by Dilpreet BhullarMay 18, 2022
What does it mean to be modern? We tend to distinguish early 20th century architecture as the approximate starting point for modern architecture. However, we have to keep in mind that this is largely in the context of Europe and the United States. The term modern architecture, when analysed in a more global context, is also linked to the Industrial Revolution and proliferation of international trade. Does the term embody a universal meaning and aesthetic? Even within the geographical restraints of Europe, modern architecture was defined as an exploration of built from which utilised new and innovative technologies of construction, new materials and with an understanding of functionalism. If these are the parameters we take as defining metrics of modern architecture, it does expand the scope of modern architecture to include structures that use materials and construction techniques that are not native to the building location. The importance of making this distinction allows us to analyse build-form as a marker of cultural shifts in a non-Eurocentric manner.
An exhibition at the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art, which features a careful selection of 36 projects from Kyoto, illustrates one such narrative. Titled Modern Architecture in Kyoto, it aims to tell the overall story of Kyoto’s modern architecture and marks the first anniversary of the museum foundation. Under the supervision of Dr Ishida Junichiro, the exhibition explores the Japanese city’s modern architecture through seven themes via photographs, models and other archival material. STIR explores this layer of Japanese architecture by focusing on a few select projects.
The history of the city of Kyoto is an important aspect of the show. It has remained largely unscathed by natural disasters and war such that these works of architecture built over a period spanning the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras still exist in large numbers today and are part of the modern urban fabric of the city. When Japan transitioned its capital city to Tokyo, instead of being left in the dust, Kyoto showed remarkable development in its education systems, technology, and cultural tourism. Many of these advancements saw the construction of architecture as a means to house them. These structures have been defined in the context of this exhibition as “modern architect”, and embody a wide variety of styles including Western-style architecture, Japanese-style architecture, built using modern techniques and Modernist works of architecture starting from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
The projects identified are not immediately recognisable as ‘modern’, but reference European architecture from the 17th to 18th century. These buildings stand out among Kyoto’s history and indicate the cultural shift the city experienced. These references are particularly interesting considering Japan was never a colony, so these constructions were choices and not a product of colonial grafting. Some of the featured projects were a part of the infrastructure development of the city. One such project is the Lake Biwa Canal and the former Imperial Palace Water Pump Station. At the time of its conception, it was one of the largest civil engineering projects undertaken in the history of Kyoto. The architecture is distinctly Neo-classical, and the influence of English and French styles has a presence. Completed in 1895, the Imperial Museum of Kyoto, now the Kyoto National Museum, visually references French Baroque architecture. On the exterior, brick masonry walls were clad with granite in the lower areas. The ornamentation on upper walls including pilasters were made of Sawada stone. In addition to the French Baroque style, the building is finished with a mix of Classical details, resulting in an eclectic work of architecture. The sculptural work on the pediment, however, features the Asian gods Viśvakarman and Gigei-Tennyo, heavenly maiden of crafts, that are in charge of beauty, sculpture, architecture, and craftsmanship.
Shimomura Shotaro Residence, now known as the Daimaru Villa, was built in 1932 for Shimomura Shotaro, the president of Daimaru Department Store. This building was built in the Tudor style and features low pointed arches. However, unlike the 16th century buildings, this structure was not constructed using wood, instead, it was made of reinforced concrete. The wood columns currently visible are merely ornamental. Villa Okura in Kyoto, currently known as the Daiun-in Temple, resembles the Gion Festival floats and is perhaps one of the few projects that take inspiration from multiple historical sources outside of Japan. The masonry base was derived from Chinese architecture, while the guardian dog sculptures placed at the front entrance were inspired by Egyptian sphinxes. The tower’s height of 36 meters was the tallest structure in Kyoto’s skyline at the time, which was only possible because of the technological advancement with reinforced concrete. There are interior elements and details that reference Gothic, Romanesque and Indian architecture. At first glance the form of the structure may seem typical in relation to its context, however, a closer inspection reveals a wider range of influences.
Like many important cities, Kyoto too had to deal with a housing predicament in the wake of World War II. Horikawa Housing Complex was completed right after the end of a group of the war. From 1950 to 1953 these reinforced concrete mixed-use structures were designed with storefronts on the street and apartments on the upper floors. The site itself has an interesting history and was previously occupied by a shopping district that was cleared close to the end of the war to create firebreaks to prevent the spread of fires during air raids. The empty lots allowed for an urban design intervention that fulfilled the needs of a post-war city. The apartments were renovated between 2014 and 2020 and are still in use.
The Kyoto International Conference Hall was completed in 1966 and was designed by Otani Sachio. Here we see a visual shift that features Brutalism concepts. One of the most notable features of this structure is its intersecting trapezoidal forms. The massive reinforced concrete angled columns of the trapezoid penetrate the interior spaces. The bold façade design was carefully planned to blend into and at the same time stand against the area’s natural environment. The exhibition illustrates a more tangible transition of 20th century architecture in Kyoto and reveals the evolution of form, ornamentation as layers of technology and material development.
Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art 1st Anniversary Exhibition, Modern Architecture in Kyoto, is organised by the Modern Architecture in Kyoto Exhibition Executive Committee and is on view between September 25 – December 26, 2021.