good write-up in NYT

IT DOES NOT announce itself as a major building. In Ueno, at the northern end of old Tokyo, stands a relatively small concrete box, hoisted on slim columns. It is set off from the rest of the park by a wide gray plaza, demanding a solemn approach. As you near it, the flat expanse of the facade begins to differentiate itself into cladding panels, textured with pebbled aggregate. An off-center stairway juts out, a symbolic ascendance into a temple of art. This is the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, erected in 1959, and it is, incredibly enough, the only building to be designed by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his nom de plume “Le Corbusier,” in all of East Asia.

The austerity of its presentation hides special, humanizing characteristics in its interior such as a characteristically Corbusian ramp that ascends to the second-floor gallery space. Built to house the collection of an early 20th-century Japanese industrialist, with special strengths in late 19th-century French art, the National Museum of Western Art employed three local architects. Their names — Junzo Sakakura, Takamasa Yoshizaka and, above all, Kunio Maekawa — would become hallowed in the emerging pantheon of Japanese Modernists. They had trained with Le Corbusier in Paris, and they were early exponents of his ideas. In Japan, they all assumed a position of pre-eminence, their own acolytes cementing the hegemony of Modernism over other forms of Japanese architecture.

The story is not well known. To look at just a few standard accounts of Le Corbusier’s life and work — Kenneth Frampton’s “Le Corbusier: Architect of the Twentieth Century,” Charles Jencks’s “Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture,” or Nicholas Fox Weber’s authoritative biography — is to search in vain for any reference to the building, or for any mention of the association between Le Corbusier and Japan. (The story of the building is well told, however, in Jonathan Reynolds’s pioneering study, “Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture.”) This absence both occludes the extent of his influence and testifies, obliquely, to the enduring anxiety of Japanese Modernists, and Japanese architects more generally, over the scope of his project.

This anxiety can be seen even before Maekawa and the other Modernists began building anything. In 1929, a monthly Japanese architecture magazine, Kokusai Kenchiku (International Architecture), devoted two entire issues to the work of Le Corbusier. Its May issue contained 15 articles on the architect; its June issue presented 11 more, among them translations from English-speaking critics and from the master himself. He was then an emerging Modernist, possibly as known for his writing (still untranslated into Japanese at that point) as for the comparatively small, but profoundly disconcerting, output of his Paris atelier. Like other Modernist architects, he sought to simplify the art of building into a few cardinal points. The radical changes Le Corbusier would bring to architecture were already in evidence in buildings such as the canonical Villa Savoye (built between 1928 and 1931) outside of Paris: the “free plan” that banished load-bearing structures from central spaces; the transformation of the reinforced concrete column-beam system into a dynamic exhibition of technological prowess. Thanks to the overwhelming clarity of his positions, the bewitching nature of his epigrammatic style and the already-powerful international movement for Modernism, the impact he had on a rising generation of Japanese architects would prove to be immense.

But it would be the nature of that impact to be felt only in conditions of overwhelming ambivalence. The architect Yoshiro Taniguchi exemplified the emotional nature of the Japanese reception of Le Corbusier. “How is it that this man Le Corbusier can grasp hold of my heart, overpower it, and not let go?” he wrote in his contribution to one of the Kokusai Kenchiku symposia. Bound up in Taniguchi’s response are the deep contradictions that would characterize much of Japanese Modernism in the years to come: the desire to embrace what was globally seen as modernity in architecture, while also retaining a sense of what were widely seen, nationally but also vaguely, as gestures that exuded “Japaneseness,” or that were typically “Japanese,” such as the use of traditional wooden-beam structures, or the inclusion of pitched roofs. The debate over Japaneseness was itself in part a Western import, since the mid-19th-century taste, of Impressionists and Art Nouveau enthusiasts, for japonaiserie — for example, the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, folding screens, ivory medicine boxes — transformed the self-perception of the Japanese. As the architect Arata Isozaki wrote, in “Japan-ness in Architecture,” the “concepts perceived to underlie” the production of Japanese work — “simplicity, humility, purity, lightness and shibusa (sophisticated austerity)” — became markers of Japaneseness. “Modernism in architecture,” Isozaki continues, “was introduced to Japan concurrently with efforts to construct the problematic of Japan-ness.”

Though Le Corbusier helped master plan the city of Chandigarh in India, and epigones pursued this vision in Cambodia and Sri Lanka, it was Japan that would take up Corbusianism most powerfully. What was attractive about Le Corbusier was also what was repellent: his deracinated formalism; the reproducibility of his plans; his determination to have architecture exhibit the technological innovations of its era. Le Corbusier is not necessarily the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Japanese architecture. But to understand its trajectory, he may be the most important and emblematic.

ON A RECENT trip to Tokyo, I stayed in the International House of Japan, a membership institution and academic guesthouse designed by Maekawa (along with Sakakura and Junzo Yoshimura). Lightness infuses this surpassingly tranquil 1955 structure, situated between the districts of wealthy Azabu‑Juban and neon-sodden Roppongi: the main building’s heavy, boxlike concrete frame perforated by balconies, fronting rooms shielded by shoji screens; its lobby walled in part with soft Oya stone; its tea lounge poised over a Japanese garden, to which floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view. The complex refracted the continuing attempt, by Maekawa and other exponents of Corbusianism, to balance the old and the new. So, too, with Takamasa Yoshizaka’s Inter-University Seminar House (1965), an inverted concrete frustum that is at once technically inspiring and ancient-seeming — recalling, if only through dim mental association, the elementary structures of ruins and villages.

What was it about Le Corbusier’s Modernism that appealed to Japanese architects, who had, behind them, a virtually unbroken tradition of architecture, developed over thousands of years largely in isolation from Europe? In truth, Modernism, whether European or Japanese, developed roots in countries in which the political and economic structures of so-called modernity were felt unevenly, mitigated by the resilience of older, feudal traditions. In his 1981 book “The Persistence of the Old Regime,” the historian Arno Mayer revealed that, despite the “creative destruction” wrought by capitalism, most Western European nations were, until the successive catastrophes of World War I, the revolutions that followed and World War II, largely agrarian and saddled with aristocratic landowning classes that controlled much of the country’s wealth. Artistic Modernism of all kinds took root in this soil, anxious about the disappearance of the past as well as, paradoxically enough, its unyielding grip. Modernist techniques did not express the spirit of a new confidence, but the violent struggle to displace the aesthetics of the old regime. Dissonance was built into the project from the outset.

In the 1920s, Modern architecture was a new field in Japan. It became distinguished from the work of artisans and general craftsmanship in the late 19th century. Despite, and perhaps a little because of this, Japan’s was the earliest and most thorough engagement with Le Corbusier in all of East Asia: By the early 1930s, many of his most important books had been translated into Japanese, and several Japanese architects returned from stints in his firm to translate his ideas onto Japanese soil. It also would end up being the most lasting. After World War II, in which the Americans destroyed Tokyo in the second most vicious bombing campaign in history (the first was the American bombing of Vietnam), Modernism — especially through the medium of concrete — became the ideology of Japanese reconstruction. And Kenzo Tange, arguably the most influential postwar Japanese architect, who worked in Maekawa’s office and participated in Le Corbusier’s Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), took his cue from Le Corbusier’s sculptural, expressionistic use of concrete, and he pursued and expanded Le Corbusier’s early interest in comprehensive city planning.

Facing the National Museum of Western Art is the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall (1961), one of the major works of Kunio Maekawa and one of the great buildings of the postwar era. Maekawa had joined Le Corbusier’s firm as an impressionable 22 year old, and he saw the Villa Savoye as it was being constructed. Le Corbusier’s struggles to plant Modernism in Europe would inspire Maekawa, who faced an equally intransigent establishment in Japan; more than anyone else, his work exemplified the innovations and compromises of Japanese Modernism in its early days. It makes sense, then, that one of his major works would stand across from Le Corbusier’s building, as if in dialogue with it. The Festival Hall exceeds the National Museum of Western Art in breadth, its heavy horizontal span accentuated by an enormous overhanging concrete roof, its eaves upturned. The side facing the museum feels like a bunker or castle, shielded as it is by large sloping walls that recede behind a moat. Masato Otaka, a principal in Maekawa’s firm who was in charge of the project (and later a renowned architect in his own right), noted its resemblance both to Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp and to the Shinto sanctuary at Izumo dating to at least the seventh century — one of Japan’s oldest. Are the references “Japanese”? Or do the building’s references simply circulate within the closed, hermetic circuit of international Modernism? The interior gives similarly equivocal clues. The entrance to the main concert hall is tiled in the same concrete aggregate as the museum. But the interior, which has clear, warm acoustics, is patterned in large, woozily abstract wood cutouts, and the tall interior columns are board-marked, recalling the wooden entrance to a shrine.

This empire of multifarious signs drew on Maekawa’s own complex trajectory, riven with polemics over the “Japaneseness” of his architecture. After he left Le Corbusier’s office, he returned to Japan and in the 1930s worked in the office of the Czech-born American architect Antonin Raymond, an early Modernist based in Japan. He emerged from Raymond’s practice into a country on a war footing, where architect-proponents of Nihon shumi, or “Japanese taste,” attacked Modernists for being “un-Japanese.” Imitating older Japanese building techniques became the rage — something that Maekawa felt was dishonest. In describing his 1931 proposal for the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum (now the Tokyo National Museum), where he drew on Le Corbusier’s work for the Palace of the League of Nations, he anticipated attacks from traditionalists, and he argued that to construct things like Japanese-style gables in “this 2,591th [sic.] year since the founding of the nation is a great blasphemy against the several thousand years of Japan’s artistic past. … It is precisely because we respect Japan’s ancient arts that we raise strong objections to this brazenly false Japanese architecture.”

Maekawa lost the competition, as he expected to. But his Metropolitan Festival Hall ended up being built on the same site — poetic justice, if not a form of revenge.

JAPANESE ANXIETY OVER modernity is a cliché of cultural studies, and the fact that Japan in the Meiji period — roughly 1868 to 1912 — resembled Western Europe in this regard is too facile an explanation for its various forms of Modernism: There is simply no comparison between France or England and a country as isolated as Japan experiencing the onrush of capitalist industrialization. But there is something instructive in the fact that, in the 20th century, Modern architects — from Bruno Taut and Frank Lloyd Wright to Walter Gropius — toured Japan and discovered, or so they thought, the antecedents of Modern architecture. By the time he received the commission for the National Museum of Western Art, Le Corbusier’s aesthetic was already mature, and the record is mostly silent on his reaction to Japanese architecture. But the architectural historian Hiroshi Matsukuma — formerly of Maekawa’s firm — has pointed out that Le Corbusier was deeply influenced as a young art student by Japanese woodblock prints, and on his one visit to Japan in 1955, he toured the major temple sites in Kyoto and Nara. And in his last book, he notes, in a caption accompanying a photograph of the museum, how the excellent quality of the site-cast concrete exuded the skill and craftsmanship that can only be found in Japan. Indeed, the slim columns holding up the building are imprinted with wood slats, so that they call to mind the architectural tradition of the country.

Western architects wanted Japanese architecture to redeem Modernism. But what did Japanese architects want from, and to do with, European Modernism? The early results of this encounter suggest the innovations and dissonances that still characterize Japanese attempts to fashion a “Japanese” architecture, well into the country’s current moment of national self-assertion and anxiety. During the war, scarcity of materials led Maekawa to embrace wood architecture; his own house (1942), disassembled in the 1970s but later reconstructed, is an exemplar of neo-traditionalism, with its pitched roof, and sliding glass doors that resemble, in their checkered patterning, the shoji screens of the Japanese vernacular home. Standing prominently at the south facade of the house is a wooden column: Some would see this as a reference to “ridge supporting columns” (munamochi bashira) found at shrines in Ise; Maekawa called it a Modernist piloti. In later years, when confronted with old questions about “Japaneseness,” conducted in the shadow of the war and under American occupation, he tended to exhibit more discomfort in print than he did in his buildings.

In 1953, Kokusai Kenchiku once again hosted a debate: “Nationalism vs. Internationalism.” The erstwhile Corbusians, Maekawa and Sakakura, were part of it, as was the emerging genius Kenzo Tange, Maekawa’s former employee. Tange argued that technology determined the appearance of a country’s architecture, and that Japan, lagging behind the United States, would inevitably exhibit different forms. Maekawa dismissed Japanese attempts to exhibit “Japaneseness” as resulting from an “inferiority complex.” This endlessly recurring argument, known as the “Japan tradition debate” (Nihon dento ronso), came to affect the reception of later Modernists’ work as well.

Adopting the moniker of “Metabolism” in a manifesto, Tange and his associates began imagining ever larger megastructures, and in Le Corbusier’s spirit — but well exceeding him in ambition — they conceived of a future Japan consisting of cities in the sea and the clouds. This thinking signaled that Japanese Modernism had become a force in its own right: the international dream of Le Corbusier, in a sense, realized.

Only a few years later, however, the conquering spirit seemed to have met its match. The infamous Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972), designed by the Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa, is the building that seems now like both the apogee and conclusion of Le Corbusier-style Modernism in Japan. Immediately seizing attention with its asymmetrical stacks of protruding boxes, it has become a symbol of the future that was. It was built with the intention of housing Japan’s chronically busy “salarymen” during their weekdays at work. Each cramped, podlike capsule, outfitted with the barest of then-up-to-date bachelor necessities (such as a reel-to-reel tape player), was meant to be replaceable. But none were ever replaced, and when I visited the structure on a rainy day in October 2017, the level of decay was extraordinary, with water pouring through leaks in the stairway. Some of the capsules are occupied by artists, but most are empty.

The megalomania of the Metabolists did not survive into the era of the Japanese bubble economy, let alone its bursting; the cycles of replacement did not fulfill themselves. Arata Isozaki, once of their company, designed buildings that gestured to Japanese heritage in a different way: They called to mind images of bombed-out ruins from World War II. Meanwhile, Tadao Ando, perhaps the most successful Japanese architect to come after Tange, developed an aesthetic of introversion: His houses and museums are tranquil rather than swaggering, putting up sheer, concrete faces to the world. Media architecture — glass buildings covered by digital television screens — became, for a time, the stereotypical image of Japaneseness. It is a sign of how aggressively the country seized upon the idea of modernity that its earliest Modernist buildings, once symbols of a fierce debate over what the recovering country should look like, are now among its most serene structures. In 2016, Unesco named the National Museum of Western Art to its World Heritage List, joining the Acropolis of Athens and the Alhambra, as well as the monuments of Nara and Kyoto, among the lasting achievements of architecture.