “space-time”was made even
more explicit in Arata Isozaki’s 1979 exhibition at the
Copper Hewitt Museum, Ma: Space-Time in Japan,in
which it was explained that “the word MA does not
describe the West’s recognition of time and space as
diﬀerent serializations. Rather, in Japan, both time and
space have been measured in terms of intervals”
(Isozaki 1979, 12). Five years later, in a series of
English articles on “Japanese Spatial Conception”in
The Japan Architec, the Chinese architect and critic
Ching-Yu Chang further emphasized the fusing of
space and time in the Japanese language –and, by
implication, Japanese architecture –when he sug-
gested: “Other Japanese words express space . . .,
such as ma, meaning interval . . . ; tokoro, meaning
place; ba, meaning ﬁeld. These words express both
time as well as space, a duality which is characteristic
of the Japanese”(Chang 1984b, 70).
The idea that the traditional Japanese understand-
ing of space was actually a sense of “space-time”has
since become widely accepted outside Japan, together
with the belief that many traditional Japanese build-
ings were consciously designed to express time. Some
of the evidence used to support these claims has
1. The Notion of Activity-Dependent Places
2. Lack of any Concept of Space as a Positive Entity
3. Expression of Temporal Ideas in Terms of Space
4. Built Accommodations of Change
Japanese “activity-spaces,”as exempliﬁed in terms
such as kaiwai and himorogi, for instance, were
described by Itoh’s team as temporary places created
by a brief repurposing of space for a speciﬁc occasion.
Event-based places in themselves, however, are by no
means unique to Japan. Similar temporary transforma-
tions of space occur for street performances and festi-
vals in many cultures.
One of the other arguments often used in eﬀorts to
establish the temporal credentials of traditional
Japanese architecture has been the absence of any
concept of space as a positive entity in Japan prior to
the arrival of the English term “space”in the late 19
century, when a new Japanese word, kukan, had to
be created from the existing Chinese characters for air
(空) and interval (間). Since the 1960s, foreign com-
mentators on Japanese architecture have repeatedly
cited this to support the claim that in Japanese archi-
tecture the focus has traditionally been on time rather
One concludes . . . from their best architecture that
space as an entity does not exist at all.
This notion of space . . . has never occurred to the
Japanese . . . (Bognar1981, 135).
Although Bruno Taut did not use the word “time”per se in any of his accounts of his visit to Katsura, Kengo Kuma has suggested that he does appear to
have recognized its temporal dimension in a series of experiential drawings. See Kuma (2009, 23); Taut (1937, 271–291; 1939a,6,8,19–21; 1939b,
The closest any of the Metabolist authors came to mentioning time was Noboru Kawazoe’s reference to “4-dimensional space.”See Noboru Kawazoe,
Kiyoshi Awazu, Kiyonori Kikutake, et al. (1960, 27).
Itoh, Isozaki, Tsuchida, et al. (1963, 79). This was subsequently published as the book: Toshi Design Kenkyukai [Urban Design Research Group] (1968).
Nitschke (1966, 117). Nitschke acknowledged that his article was indebted to the Japanese one “Nihon no Toshi Kukan”that had appeared in Kenchiku
Bunka three years earlier, 116.
Nitschke (1966, 117). For a more recent and slightly diﬀerent view of the topic, see Snodgrass (2004,65–85).
On Roman and Renaissance interest in expressing interior volumes, see Giedion (1963, 523–24). A concept of space as a positive entity was held by some
well-known European thinkers during the 17
centuries, including Descartes and Newton, but others, such as Leibnitz and Kant, rejected the
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING 9
. . . it is doubtful that the idea of space had been
a primary architectural concern (Chang,1984b, 62).
The tacit assumption underlying such contrasts was
that most ordinary Western buildings in the 1850s
were consciously designed according to a positive con-
cept of space. Yet this was not the case. While the
concept of space as a positive entity had certainly
been explored by many Renaissance architects, and
was adopted by several leading Western philosophers
and scientists during the 17
was far from common in everyday English usage of the
word, and was not a primary design principle in the
majority of ordinary 19
century European and
American buildings. There were many obvious and
important diﬀerences between traditional Western
and Japanese buildings of the time, but these had
more to do with their diﬀering constructional systems
than the presence or absence of any concept of space
In eﬀorts to establish the temporal credentials of
Japanese architecture attention has also frequently
been drawn to the conﬂation of space and time in
the Japanese language:
In Japanese, the concepts of space and time have been
simultaneously expressed by the word MA. . . . the
word MA does not describe the West’s recognition of
time and space as diﬀerent serializations. Rather, in
Japan, both time and space have been measured in
terms of intervals (Isozaki 1979, 12).
Most Japanese words for space also express time
(Chang 1984a, 61).
The use of spatial terms to describe temporal ideas is
not unusual, however. In fact, most languages employ
some form of space/time metaphor.
instance, is full of examples such as “It was a short meet-
ing,”or “we’re still a long way from ﬁnishing.”Indeed, in
its original usage the word “space”seemstohavehad
much the same meaning as the Chinese character 間,as
essentially an unoccupied interval between discrete
events in space or time. The word space was
a shortening of the Old French term espace,meaning
“period of time, distance, interval”(12c.), which in turn
was derived from the Latin word spatium, meaning
distance, stretch of time.”
As Gerald Guest
explains, historically spatial terms were routinely
applied to intervals of time:
. .. across the centuries the very word “space”itself has
intertwined the temporal and spatial. . . . .
In the Divine Comedy Dante uses the word “spazio”to
indicate both time and space. In Purgatory (11:106-8)
the word indicates time: “Before a thousand years have
passed –a span that, for eternity, is less space than an
eyeblink for the slowest sphere in heaven, whereas in
29:106-8 the word refers to an area: “The space between
the four of them contained a chariot –triumphal –on
two wheels.... “(Guest 2012,219)
The implication that Japanese is somehow unique
in combining space and time, then, is simply not sup-
ported by the evidence of other languages. Indeed, if
further proof were needed of the use of the idea of an
interval to describe both space and time beyond
Japan, in his account of Japanese Space, Ching-Yu
Chang described how this concept not only previously
existed in China but was directly imported from there
via the Chinese character for interval, 間(Chang
Examples of the accommodation of change in tradi-
tional Japanese buildings have also been presented as
evidence of their expression of time. These have typically
included some or all of the following characteristics:
1. Open Floors
2. Adjustable Wall Planes
3. Spaces that Acknowledge Events
The early development of furniture made unob-
structed ﬂoors rare in both the West and in China,
tional dwellings in the Asian Paciﬁc. This is more
than merely evidence that this characteristic was
not unique to Japan. Many scholars believe that
some form of tropical dwelling probably provided
one of the archetypes for the traditional raised-ﬂoor
Japanese house, which appeared in Japan during
the Yayoi Period between 200 BCE and 250 CE.
The implications of this go beyond just explaining
the often–noted unsuitability of the traditional
Japanese house to Japan’s cold winters.
also draw attention to other important parallels
between early Japanese houses and dwellings
designed for the humid climate of the Asia Paciﬁc,
including a lack of ﬁxed partitions and the use of
moveable mats. Prior to the end of the 13
ﬂoors, even among Japan’s elite classes, consisted
primarily of bare wooden planks, with moveable
straw mats temporarily spread where occupants
dwellings in Southeast Asia.
idea. Kant, for example, argued that “Space is not something objective and real, . . ., it is subjective and ideal, and originates from the mind’s nature.”
Immanuel Kant, “On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World,”(1770), in Walford and Merbote (1992, 403).
On the ubiquity of the space-time metaphor, see, for example, Athanasopoulos, Samuel, and Bylund (2017, 295–321).
Online Etymology Dictionary entry for the word “space”:https://www.etymonline.com/word/space.
See, for example: Hirai (1998, 17).
The lack of suitability of the raised-ﬂoor dwelling to the Japanese winter was famously aﬃrmed by the 14
century poet Kenko, when he described the
Japanese dwelling as essentially a “summer house.”See Yoshida Kenko, Tsurezuregusa [Essays in Idleness], Section 55, as translated by Donald Keene in
“Japanese Aesthetics,”(Hume 1995, 35).
10 K. NUTE
The development of a comprehensive system of
sliding screens does, however, seem unique to Japan,
although the use of moveable planes within walls is
not. Operable doors, windows and shutters are clearly
common in many cultures. The majority of these
swing rather than slide, however, and most do not
constitute an entire wall plane. Yet, in being manually
controlled by occupants they are essentially similar in
their temporal implications to the Japanese system, in
anticipating and facilitating change, rather than con-
sciously expressing time.
The tokonoma, butsudan, and kamidana have like-
wise often been used as examples of spaces in the
traditional Japanese dwelling that are periodically
changed to mark special occasions, and so, indirectly,
express time. But again, similar spaces exist in Hindu,
Confucian, and Catholic households. Indeed, events
are widely considered to be an essential component
of most manmade places.
Japan is, however, almost certainly the only culture
to have created an architectural form speciﬁcally dedi-
cated to celebrating the present, one of the central
motives of the wabi tearoom developed during the
century. Yet this isolated enclosure was
designed to disconnect its occupants from their
attachment to the trappings of the world at large,
including the illusions of both space and time.
Although the relationship of the tearoom to the pre-
sent is beyond doubt, then, many would argue that the
moment itself actually lies outside of time.
The aesthetics of the tearoom formed the model for
the Sukiya Style domestic interior developed during the
Momoyama Period, which for many non-Japanese has
become synonymous with “traditional Japanese archi-
tecture.”The question this raises, then, is the extent to
which an architectural style derived from a model that
was designed to deny the reality of time can then be
claimed to be an expression of time.
With the notable exception of the tearoom, then,
many of the characteristics of traditional Japanese build-
ings often cited as evidence of their unique expression
of time are actually found in other cultures.
discussion of time as a conscious design objective in
traditional Japanese architecture only seems to date
back to the early 1960s, when time had become
a popular topic among architects globally in eﬀorts to
move beyond the pre-war modernist preoccupation
Taken together, all of this would seem to suggest
that time, per se, was not never actually a conscious
subject of design in traditional Japanese architecture,
any more than space was, and that its temporal inter-
pretation may have been largely post-rationalized by
commentators, both Japanese and non-Japanese,
eager to maintain the otherness of Japanese
It might be more accurate, perhaps, to say that many
traditional Japanese buildings were designed to accom-
modate change, but that in this they shared many char-
acteristics in common with vernacular buildings from
other cultures. Far from diminishing the signiﬁcance of
traditional Japanese architecture, however, this would
only seem make it all the more relevant .
8. Reinventions: otherness maintained
1960 was to be a turning point in Western perceptions
of Japanese architecture. It marked a clear change from
a preoccupation with traditional Japanese buildings
dating back to the 1860s, to a new interest in contem-
porary Japanese architecture. The siting of the 1960
World Design Conference in Tokyo was both
areﬂection of and a stimulus for this change. Not
only was the awarding of the conference an important
recognition that Japanese design was now considered
more than just an illustrious tradition, it also provided
the venue for the debut of a completely new kind of
Japanese architecture that seemed to challenge all
traditions, Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
By the time the Metabolists presented their mani-
festo at the opening of the Tokyo Design Conference in
May 1960 many of their ideas were already known to
some of the leading modern architects in Europe. In
September 1959 Kenzo Tange had presented Kiyonori
Kikutake’s“Sky House”and “Tower Shaped
Community”projects together with his own Kagawa
Prefectural Oﬃce and Tokyo City Hall designs to
a gathering of Team 10 at the ﬁnal meeting of CIAM
in Otterloo, Netherlands. The ﬁrst published Western
response to Metabolism 1960, Gunter Nitschke’s article
for Architectural Design,“The Metabolists of Japan,”
was written four years later to coincide with the open-
ing of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, an event that
See for example, Relph (1976).
The Buddhist sutra Vikramaditya, in which 80,000 disciples of Buddha visited Vikramaditya in his tiny hut, an allegory intended to demonstrate the
meaninglessness of space to the enlightened, has often been related to the underlying meaning of the wabi tearoom. See for example, Okakura (1906
On eﬀorts to claim uniqueness for Japanese culture in general, and their frequent foundation in the Japanese language in particular, see for example:
Dale (1986), and Miller (1982).
For more on this topic, See Nute (2019,50–63).
The article also included works by Kenzo Tange and Arata Isozaki, however, that did hint at connections to Japanese traditions. Although Isozaki had
studied under Tange at Tokyo University and was working at his oﬃce during the 1960 World Design Conference, like Tange, he was not directly involved
in the Metabolist group, but again, like his mentor, he produced several clearly Metabolist-inﬂuenced designs, including the “Joint Core System”(1960),
and the “Clusters in the Air”project of 1962. For an excellent recent English-language account of the Metabolist group, told through the recollections of
its original members, see Koolhass and Obrist (2011).
JOURNAL OF ASIAN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDING ENGINEERING 11
helped to spark even greater international interest in
contemporary Japanese architecture (Nitschke 1964,
Most of the contents of 1964 AD article on Metabolism
were directly reprinted from the original Metabolist man-
ifesto, which barely mentioned traditional Japanese
The opening and closing pages of the AD
piece, however, were devoted to making connections
to Japanese tradition, primarily using the Chinese char-
acter 易, which in some contexts can mean "change."
The AD article seems to have created a widespread
perception, among non-Japanese architects at least,
that there was a direct philosophical connection
between traditional Japanese architecture and
Metabolism, although the Metabolists themselves
never made this claim. Eﬀorts to create such
a connection, then, seem to have been part of the same
continuing desire on the part of European and
North American commentators to maintain the other-
ness of Japanese culture. In the case of Metabolism, it
was not enough that the proposals were technically
and formally stunning. That could equally have been
said of several European megastructure projects that
had preceded the Japanese proposals, such as
Corbusier’s well-known Plan Obus for example.
Metabolist projects could not simply be high-tech
urban design proposals based on megastructures,
they also, it seems, had to be ﬁrmly rooted in the
tradition of Japanese otherness.
In May 1967, at a time when the political and social
optimism of the early 1960s was evaporating in war
and civil unrest, Architectural Design revisited
Metabolism at Gunter Nitschke’s prompting, and con-
cluded that its ideals never had been and probably
never should be realized in practice (Jerome 1968,
208). Although not a member of the group, Kenzo
Tange had been instrumental in its formation, and was
one of the few designers to have completed any
Metabolist-inﬂuenced buildings at this time. As
a result, several of these buildings became the focus of
criticism for not apparently living up to its promises. In
a piece on the Shizuoka Press Center in 1968, for exam-
ple, Gunter Nitschke was critical of the fact that the
building seemed to contradict one of the basic tenets
of Metabolism, that structures should be designed for
the easy replacement of components that would
become obsolete most quickly:
The single core not only acts as the main structural
support for the building but incorporates all the ser-
vices, thus that part of the architecture –the services –
which is generally assumed to be the most likely to
require early change is integrated with that part –the
structure –which is most likely to remain in position
until the building is demolished (Nitschke 1968, 201).
In 1975, historian Reyner Banham concluded that it
was astonishing that the Metabolist proposals had ever
been taken seriously in the ﬁrst place by anyone with
any knowledge of how real estate, city planning, or local
governments actually work in practice. By the time
Banham was writing this, architecture had moved on
to a concern with people, rather than form and space,
and the megastructure had come to symbolize the
antithesis of these new values.
In their iconic commentary Learning from Las Vegas,
for example, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
were scathing in their criticism of the “heroic and origi-
nal”megastructure as the worst kind of ego-driven
design. In its place, they praised the bottom-up “ugly
and ordinary”order of Las Vegas as a more authentic
order generated by commercial logic and private own-
ership of small, independently owned lots. The circle,
and the irony, was complete when, in 1999, Barry
Shelton showed that the latter pattern was actually
typical of urban development in medieval Japan
(Shelton 1999). In other words, the megastructure was
actually the antithesis of the traditional Japanese city.
In many respects, Metabolism had a far more lasting
inﬂuence beyond Japan than it did in Japan itself. Not
only did it stimulate international interest in megastruc-
tures, resulting in a number of realized buildings but
in helping to establish the innovative reputation of con-
temporary Japanese architecture overseas. After
Metabolism, it seems, Japanese architecture was expected
to be diﬀerent, not just from that of the West but also
from all previous Japanese architecture as well. Japanese
architects duly obliged with a seemingly endless supply
of provocative designs that appeared to break all the
established architectural rules, both inside and outside
Japan. The otherness of Japanese architecture had in
eﬀect been recast yet again, this time as originality.
The idea of contemporary Japanese architecture
constantly reinventing itself is reﬂected not only in
the unusually large number of English language
books on Japanese architecture published since the
1950s but also the proportion of these publications
that use the words “new”or “contemporary”in their
titles, which seem to have become almost synonymous
in relation to Japanese architecture. No other culture
has sustained such a constant ﬂow of full-length
Under the title of “the Oriental Mind”Nitschke connected this character and the notion of change to Chinese philosophy, Shinto, Zen, the teahouse and
the traditional Japanese dwelling.
On the history of the megastructure, see Banham (1976). Banham considers the Plan Obus as the ﬁrst deliberately designed architectural megastructure,
but credits Fumihiko Maki with coining this term. See Investigations in Collective Form (St Louis, MI: School of Architecture, Washington University, Maki
These English-language books have included: Koike (1956); Kultermann (1960); Boyd (1968); Ross (1978); Frampton (1978); Bognar (1985,1990);
Kurokawa (1993); Takahashi (2007); Bognar (2008); Sumner and Pollock (2010); Klanten (2011); Mehta and MacDonald (2011); Koike (1955); Kawazoe
(1973); Suzuki and Banham (1975); (1985); Japan Foundation (1988); Meyhöfer and Jodidio (1994); Steele (2017); Igarashi (2018).
12 K. NUTE
publications in a foreign language devoted simply to
keeping up with its architectural innovations.
And yet, with only a few exceptions, after Metabolism
took the world by storm in the early 1960s, this perpetual
“newness”has failed to establish even passing architec-
tural fashions beyond Japan, let alone any permanent
change in the direction of architecture internationally, at
least, in anything like the way Metabolism did. The ambi-
guity of the word “original”may help to explain this. One
of its meanings implies “serving as a model for others,”
while the other means “personal, individual, or unique.”
Fascination with the unique has actually existed in
Japanese architecture from its very beginnings, when
Shinto invested unusual natural objects with special
signiﬁcance. This interest in the individual was largely
suppressed in medieval Japan, yet still managed to
ﬁnd an architectural outlet in the aesthetics of the
Okakura Kakuzo, for example, in The Book of Tea
described how the choice of guest, utensils and art
for each tea gathering, as well as the design of each
tearoom, should express the subjective choices of the
He was equally emphatic that other
Japanese buildings should express such originality:
Slavish conformity to traditions and formulas fetters
the expression of individuality in architecture.
We can but weep over those senseless imitations of
European buildings which one beholds in modem
Japan. We marvel why, among the most progressive
Western nations, architecture should be so devoid of
originality. . . . (Okakura 1906 1964, 38).
Such respect for the unique contrasts starkly with
the popular Western stereotype of Japanese culture as
devaluing the individual. To what extent the constant
newness of contemporary Japanese architecture
reﬂects an innate Japanese fascination with the unique
going back to early Shinto, or an unconscious desire to
live up to the international reputation of Japanese
architecture for otherness is impossible to say, but
“other”it has remained, not only in image but also in
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Kevin Nute worked in architectural practices in London, Hong
Kong and Singapore before earning a doctorate in architec-
tural history and theory at the Martin Centre for Architectural
and Urban Studies at Cambridge. He has been a visiting
Fulbright Scholar at the University of the California,
Berkeley and a Japan Foundation and JSPS Research Fellow
at the University of Tokyo. He is the author Frank Lloyd
Wright and Japan; Place Time and Being in Japanese
Architecture; and Naturally Animated Architecture.
Kevin Nute http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4209-8072
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