The Architecture of Homelessness: A Critique of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Exhibition, A Japanese Constellation

Though not to be published until 2005, in 1998 Toyo Ito – one of the architects featured in MoMA’s exhibition, A Japanese Constellation[1] [1] Held at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Spring and Summer of 2016, curated by Pedro Gadahno. – wrote a striking essay titled “Shedding the Modern Body Image: Is House Without Criticality Possible?”[2] In it, he describes a visit to the house that Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman designed for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, [2] Itō, T., and T. Daniell, Tarzans in the Media Forest (London: Architectural Association, 2011), 8. completed in 1932 when O’Gorman was just 27 years old.  Ito writes that while Le Corbusier claimed to pursue a new way of living based on raw functionality, his houses in fact skillfully appropriate principles from abstract painting and Palladio amoungst other ‘classical’ influences. O’Gorman on the other hand he writes, was earnestly pursuing a pure depiction of a new way of life based on Le Corbusier’s own Five Points for a New Architecture[3][3] Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Willy Boesiger, Oeuvre Compĺete de 1929-1934 (̂Editions d’architecture, 1946), 128-29.  “Perhaps it is only in this moment of the earnest pursuit of function that the language of modernism burst from its closed context and sublimated its character as a critical language.”[4][4] Ito and Daniell, Tarzans in the Media Forest, 8. Ito, his colleagues and contemporaries continue to pursue a kind of sublimation, which has evolved and mutated into increasingly unusual or abstract works. These works I would argue, are intimately entangled with the forces shaping both Japanese and wider society now.

Ito writes that in the mid-1930s, O’Gorman abandoned architecture to become a painter, eventually moving into a house in 1953 that Ito describes as having “looked like a cave filled with Amerindian ornaments.”[5][5] Ibid., 8. Later, he moved to a modernist house he had designed when he was young, and there took his own life.[6][6] Ibid., 8. Ito conjures through this reflection on O’Gorman’s life and
Juan O’Gorman, House and Studio for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931-2.
death, an inquiry into what he calls the ‘irreparable rift’ between a natural body and a conceptual, abstract, unnatural body. He describes the vernacular house as a skin, an extension of the human body evolved against the violence of nature and says that another kind of house, as a ‘memory of the future,’ has emerged. Ito’s inquiry, his voice from the past, opens a vantage point from which to consider the roots and trajectory of A Japanese Constellation; to consider the tactics and themes being passed from generation to generation, master to apprentice, which are now influencing architectural education and practice substantially around the world.

Ito is the eldest and mentor, either directly or in-directly, of the group of architects featured in the exhibition held in the spring and summer of 2016 and curated by Pedro Gadahno. Planning began in 2012 with a discussion between Gadanho and Ito during which Ito drew an overlapping-bubble-diagram style sketch, his bubble at center, of a group of architects and engineers whom he had employed, influenced, or collaborated with and who have influenced him.[7] The group’s architects include Kazuyo Sejima (who, after working for Ito later partnered with Ryue Nishizawa to form SANAA), Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Maki Onishi (the only architect included in the sketch yet unfeatured in the exhibition), and Junya Ishigami – whose bubble is the only which does not overlap directly with Ito’s [7] Aleandra Lange, “Moma Offers Japanese Navigators in an Architectural Firmament,” but instead with Kazuyo Sejima’s, for whom Ishigami worked before starting his own practice.

The engineers, largely absent in the exhibition beyond consultancy credits, include Matsuro Sasaki, Cecil Balmond, and Masato Araya; a conspicuous omission when, for example, one learns that Ito’s seminal Sendai
Destruction inside of the Sendai Mediateque after the 2011 Tohuku earthquake, its epicentre off the coast of Japan near Sendai. Destruction inside of the Sendai Mediateque after the 2011 Tohuku earthquake, its epicentre off the coast of Japan near Sendai.
Mediatheque (featured in the exhibition) was so violently shaken and damaged in the 2011 Tohuku earthquake that everything except for the innovative and robustly engineered frame had to be rebuilt.

The exhibition space at MoMA itself seemed well suited for the group. The arrangement created a continuous, seamlessly flowing space to connect all of the work displayed, which was grouped per architect. Podiums held representational models; drawings, quotations and project descriptions were mounted on partitions, and hanging translucent curtains served as screens for the projection of photographs of completed work, models and drawings. The choreography of elements, space and materiality conveyed an intended – I presume – lightness, humility and rejection of separations and hierarchies; akin to a blurriness the world has come to expect in the work of the featured architects.  The projects featured (some of which I will address directly later) read almost like a ‘greatest hits’ selection and include mostly famous works like Ito’s Sendai Mediateque, SANAA’s canonical Rolex Learning Center and several of Fujimoto and Ishigami’s playful, abstract houses. The projects vary widely in scale, designation, function, and location, providing a broad sample of the architects work within the limited space of the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 255-page publication of the same name, which features a prelude by Gadanho called “An Influential Lightness of Being: Thoughts on a Constellation of Contemporary Japanese Architects”, and three essays by Terunobu Fujimori (“Magical Spatial Inversion”), Taro Igarashi (“New Architecture After History”), and Julian Worrall (“The Deep Field: Resolving a Japanese Constellation”).  The prelude in the publication gives context, theoretical grounding and offers a roadmap of sorts to Gadanho’s thinking and perhaps post-reflection on the work of the architects and the exhibition. He points out that the work is rooted in the Modernist movement in Europe and the United States – reminding us that modernism was deeply influenced by Japanese art and architecture of earlier periods – and to evolving socio-economic conditions in Japan. He writes in his introduction that in the early 20th century, in pursuit of change, Japanese architects had looked to the west for inspiration.[8][8] Pedro Gadanho, A Japanese Constellation : Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Sanaa, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami (New York: The Museum of Modern Art,Distributed in the United States and Canada by ARTBOOK/D.A.P, 2016), 12. While true, it should also be noted that the emergence of modern architecture in Japan was largely in fact a key component of a concerted project undertaken by the newly formed authoritarian state.

In the 1850s and ‘60s the United States and several European countries militarily forced Japan to end more than two-hundred years of sakoku (economic and cultural isolation). Treaties forced an opening to trade and foreign presence on oppressive terms, ignited internal political turmoil, sowed seeds of a virulent nationalism, and propelled a series of sweeping and unprecedented cultural and political reforms under the new Meji regime and its slogan, fukoku kyohei (rich country, strong army).[9][9] Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Oxford University Press New York, 2003), 70. Though wide reaching taxation and surveys date to the 7th century and were well organised by the Shogun as early as the 17th century, villages and everyday life remained to a great degree autonomous of any centralised control until the Meji era. ええじゃないか Eejanaika
During the sweeping Meji reforms crowds gathered in the streets across Japan dancing and yelling ‘eejanaika’ a phrase interpreted as either celebratory, nihilistic or as a protest, perhaps all of the above. The phrase literally reads “come on its ok isn’t it?” but can be interpreted as “Why not?”, “Who cares?”, or “What the hell?”
Source: Kawanabe Kyōsai – National Diet Library Digital Collections.
This radically changed when the new national government began to strategically manage a transformation of the Japanese psyche. The design of buildings, and notably for the first time, housing, became of principal concern to the state. It is no coincidence then that the first group of Japanese architects emerged shortly after the reforms began to take shape, the first formally educated group of architects graduated from Imperial University (later to develop into the University of Tokyo) in 1879 under the tutelage of the English architect Josiah Conder.

What is most striking about the works of the architects of A Japanese Constellation is their radically abstract, socially ‘challenging’ designs for housing, a few of which – Ishigami’s House with Plants, and Fujimoto’s House N, and House NA – are featured in the exhibition. While architecture which defies given spatio-social norms is more feasible and common in big-budget cultural buildings, it is conspicuous when proposed as housing, especially in socially conservative Japan. It is also conspicuous that a much larger constellation of Japanese architects than was featured in the exhibition is currently negating anything that resembles now globally prevalent, nuclear family housing types. While the abstract houses of Ishigami and Fujimoto reject typical programmatic arrangements, walls, privacy, and tend to ’blur‘ boundaries, they also convey and seem to reach for, as Gadanho suggests in his title, a ’lightness of being.’ Their flexibility and openness share more with the pre-modern Japanese house than the still largely nuclear-family contemporary housing preferred by most Japanese people.

“Plans for renting a converted house in Tokyo by architect Tanabe Junkichi to an audience at everyday life reform exhibition in 1920. The problem with the original house Tanabe explained, was that the room functions were poorly defined. In the final stage of the conversion rooms gain distinct functions.”
Source: Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan, pg 178.

In the pre-modern Japanese house the concept of puraibashii (privacy) was alien, the word unknown to the general Japanese population prior to the Meiji reforms; pre-industrial Japanese houses were ‘fluid’ spaces with virtually no privacy.[10] These were places of extended family, wider community, production of food and wares, entertainment, meals, education, sex and sleep all occured within loosely bounded, often programmatically ambiguous space distinguished from utilitarian areas by different floor surfaces. They were largely possession-less and furniture-less spaces partitioned by fusuma internally and shoji to the exterior: thin, sliding panels made of wood and paper or cloth. Through legislation, media and education reforms, a new nuclear family, way of life and completely new type of housing, adapted from the west, were developed and spread in modern Japan, especially in the decades following the Second World War.[11] These houses provided a private realm of conjugal relationships and therefor duties, to be efficiently managed by the modern housewife while her husband worked outside in the factory or office, and were dedicated solely now to biological and subjective reproduction – the instilling of identity, habits and beliefs – and maintenance of newly disciplined, ambitious and individualistic Japanese citizens. New mass-produced consumer items, furniture, and compartmentalised, functionally defined rooms made discreet by doors and solid walls yet connected by a central corridor reified scheduled rituals, social hierarchies, behavioral standards in what appears to be a realm of incontestable natural relationships.[12]  The  Japanese nDK and later nLDK – or n number of bedrooms, Living, Dining, Kitchen – arrangement of programmatically defined spaces was invented and remains the status quo today despite dramatic mutations in Japanese social realities, identity, and reproduction since the type first became the ideal.[10] Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930, (Harvard Univ Asia Center, 2005), 21.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 13.
[13] This is Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of Foucault’s definition. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998), 3.
[14] See Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s description of bio-politics pages 20-24. Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton, Buell Center/ FORum Project and Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).
_0046_1944-11-08_441108-38.pdf. Accessed October 21, 2016.
[16] Ibid.
National_Historic_Site.html. Accessed October 18, 2016.

This Meiji period is the most clearly distinguished example in the history of nation-states, of a shift from politics, to bio-politics: when “natural life begins to be included in the mechanics and calculations of State power.”[13] In order to economically manage its population – and in the case of Japan, to effectively militarise to a standard on par with Europe and the United States – the reproduction and maintenance of new Japanese soldiers, workers and parents, through the assignment of language, gender, identity, nationality, a set of behaviours, beliefs and, broadly, consciousness became of primary concern and was produced by a broad range of new experts, including architects, newly pouring out of Japanese Universities.[14] Housing was the locus of this political project, striving for natural, smooth choreography of bodies and narratives to shape individuals while simultaneously rendering imperceptible the ideological genesis of the project. Considering the consequences of these shifts in experience of life allow us to consider Ito’s ‘rift’ between the natural body, and unnatural body. Though Japan was already accustomed to incredibly destructive cycles of nature, the Japanese people had now been veered onto a course with the most destructive unnatural events to be experienced during the 20th century.  The modernist reforms, and later rapid shifts and ‘recoveries’ of Japan are unprecedented in history for their scale, scope and speed. Though augmented and tempered by pre-modern cultural traits of industriousness, honour, duty, and a culture of haji (shame) the rapid reforms ultimately depended on the most generic and basic traits common to all human beings: adaptability and creativity.

Toyo Ito was born in 1941, three years before the first MoMA exhibition to feature the word ‘Japanese’ in its title. The exhibition was called MANZANAR: Photographs by Ansel Adams of Loyal Japanese-American Relocation Center.[15] Manzanar was one of ten incarceration camps established inside of the United States during the Second World War. One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of which were American citizens, were given a week notice to sell everything they owned beyond what would fit in a suitcase, and were moved to a systematically organized camp of homes with little privacy, constant surveillance and no escape in a flat, empty expanse of desert where the temperatures often Photographs by Ansel Adams featured in the 1944 MoMA Exhibition – MANZANAR: Photographs by Ansel Adams of Loyal Japanese-American Relocation Center.
reached over 40 degrees Celsius (roughly 100 Fahrenheit). Under exceptional circumstances (these internments violated the United States Constitution) following the notorious Japanese military attack on Hawaii, Japanese Americans had little choice but to prove themselves patriotic, and to carry on making a new life in uncertain and difficult conditions. A 1944 press release for the exhibition at MoMA describes in Adams’ photographs scenes of a loyal citizenry making cheerful and livable homes, young women learning to make clothing, and of baseball and volleyball games.[16] Although now referred to amongst academics as an ‘incarceration’ or ‘concentration’ camp, at the time Manzanar was referred to as an ‘evacuation’ or ‘relocation’ camp: the same kind of language used to describe refuge provided in the aftermath of floods, tsunamis and earthquakes – events known all too well back in Japan.[17]

In the exhibition’s publication Gadahno discusses the 2012 Venice Biennale Golden Lion winning project Home-For-All to which Ito invited Sejima, Fujimoto and Hirata to design simple solutions for communities devastated by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. In the aftermath of the vast destruction of both the 1995
[18] Arata Isozaki, “Essay: Sei Shonagon, or Ariadne-Architecture in the Metropolis,” JA, no. 99 (2015): 4.
[19][20] Ibid.  
Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, as in 2011, people whose housing and possessions were literally obliterated or swept away were initially sheltered in gymnasiums on rows of matts laid on hard polished floors. Eventually they were assigned to an repetitions array of small partitioned spaces without ceilings and Emergency partitioning arranged in a gymnasium for people displaced by the Tohoku Earthquake – designed by Shigeru Bandivided up using standard Japanese straw tatami mat measures.[18] In an essay on the work of Kazuyo Sejima, called Sei Shonagon or Ariadne: Architecture in the Metropolis,[19] the architect Arata Isozaki beings with a meditation on the scenes in the gymnasium refuge centers he remembered after the vast destruction of both events. Isozaki says that “it was as if an archetypal form of dwelling by ‘living’ beings had emerged unexpectedly.”[20] It reminded him of both the shinden-zukuri, a Japanese Heian Era (794-1185AD) housing for feudal rulers that used movable partitions in flexible and programmatically ambiguous space, and of the modern office tower space of 1950’s Japan; a kind of universal space, un-partitioned, unobstructed and repeated stacked office floors which were made possible by the steel frame, the fluorescent bulb and the air conditioner. Isozaki notes that during the proliferation of the skyscraper in 1950s Japan, there were debates
Scroll depicting shinden-zukuri, a Japanese Heian Era (794-1185AD) housing for feudal rulers that featured movable partitions in flexible and programmatically ambiguous space.
Source: Tokyo National Museum Archives
surrounding the appropriateness of what he refers to as this new ‘universal space,’ likened to factories that housed Taylorist assembly lines and called ’unlimited space‘ by Kenzo Tange in the 1950s, and “inhumane,” “homogenous space” by the architect Hiroshi Hara.

The appearance of the ‘universal plan’ in Japanese architectural discussions, and in the city, came in the aftermath of a total annihilation by American firebombing of mostly single and double story family housing that was the historic fabric of Tokyo, leaving it a virtual tabula rasa and at the behest of an occupying military force. After the war, United States military officers and scholars drafted a new constitution under the command and watch of the de facto ruler of Japan, SCAP or the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers and General of the United States Army, Douglass MacArthur.[21] MacArthur oversaw a reform of the Japanese economy modeled on welfare oriented New Deal reforms in the U.S. following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The welfare project was seen as politically imperative, facing resistance from US Congress to send food supplies after the war, MacArther famously replied in cable “Starvation breeds mass unrest, disorder and violence. Give me bread or give me bullets.” [22][23] American occupation was initially welcomed by many industrialists and managers in Japan who, after battling the demands of workers
[21] Dower, John W, Embracing defeat : Japan in the wake of World War II (1st ed.) (New York: W.W. Norton & Co/New Press, 1999), 365–367.
[22] Gordon, 192-96.
[23] Thomas W Burkman, Theodore Cohen, and Herbert Passin, Remaking Japan: the American Occupation as New Deal (Ann Arbour: Free Press, 1987).
and the criticism of intellectuals and military leaders for what was perceived as unchecked greed and political monopoly. When the military consolidated power before the war many industrialists had become heavily managed by the state and even in some cases nationalised.[24][25]  Upon Japanese surrender, the director of a major business federation reassured his colleagues “our friends are coming.”[26]

Vast open spaces were left after the burnt-out rubble of pre-war and ancient Tokyo were finally cleared away. The government The aftermath of the Tokyo Firebombing. Source: US Army Signal Corps – built basic infrastructure, and by 1955 established the Japan Housing Corporation which subsidised the construction of mostly slab block type danchi apartments by munincipalites whom often gave the subsidy to private companies. The bulk of reconstruction however was left largely to the incentive of government subsidised private borrowing by individuals and corporations. Eventually huge sums of money were channelled to developers and industrialists including the pre-war oligarchs or zaibatsu who just narrowly avoided total dissolution by the occupying SCAP.[27] The universal plan of the steel or concrete framed skyscraper offered a practical solution for a new, innovative Japan; one that in light of historical lessons shed any one prescribed model of organising the office, effectively replicating the same openness of the city after the war. This is the period when Isozaki’s, Tange’s and Hara’s, respectively, ‘universal space’, ‘unlimited space’ and ‘homogenous’ space emerged in the office.

Isozaki discusses the refuge shelters, the factory and the office in his essay because he says, he is struck by an uncanny resemblance to Kazuyo Sejima’s work, and in particular one of her early works, the Kinbasha Pachinko Parlour. He describes the building as a basic solution for virtually any programmatic category of building in the new city of
Kinbasha Pachinko Parlour by Kazuo Sejima, 1993. Source: El Croquis
consumption, which he argues should now be referred to as the metropolis. He attributes his distinction between ‘city’ and ‘metropolis’ to Hannah Arendt’s explanation that the ancient Greek, oikos, or the economy of the household (oikonomia) had now itself become entirety of the polis; the entire city was now the space of oikonomia to be managed for efficient production, reproduction as crucial to what Aristotle described as the ‘art of wealth-getting.’[28]  What Isozaki is suggesting I would argue, is that Manzanar, the gymnasium refuge, the Japanese Taylorist factory and the universal office plan in Tokyo share something in common with Sejima’s Kinabsha Pachinko Parlour: people are treated like things, stripped or lobotomised of political agency, subjugated to unbounded power, codified, quantified and put on a level, generic datum with each other, furniture, partitions and machines to organise themselves, to adapt, be creative in a now entirely unfamiliar, unbounded and limitless space with no special place to take shelter.

This reminds us of what Giorgio Agamben explains when discussing the rise of extra-judicial camps in late 19th and 20th century Germany where “the citizen is stripped of political status and reduced wholly to bare life, the camp was the most absolute bio-political space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation.” [29]
[24] Gordon, 192-96.
[25] William M Tsutsui, Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan (Princeton University Press, 2001).
[26] Ibid., 122.
[27] A few of the large zaibatsu corporations were saved from dissolution as bulwarks against the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and communism. There were also petitions by workers to save their jobs and therefore let the companies continue operating. Randall Morck and Masao Nakamura, “A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Ocean: A History of Corporate Ownership in Japan,” in A History of Corporate Governance around the World: Family Business Groups to Professional Managers (University of Chicago Press, 2005). In his 1967 memoirs, Kennan wrote that aside from the Marshall Plan, setting the “reverse course” in Japan was “the most significant contribution I was ever able to make in government.” George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-50 (Boston, 1967), 393.
[28] Isozaki, 4.
[29] Agamben, 171.
[30] Isozaki, 6.
[31] “The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a spate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomised images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the non-living.” Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Bread and Circuses Publishing, 2012), 7.
Isozaki points out that in these exceptional states (common and cyclical in Japan since 1850, as if part of a cycle necessary to maintaining a certain order) during which the city and its infrastructure is destroyed, the modernist credo of creating ‘human spaces’ is suspended, even useless, and the raw generic simplicity which he likens to the “inhuman space of Hilbersiemer and Mies van der Rohe, makes its appearance suddenly and ironically.”[30]

It doesn’t stretch the imagination to suggest that the unprecedented, extraordinary economic successes of Japan in large part have to do with a series of inconspicuously synchronised and responsive factors: unprecedented cycles of destruction, openness and a resulting homelessness perpetuated and harnessed by an exertion of a coercive power over the body and consciousness. In other words, the destruction of ‘traditions’ and identity, erasure by bombings, cultural dissipation by technological shifts, and the sweeping away of tsunamis have repeatedly unleashed powerful creative, productive forces in a people who fiercely survive against all odds. Crucially, though there was a massive increase in ‘democratic freedoms’ and rise in voices of dissent after WWII, I would argue that conditions have remained such that there is simply little opportunity to challenge the established underlying orders of power that undoubtedly have a decisive role in precipitating destruction in the first place. The exceptional circumstances allowed for the implementation of an ideological project in large part through a total rebuilding of the city (physically, legislatively and culturally) which plays a primary role in consolidating control over the psyche, obscures the underlying continuation of the status-quo, builds popular approval for political reforms, and ultimately re-enforces a deep sense of duty, ambition, and obedience successfully engrained and reproduced in the Japanese body and mind. It is worth pointing out here that beliefs, habits, identity and consciousness are most critically established at a precarious age, through the rituals in the home. As is highlighted by recent events including an economic crisis since 1991 in Japan, and by the attempts at new sweeping reform; it seems that without catastrophic, destructive events, there is formidable barrier to change in Japan. This may stem from the fact that in the wake of earlier destructive events, having adapted and created a new normal with new forms of refuge, and having embodied strong and distinctive cultural narratives - there is, understandably, a stern resistance to change.

Toyo Ito, U-House 1976.

Ito was well aware of the challenges the architect faced when confronting an increasingly all-encompassing, urban ‘auto-reproductive machine’[31] barreling towards a future he found inhuman. Arguably the most written about project in the essays of the exhibition publication (though the project was not featured in the exhibition itself) is Ito’s 1973 White U-House for his sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer amidst pollution-induced increases in cancer, disease and physical deformities Japan. The house appears to turn its back to Tokyo[32], confronting the street with a completely bare and windowless fair-faced concrete façade, using sparse skylights to bring light into the interior. At a time when the LDK housing type had become ubiquitous in Japan, Ito dramatically contorts the nuclear-family-type plan as if to disfigure it to the point of utter uselessness by bending it into a U shape, and closing it off to contain a courtyard.

Post-war Japan in the 1950 and 60s was experiencing rapid economic growth, mass-urbanisation at an unprecedented rate and scale, expanding consumer culture and crippling ecological contamination that was bringing birth defects and higher rates of incurable diseases.[33]  Sectors of manufacturing, including the once massive textile
[32] Isozaki, 10.
[33] See the Introduction to the Tarzans in the Media Forest by Thomas Daniell. Ito and Daniell, 3.
[34] Chalmers Johnson, “Miti and the Japanese Miracle,” HARVARD EAST ASIAN MONOGRAPHS (2001).
[35] During this period people began to use the term “it hurts disease” itai-itai byo. Gordon, 285-86.
[36] Yoshimoto, Takaaki, “The End of a Fictitious System,” and Maruyama, “8/15 and 5/15,” in Ryusaku Tsunoda et al., Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
[37] Gordon.
[38] Tsutsui, 190-236.
industry were being outsourced to countries with low cost labour and Japan began a shift towards a service and knowledge-based economy. Memory of war’s total destruction faded, and there was widespread economic gain as the economy was heavily managed through government and industry cooperation to achieve gross domestic product growth and private profits[34]. Mounting anguish and discontent came with the dissipation of ‘traditional’ values in the face of surging consumerist culture. Mounting damage to natural eco-systems and declining individual health,[35] and government-capitalist alliances to erode worker demands and exercise undemocratic powers led to violent demonstrations that rocked Japan throughout the 1960’s, threatening to destabilise prospects for future economic growth. Amoung the countermeasures adopted were new incentivised loans allowed a greater majority to get into the housing market, strict regulations to maintain ecological and individual health, and social welfare concessions (if only temporary). A new plethora of psychoanalytically engineered consumer products and services came within financial reach of the majority of the population.  While some Japanese philosophers, for example Yoshimoto Takaaki, were optimistic about what they described as a new freedom for private interest and individualism in this new consumer world, he also seemed torn by his belief that they must also feel a “continually increasing burden of a sensibility gripped with an amorphous sense of boredom, enjoying a bloated material life and a relatively improved standard of living, but an absolute impoverishment.”
Toyota Factory, 1970.

During the 1960s education reforms that emphasised exam based testing were undertaken in cooperation with businessmen to produce workers who could adapt to rapidly changing manufacturing and office technologies.[37] Because the war had destroyed or forced the selling off of much of industrial machinery, manufacturers became innovative in order to compete with now bolstered American industry. The Kaisen system of management developed by Toyota implemented a radical re-organisation and sliming of production to that of the mass production assembly line. An incredible efficiency, and constant improvements were driven largely by requiring more flexible, adaptable and self-managed workers who were ready to shift to another sector or task as companies constantly re-organised, standardized and automated processes, and changed production methods. Responsibility for management, quality and efficiency improvement was delegated to individual workers and small groups within the company as mini think-tanks. A ‘quality consciousness’ was disseminated to everyone from upper management to the temporary worker. The strategy was not only marvelous at increasing profits through innovation, worker efficiency, product quality but effectively eliminated dissent by unions and the workforce.[38] Toyotism became the envy and model for late 20th century production around the world, not only in the factory but also in the office.

Four years before building his U-House, in 1969, Ito broke ranks with the futurist, techno-scientific Metabolist movement and left his employment with Kiyonori Kikutake, arguably the movements foremost theorist.  Writing as if he were channeling an architectural mutant with a life of its own which he called URBOT[39], he describes having gone into a period of holding his breath, to observe every detail of the transforming city around him: “huge steel frames”, “scale-like” white pre-cast concrete and “blind faith” in a mantra of “community” that he thought was part of baseless rhetoric to mask a very different reality.[40]
[39] Toyo, 4.
[40] Ibid., 22.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., 25.
The reality in fact was of an optimistic push towards a new technological infrastructure to efficiently manage life in the push towards ever greater economic productivity. Metabolism proposed a networked machine-metropolis of living pods as terminals in a giant information system precisely managed by robots and computers. URBOT he explains, though equipped to succeed in this environment, was instead drawn to the “irrational emotions that roiled within him.”[41] The “memory of the future” which Ito was to write about in his 1998 ‘rift’ essay, was for URBOT a “collective illusion of a homogenous world” when, instead, he desired a place that transmitted the “warmth of human breath.”[42] As much disdain as URBOT has for “the unbearable sterility,” Toyo Ito writes, “he cannot escape the environment of the city and survive.” Ito/URBOT is instead drawn to what he says are opposed influences: to the vernacular feel and materials of Charles W Moore’s and Joseph Esherick’s California Sea Ranch and the  “stream of utopias” of Archigram and Superstudio. A back-to-nature combination of a less “alienating” palette of materials like wooden siding and “super-graphics” found in the former, and the utopias paradoxically emerged from exacerbations of modern technology and information “toying with utopianism and technology” in the work of the latter. Both of these influences seemed to him to “criticise the dominance of technological civilization.”[43] During this period, Ito laid the groundwork for both his theory of uselessness which implied an absurd, excessive mutation of functional parts to a ridiculous and spectacular extreme. He was also developing an approach as a kind of return to nature (or capturing of a natural quality of things) while simultaneously embracing technologies and utopic visions of the future. It is clear in the work and writing of the group featured in A Japanese Constellation, that these remain at the core principles behind the groups work today.

Tracing Ito’s thought forward, his earlier ‘turning of the back’ on the city eventually gave way in the 1980s to a wider acceptance of consumer society, an opening up reflected
Toyo Ito and Kazuo Sejima, Pao Dwellings for Tokyo Nomad Girl, 1985.
in Ito’s 1984 house, Tokyo Silver Hut. A series of seven arched roofs made of metal triangulated structures float on a field of columns and free up the plan and façade of the house to become more flexible and transparent to ‘challenge’ the inhabitants with its degree of transparency to the vegetation and the city outside. As often quoted in the constellation essays, at one point by Gadahno and another by Igarashi, Ito, in 1989 – during the height of Japan’s prosperity and financial influence – writes that “A new architecture is only possible in the sea of consumption.”[44] This more open and perhaps optimistic attitude comes after Ito had employed, and as Igarashi claims, was heavily influenced by Sejima who was dubbed a “convenience store girl” for her nomadic Tokyo lifestyle. Ito and Sejima’s 1985 Pao for the Tokyo Nomad  Girl proposes housing as a mobile space with a single bed for sleeping, dressing and displaying taste in consumer choices. A light metal space-frame structure, it is clad in light translucent materials that absorb the energy and information of the city while and reflecting the increasingly ephemeral nature of life. “The nomad girl does not act or pressure the environment, but rather is prepared to be the object herself of the actions and offers proposed by consumerism.”[45]

The ephemeral nature, placeless-ness and lightness of the Pao project is an index of sorts to the early stages of a period when a rift begins to open between on the one hand: the contemporary subjectivity of the Japanese individual and on the other hand the earlier subjective modernist models of life and values still popularly and legally
[44] Gadanho, 12, 190.
[45] Toyo Ito, “Toyo Ito 1986-1995,” El CroquisVol. 14, no. 71 (1995), p. 1-188 (1995). Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros, “Toyo Ito: Light Time,” in El Croquis: Toyo Ito, 1986-1995, no. 71, eds. Richard C. Levene and Fernando Márquez Cecilia (Madrid: El Croquis, 1995), pg. 36.
[46] Félix Guattari, “Tokyo, the Proud,” Deleuze Studies 1, no. 2 (2007).
[47] Isozaki.
[48] ibid.
[49] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1993), 4.
maintained as Japanese cultural tradition to this day. In his essay “Toyko the Proud,” Félix Guattari described 1980s Japanese subjectivity as mutation propelled by virtual machines, information as a key factor of labour, and immaterial production.[46] Ito and Sejima, Isozaki claims, were shaping the outlines of a “21st century architecture.”[47][48] This leaves us torn, like Yoshimoto, between the possibility for a potentially radical liberation, or perhaps inversely, the inconspicuous and total subsuming of life and consciousness. These developments in housing are conspicuous because the domestic space was the only programmatic sphere still ideologically sheltered from total unbounding, from the typological abstraction precipitated by economy witnessed earlier in the factory and office.

In advanced capitalist economies with the greatest degrees of concrete development, labour can no longer be thought of in one particular form; individuals must pass with ease to different kinds of work that can only therefore require generic faculties common to all. [49] The emergence of this reality finds its spatial paradigm in the ‘universal plan,’ the ‘homogenous’ space, and finally, in the housing experiments of the architects in a Japanese Constellation. Constant innovation, constant states of exception and stating anew, the increasing immateriality and abstraction of forms of production and consumption had effectively rendered any prescriptive spatial organisation obstructive in the drive towards infinite economic growth. As was the case in Japan, because the primary concern for economic growth is, necessarily, the reproduction of workers and consumers. It follows then that the primary productive space became in fact the reproductive space – housing. When economy becomes so advanced that only constant innovation will perpetuate growth, limitations or obstacles that cannot be instantly transcended stand in the way of unforeseen productive potential and must be eliminated. As the structure of economy and technology align themselves ever more effectively with the rythym of basic human traits and impulses, and therefor internalize
[50] Relations of power and knowledge inform techniques of normalization, and they produce subjects and objects through an infinite modeling that today extends into the smallest fibers of our bodies and desires. Wallenstein, 38.
and dematerialize choreographies of subjectivisation,[50] it follows that the locus of reproduction – housing – will tend towards losing any special coercive spatial choreographies.

Do the housing experiments of the Japanese Constellation contradict an initial reading as emancipatory acts that reject status quo reproductive models by, on the contrary, engaging in speculations or projections of ideal space for post-Fordist reproduction? Isozaki explains when discussing Sejima’s Gifu Kitagata housing that during the post-bubble years the nuclear family was effectively “dismantled, leaving a collection of individual entities.” SANAA thus ignores the LDK type, cuts the housing project directly from the
[51] Isozaki.
[52] Matthew Allen, Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter, Control Yourself! Lifestyle Curation in the Work of Sejima and Nishizawa,” in Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else (Cambridge, Mass: Work Books, 2010), 24.
“infinitely continuing three-dimensional grid”[51] and leaves no center for convergence or orientation. The individual here now belongs to an interconnected, generic and infinite space and because of this must rely completely on their individual self and their most basic faculties to create a sense of home. Revealing of how this can be likened to an instrumentality for contemporary economy, Matthew Allen, in an essay on the work of SANAA explains that “Blankness calls for active projection, indeterminacy asks for participation, and the absence of spatial hierarchy requires communal initiative.”[52] [53]

Sou Fujimoto, Primitive Future, 2008.
Fujimoto’s House N and House NA, featured in the museum’s exhibition, are exemplary of his writings and thought on a new abstract and primitive architecture. In the intro to Sou Fujimoto’s book, Primitive Future, Toyo Ito recalls that Fujimoto discussed the idea that his architecture, through focusing only a relationship between parts, has the power to negotiate “disorder and uncertainty.”[54] Fujimoto explains that imagining architecture of the ‘future’ is strikingly similar to reflecting on ‘primitive architecture,’[55] recalling Isozaki’s writing on Sejima’s work. Yet Fujimoto ponders an earlier, “embryonic” state as a starting point with infinite points for departure and “promising” possibilities. He describes Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino as a “nest” – a functional and practical archetype which ensures inhabitants ability to seek comfortability and convenience. Alternatively, he says that he is instead interested in architecture as a “cave” – a space which “encourages people to seek a spectrum of opportunities,” in which humans must adapt to a landscape by interpreting the scales, convexity and concavity of surfaces.[56]

Junya Ishigami, in his short essay prepared for the exhibition writes: “it is becoming increasingly difficult for preconceived building types and/or functions to respond to our current circumstances” and that it is necessary to “think about architecture in a context where all elements are considered with equal importance.” In Igarashi’s exhibition essay, he describes how SANAA’s spaces conceal masterful feats of structural engineering behind an openness and transparency.[57] He goes on to explain that Ishigami has taken this tendency of his former mentor to such an extreme as to almost “transcend” materiality completely in an “evocation of invisibility and lightness” that very few people
Junya Ishigami, 2014.
recognise as being the result of extreme structural precision and innovation. Ishigami’s works seem to have the unmatched ability to provoke a sense of nature, wonder, lightness and ease, yet within high tech, computer generated, precisely engineered structures that ever more efficiently and effortlessly contain abstract space.

In his Constellation essay Igarashi claims that the works of these architects are very “elegantly” in pursuit of “potentialities left unfinished” by modernism. Recalling Ito’s reading of O’Gorman’s work, which through its pursuit of absolute concrete functionality, became ‘sublimated.’ The radically bare housing of European modernists – which shed all representational features and reduced architecture to functional assemblies of typical elements: floor, pilotis, walls, stairs, doors, windows – becomes more extreme in the work of Fujimoto and Ishigami, who instead reduce architecture to an assembly of elements that often cannot be objectively labeled beyond their material properties, potentially offering new, more profound negation (and/or amplification) of the economic, reproductive potential of modern housing. For example, the logs of Fujimoto’s Wooden House suggest a house constructed of simple hewn timbers, yet conceal steel details to connect them; beyond negating internal typological configurations and hence, leaving a flat datum of potential, Fujimoto poses a more limited, yet still abstract configuration determined solely through the basic features of the human body. The problem facing a wider influence of these houses is that Japan clings cultural ideals rooted largely in forms of subjectivity developed during modernisation – therefore examples which negate the plan are largely rejected as impractical, even despite a crisis of the nuclear family and more than twenty years of economic stagnation.

[54] See Toyo Ito’s introduction to Sou Fujimoto, Primitive Future (Tokyo: INAX, 2008).
[55] Ibid., 21.
[56] Ibid., 24.
[57] Gadanho, 191.
[58] Maurizio Lazzarato and Joshua David Jordan, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Los Angeles: Semiotext (e), 2014), 10.
[59] ibid., 11.
[60] Ibid., 9.
Maurizio Lazzarato proposes that, in the blankness of post war Japan, a ‘capital of subjectivity’ based on knowledge, collective intelligence and the will to survive drove the economic miracle, but the consequences of neoliberal deterritorialisation have now destroyed previous forms of the Japanese identity and consciousness. Behind Japan’s economic crisis, is the lack of any new model for reproducing the Japanese individual.[58] The attempts at stimulation taken by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party since the 1991 economic crash, including the attempt to introduce women to the workplace, to destabilise the job market, to inject massive sums into the economy, to lower interest rates, and to increase immigration; all continue to fail.[59] In Japan popular behavioral tendencies – including those of politicians who win elections – towards recourse to pre-liberalised territories is what obstructs change and growth.[60] Nationalism, racism, Shintoist-Bhuddist principles and superstitions, nuclear family, and ‘traditional’ values all offer people a nostalgic form of refuge from a feeling of placeless-ness, of not being at home in the world.

Despite these seemingly regressive developments, it would be naive to underestimate capitalism’s ability to resolve its own crisis through the alignment of forms of life, space and experience with the flows of economy, or perhaps, vice-versa, the alignment of economy and space with forms
[61] Lazzarato and Jordan, 8.
of life and experience.[61] Recalling something of what Lewis Mumford prophesised in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash: that the “evil” machines of the early modern period, which required human adaptation to their rhythms, would eventually be replaced by machines that had learned to adapt themselves to the
[62] See Mario Carpo, “Post-Hype Digital Architecture: From Irrational Exuberance to Irrational Despondency,” Grey Room, no. 14 (2004)., and Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (University of Chicago Press, 2010)., In particular, see chs. VIII, 1-2, 364-372, “The Dissolution of ‘The Machine”‘ and “Toward an Organic Ideology.”
[64] Accessed October 12, 2016.
“rhythms of organic human life”.[62] Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently commented while encouraging the change of ‘chauvinist’ male value culture, “If it is possible in Europe and the United States there is no reason it is impossible in Japan.”[63] “We will press ahead with reforming the consciousness of our entire society.”[64] It seems that Japan again finds itself at the call of a coming “unnatural” cycle, or perhaps a cycle in which the re-alignment of both material and immaterial flows increasingly shapes the new natural. The reform of subjectivity must operate with respect to the ‘mega-structural’ network of reproductive affects, virtual and physical, all of which have a relationship to configurations of physical space.

Ishigami says that he anticipates “new roles” for architecture that have “never previously been imagined.” It is worth soberly considering whether he may in this simple statement have a critical point: does architecture have a pivotal role to play in the political project of Japan? I think it does, I suspect that in fact we find ourselves in quite an opposite condition to what Sejima
[65] People meet architecture Kazuyo Sejima, “People Meet in Architecture,” Marsilio. http://www. amazon. com/exec/obidos/ASIN/8831706519/readdot-20 (2010).
said felt like a “post ideological society.”[65] If we come to terms with the fact that this work is helping to shape the trajectory of architecture now, it is important to question whether this alluring work has ventured into an ideological corner. Evoking Ito’s realisation that “A new architecture is only possible in the sea of consumption…” we must “…swim to the other shore,” perhaps the only option is to swim faster find new ground on the other side: a new idea on an unforeseen shore. Perhaps we can already feel grains of sand beneath us if we stretch our legs and point our toes. I think this is what Ito came to terms with in the mid 1980’s around the time that he worked with Sejima, that this dangerous crossing in the open was in fact non-optional should we want keep building; nothing else seemed to make sense anymore. Understanding that he was up against enormously powerful forces his only choice was to marvel at emerging protrusions and the beauty of the ripples they emanate, yet try also to stay one step ahead, chart alternative trajectories and craft what have been some incredibly insightful and alluring spatial instruments.  Ito and his contemporaries might be pushing into a void of uncertainty yet also shaping an idea for a house on other side at the same time, whether awake to it in their daily practice or not. It seems that they may be crafting machines which in their incitement of wonder, beauty, empathy and safety, win popular appeal, and yet are inseparable, or indistinguishable from and therefore cannot exist without their radically subversive features. These architects seem to be pushing small advances in a movement towards the open, or perhaps in the words of Ito, an ‘opposite shore’ that reveals wider and irreversible new forms of solidarity, a collective vision of the future.

In any case, we tend – minus brief regressive interruptions – to continue into an expanding openness: in proportion to the kind of freedoms and social liberalisations we experience, new internalized disciplines configure the fiber of our consciousness. Yet this openness also presents “a multiplicity that contains an equally infinite capacity for resistance and transformation, and for the actualization of other spaces
[66] Wallenstein.
and subjects.”[66] The internal spatial compositions of architectural typologies for productive and reproductive functionality, including most recently nuclear family housing, are tending towards the generic and abstract. When these examples, which tend towards being non-typological are considered from within a contemporary Japanese context, the absence of spatial choreographies to establish habits, familiarity, and forms refuge exposes one to infinite angles of, on the one hand vulnerability, and on the other, encounter and opportunity. This openness when experienced at a precarious age, necessitates a total reliance on and cultivates one’s abilities to speak, think, adapt and create; abilities that now constitute the fundamental productive resources upon which the contemporary economy relies. Non-typological housing therefore reveals itself as the spatial paradigm for the reproduction of post-Fordist labour-power and as an index of how the transfiguration of modes of production, simultaneously concedes to and appropriates formerly subversive models and practices. It is clear though that we cannot go back, we must live in this new openness, we must wade into the open sea – but the open is a dangerous place. In other words, while it may potentially expose individuals to ever more deeply rooted subjugation, it is necessary step to clear away obsolete coercive spatial configurations and open up the potential for new liberated forms of experience.

Japan is a country that hangs on to cultural ideals rooted largely in forms of subjectivity developed during modernisation -–therefore examples which become radically abstract and negate traditional plans are largely rejected as impractical, even in spite of a crisis of the nuclear family and economic stagnation for the last 20 years. This is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, but a crucial measure here is to acknowledge that configurations of space that represent and therefor enact an openness, are not enough; this idea was perhaps best described by Foucault:

I do not think that there is anything that is functionally – by its very nature – absolutely liberating. Liberty is a practice. So there may in fact, always be a certain number of projects whose aim is to modify some constraint, to loosen or even to break them, but none of these projects can, simply by its nature, assure that people will have liberty automatically, that it will be established by the project itself. Liberty, is
[67] Michele Foucault, Jeremy W Crampton, and S Elden, Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 354.
what must be exercised.[67]

In light of the conflicts within which these architects find themselves intimately involved, I would suggest that the MoMA  has put on another ‘Manzanar’, albeit adjusted for ethical-currency inflation relative to our time. Without going into greater depth than the preceding text already suggests, the great majority of the exhibition’s discourse is, most ironically, spent on a commodification of homelessness; on the weaponisation of works to glorify competition, genius, and success. Works that could instead be read as manifesting the fragility of our shared condition as human beings, which have a potential if presented alternatively, to open a space for wider consciousness. The evidence here suggests that the museum neither makes art nor even exhibits art, but in fact exploits, and ultimately turns it against the ‘warmth of human breath,’ upon which Ito began his practice. The critique may ultimately fall on us however, for expecting that a museum would or could somehow exist outside of an auto-reproductive spectacle that moulds life experiences to the tune of pulsating electronic profit-loss flickers in the digital ether.


Brendon Nikolas Carlin is a Unit Master at the Architectural Association, a PhD candidate with the AA’s PhD by Design Programme and Director of the AA Visiting Programme Tropicality. He can be contacted at:



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