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On Kunio Mayekawa
Thomas Daniell
Picture record; The Work of Kunio Mayekawa:
A Pioneer of Japanese Modern Architectures
The Work of Kunio Mayekawa:
A Pioneer of
Japanese Modern Architecture
The year 2005 marked the centenary of the birth of architect Kunio Mayekawa (1905-86), a pivotal figure in the inception and development of modern architecture in Japan. As an apprentice to Le Corbusier (inarguably the greatest modernist architect in European history) and a mentor to Kenzo Tange (arguably the greatest modernist architect in Japanese history), Mayekawa forms a crucial link in the import of Western architectural concepts and techniques into Japanese architectural design, construction practices, and even urbanism. A superb retrospective exhibition was recently held at Tokyo Station Gallery, assembled by a group of Japan's leading architectural historians. Comprising photographs, drawings, models, videos, original sketches and blueprints, its contents have been collected in a comprehensive bilingual catalog, with a wide range of scholarly essays and excerpts from Mayekawa's own writings.

As has often been noted, the introduction of modernist architecture to Japan was a relatively painless process; whereas the austerity and simplicity of modernism was intended as a challenge to the florid decoration of European architectural history, in Japan it had a direct resonance with traditional aesthetics. Japan also had the demographic exigencies and urban densities that seemed to warrant the regimented masterplans of modernism -- and, perhaps, a social and cultural consistency that would allow them to be successfully implemented. Yet although Mayekawa had acquired from Le Corbusier the essential principles of modern architecture, more importantly, he understood modernism as a mode of constant invention rather than as a set of formal rules, and was thereby able to convincingly adapt it to the Japanese cultural and climatic context.

This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Mayekawa worked in Le Corbusier's Paris atelier from 1928-9, a critical moment in the evolution of Corbu's own work. It was the end of a fruitful decade, comprising his so-called "white period" and the development of the compositional paradigms that culminated in the seminal Villa Savoye. Yet even as Villa Savoye was under construction, the relentlessly experimental Corbu was already developing projects that were a reflexive critique of the problems that had emerged in his built work to date. Despite being involved for a mere two years, Mayekawa was thus simultaneously exposed to the apotheosis of the modernist "machine for living" and to a critical reevaluation by its originator.

After returning to Japan in 1930, he spent five years at the office of Antonin Raymond (a former assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright), and then established Mayekawa Associates in Tokyo's Ginza district. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, Mayekawa opened branch offices in occupied China, and designed a number of significant projects for those regions of Asia annexed by Japan. It was during this period that the young Kenzo Tange was a staff member in Mayekawa's office.
Throughout his career, Mayekawa presented himself as a rebel and social critic. He acknowledged Le Corbusier's manifesto L'Art Decoratif d'Aujourd'hui (1925) as the original impetus for his move to Paris, and later translated and published a Japanese edition, as well as writing polemical texts that drew heavily on Corbu's style. Yet Mayekawa was far more than a disciple and interpreter. As the exhibition makes clear, he was an innovator at every level, from construction materials to social programs.
Mayekawa's early attempts to use exposed reinforced concrete in Japan were frustrated by the poor quality of construction. Air pollution would cause the surfaces to quickly stain and crumble, so he developed customized ceramic tiling systems with a perceptible thickness and tactility that transcended mere veneers. While in Paris, Mayekawa had been heavily involved in the development of Le Corbusier's Maison Minimum, an inexpensive industrialized duplex residence responding to the massive housing shortages in Europe after the First World War. Two decades later, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan was confronted with identical problems, for which Mayekawa developed a prefabricated wooden house system named PREMOS (the M in the acronym stood for Mayekawa himself).

Perhaps Mayekawa's legacy is best embodied by the pioneering Harumi Apartments (1958), a modernist concrete skeleton containing traditional Japanese interiors, built on a platform of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Taking an unambiguous position in the debate on maintaining tradition versus encouraging modernization, it also adumbrated many of the concerns of the Metabolist group of architects, who were shortly to take center stage in the world of Japanese architecture. While the sources of the design are made clear by the inclusion in the exhibition of a model of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation (1952), for many observers this building marked the historical moment that an authentically Japanese version of modernism became plausible.

It is true that Mayekawa's legacy has been somewhat obscured by the increasingly spectacular and indulgent Japanese architecture of recent decades. Even so, to see his entire body of work gathered in one place plainly reveals the way its innovative spirit, if not its formal ideas, have infused and influenced those that followed.

exhibition image exhibition image
Exhibition images
© Hiroshi Matsukuma
Kunio Mayekawa Retrospective Exhibition
Tokyo Station Gallery
23 December 2005 - 5 March 2006
Hirosaki City Museum, Aomori Prefecture
15 April 2005 - 28 May 2006
Niigata City Art Museum, Niigata Prefecture
17 June 2005 - 16 August 2006
Fukuoka Art Museum
22 September - 5 November 2006