Isozaki and the East Asian Common House
From his boyhood in southern Japan during the 1930s to his career as an internationally celebrated architect, Arata Isozaki Hon RA has felt the myriad influences of Chinese culture reaching across East Asia to the rest of the world. That experience gives him a unique perspective on the way China’s rapid economic development extends and changes its cultural influence. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in contemporary architecture. Its effects range from the price of materials and methods of construction, to challenging conventional expectations about the size and functions of buildings. Part of Isozaki’s personal response to these conditions is to rethink the concept of a cultural institution. Isozaki spoke to Jeremy Melvin about his relationship with Chinese culture and its influence on the whole of East Asia – culminating in a proposal to host the 2016 Olympics in various cities around the East China Sea.
Japan and China: a long history
According to Arata Isozaki Hon RA Japan’s cultural relationship with China dates back more than 2000 years. ‘In almost every epoch some major cultural influence has arrived in Japan from China. The Japanese accept those Chinese ideas and transform them, soften them, in the cultural tradition of the Japanese. After some time the Japanese develop them into new ideas, but then something new arrives from China… this is a repetition I find through history, and it shows how much we Japanese owe to China. That is especially true,’ he continues, ‘in the written characters. China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam all share the same written letters, but develop them differently.’ It is this common cultural base that he feels needs to be strengthened by what he calls the ‘East Asian Common House’ – something like the European Union in which cultural difference and commonality can thrive alongside each other. His proposal to host the 2016 Olympics centred on Fukuoka in southern Japan and he hopes that drawing in Shanghai, Busan, Taipei and Vladivostok will galvanise this idea.
Peonies, imperialism and the Cultural Revolution
‘My grandfather was a teacher of Chinese poems’, remembers Arata Isozaki, describing his family’s unusually sympathetic relationship with China during the 1930s in Japan. ‘My father went to study in Shanghai… but he did not like the kind of imperialism which led Japan to invade.’ When international relations deteriorated he left, bringing back with him ‘many ideas’. He filled the garden of the family home on the southern island of Kyushu with peonies, the Chinese national flower. Born in the Kyushu-an city of Oita in 1931, Isozaki grew up amidst their scent. ‘It was a different atmosphere,’ he recalls. It gave him an early and lasting interest in Chinese culture just as the historic links were being severed, first by World War II, then by the Chinese Revolution.
This rupture meant his interests remained latent. ‘During the student unrest all over the world at the end of the 1960s I wanted to look at what was happening in China but didn’t have a chance at that time.’ It was only after Mao Tse Tung died that he could go to China for the first time. ‘I was able to move around and study at the end of the 1970s. That was my first direct contact.’ Invited to lecture in Shanghai and Beijing in the mid 1980s he found a strange situation. ‘Each school I visited had pirate editions of my books and they asked me to autograph them!’ This samizdat reputation eventually led to his first commission in China, in the south near Macau.
Theories, mirages and Lamborghinis
Japan’s economic boom made it hard to pursue theoretical ideas in the 1980s. Arata Isozaki used design projects abroad to fill the gap. Persuading his fellow jurors to select Zaha Hadid’s entry for the Hong Kong Peak competition not only propelled her towards international stardom but also began a polemic about urban form. The rest of the jury, he recalls, ‘said it violated all the conditions, but I didn’t think that mattered’ as he prophetically realised ‘this competition may not be built so why not find an interesting conceptual scheme?’ The client eventually agreed. On the last day of judging he came in a little late and asked every juror to look out of the window at a strange car. It was a Lamborghini and he said ‘I want a Lamborghini scheme’.
A few years later, when a city near Macau wanted to develop a sports stadium he applied a similar logic. ‘I did not want to work on that kind of thing and counter-proposed a new city on an island, about the size of Venice, which I called Mirage City.’ The scheme caught the interest of the vice-mayor but in another twist of fate that shows the discrepancy between China and the developed world at the time, the vice-mayor wanted Isozaki to bring investment from outside. ‘I had to say “I am not a developer. I am an architect. I can conceive of this kind of idea but cannot fund it”.’
Foreign investment meets local construction
Armed with his longstanding appreciation of Chinese culture and his experience of working there, Arata Isozaki gives a personal account of China’s modernisation through the story of the cultural centre in Shenzhen, one of the first international competitions in an area open to investment from outside China. ‘Seven years ago we won the competition and construction started five years ago… China at that time had a very different construction system. It was a very bureaucratic process with no main contractor.’ Each part of the building has its own supplier; the steel company, curtain wall supplier and decorator each bring and take away their own scaffolding. ‘I proposed 3000 piles for the foundations they said ‘we don’t have any machines for piles’. When I next visited the site 300 families were living there who dug the 30m deep piles by hand.’ But a lack of technology did not hold things back for long. Five years ago, his associated architect in Shenzhen ‘had no idea how to make drawings for steel… we had to prepare all the details and the construction company had no experience of working in steel. But in one year they had learnt everything… they even proposed some special details of their own.’
Design and education
‘Construction and craftsmanship are developing very quickly in China but design is more a question of education,’ says Arata Isozaki when outlining what it is like to work as an architect in China today. The Cultural Revolution denied one generation access to international intellectual life. The succeeding generation ‘graduated in the 1980s tried to learn by themselves and through scholarships, mainly to the United States.’ That led to another problem. ‘When I was interviewed in Shanghai, I was asked why I always criticise large city development in China. My response was that after 1980 half a million students went to the US. They came back after 10 years and then they got positions like vice mayor for construction or director of architecture in various cities and so they have the power to select schemes for the future but they only have three models, Manhattan, Las Vegas and Disneyland. They reject very interesting proposals by architects from China and outside… My conclusion was they need another type of education system’.
Modernisation and culture
Arata Isozaki’s oeuvre includes a number of important cultural institutions in Japan, the US and now in China too, where rapid modernisation challenges orthodox wisdom about building type. Conventionally, he says, ‘we think a museum has to have a permanent collection and if it just has changing exhibitions it is a kunsthalle, but in China they always call it a museum.’ Public museums, he continues, ‘are very traditional, but on the contrary private developers include art museums to differentiate their schemes from others… they do not know what kind of museum they should have, but if it looks like a non-functional object they call it art.’
One client, for the Shanghai Zendai Himalayas Art Centre in Shanghai, obtained a good site from the government provided he included cultural facilities in the development. ‘I was interested to see if it is possible to support the museum with commercial functions like hotels, shopping and offices… normally they would be separate buildings, but I did not want to separate them, as a kind of hybrid where from the outside the functions are made visible through different shapes.’
The principle of using commercial development to fund cultural institutions, he says, has some similarities with the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. But there, he explains, ‘all the functions come together in one big volume which looks the same from the outside. It is one very small museum in a very big development, maybe two per cent of the whole project… in mine [the amount of space devoted to culture] will be 20 per cent. If this goes on it will be another type of model for an art museum today, but everyone knows it is very difficult.’
Past legacies into optomistic futures
One of Arata Isozaki’s cultural projects in Sichuan province raises awkward questions about recent Chinese history and the relationship with Japan. The project started ‘when Yung Ho Chang worked on the masterplan and met a private developer who wanted to build one village. He is a collector of artefacts from the Cultural Revolution… this is a new fashion’, Isozaki continues, drawing from his pocket a credit card holder with a red star on it. ‘Mao statues, ceramic pieces and mirrors with Mao’s words painted on them are the interesting objects.’
The scope of the museum is broader. ‘In the middle is a pavilion devoted to the Communist Army, alongside it one for the Kuomintang and another pavilion for people who suffered under Japanese occupation.’ He is designing ‘one pavilion for the Japanese invasion army and another for Chinese who collaborated with them. It is politically difficult but interesting [as] museums for war and the Holocaust’ are in the West. ‘Many Japanese people are angry,’ he says. ‘They say I am working against Japan… but I am not in favour of the present Japanese prime minister who is creating problems with China… I am quite comfortable working with [the clients] because they are very interesting guys.’
From childhood his views of Chinese culture have often gone against the prevailing grain in Japan. It is in these subtle and multi-layered connections that he sees optimism for the future. Referring to the shared legacy of Chinese characters. Common to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, he argues that ‘we have to go back to some common house, like Europe has.’ The idea of an Olympic Games in 2016 shared between cities around the East China Sea is ‘a seed… this is what I am dreaming for in ten years time’.