When someone mentions their fascination with Japanese architecture, I am reminded of my late father, who was obsessed with it. Who hasn’t gone to Japan and not completely changed their view of design? “No one,” he always said.
For my father, an architect, it was a weekend’s visit to a longtime friend in Tokyo back in 1969 that found him heading to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium before flying home. He told me he saw photos of its impressive, spiral roof structure in the newspapers and read about its iconic architect, Kenzo Tange, in the dog-eared design magazines in his office. And so, Dad decided he wasn’t leaving Japan before seeing it.
Of this trip, I only have a yellowing photograph of Dad standing under the gymnasium’s magnificent, sweeping roof. “Yoyogi,” he scrawled proudly in pencil behind the photo. So, I was very much delighted that my friend Liza let me sit in virtually at Kenzo Tange’s son, Paul Noritaka Tange’s forum “Japanese Architecture: The Synergy of Culture and Design” for Federal Land last month.
The younger Tange, who cuts a dapper figure in a well-cut suit and gray cravat (“Sorry, I have no tie on today,” he apologizes; yet I believe behind the screen he was the best-dressed amongst us), immediately went on to emphasize that their architecture, in spite of its modernism, emerges from Japanese culture: spaces defined by a magnificent roof, reminiscent of the graceful curved rooflines of traditional Japanese temples and shrines.
His father Kenzo Tange’s groundbreaking projects were definitely modernist, incredibly moving (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and oftentimes surprising (best example: the ultra-futuristic Fuji Broadcasting Center), but his architecture focuses on the people first.
At the talk, there was also the discussion of continuity; most notably the fact that both father and son designed a building for the Tokyo Olympics—the Yoyogi National Gymnasium by Kenzo in 1964, and the Tokyo Aquatics Center for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by Paul, now chairman of Tange Associates. It is also quite touching to note that Paul visited his father’s resting place after working on the project (the elder Tange passed away in 2005 at the age of 91).
The Aquatics Center, with its inward-sloping façade (the screen alludes to bamboo forests), is definitely more stolid-looking that Yoyogi, but it has a practical aspect to it. Inside, the ceiling is a mirror reflection of the pool’s swimming lanes; an element that the younger Tange decided to apply when finding out from Olympic swimmers that they had to focus on heading towards the finish line; thus, any extraneous ceiling shape (like a dome) would distract them when they looked up. “It was important to have a straight line,” Tange said.
During the rest of the forum, Tange discussed the concept of the Grand Midori Ortigas, a residential high-rise development they designed for Federal Land (yes, there will be a Tange building in Metro Manila soon!). The main inspiration for the project was the Japanese basket weave, with its interlocking weft and woven lines creating a serene pattern on the residential development’s façade. In further discussions, architect Annette Gaddi mentioned that solihiya (Philippine woven split cane) patterns would be used in the interiors to complement the building’s weave concept.
But Paul encourages designers to look beyond the façade, “We are designing a space for the people,” Tange enthuses. There is a sensitivity here to make a better place of living for the people. “We have to respect our own culture, as well as that of others. And the building has to contribute to the cityscape.”
This open forum eventually led to a discussion on designing for the New Normal; to which Tange threw his hands up in the air. “Do we need offices? Do we need hotels? We don’t know what to design anymore! But what we need to do is think outside the box.”
There was also the inevitable question about the lessons learned from his father; as we could imagine there were many. “Listen to the needs of the client,” Paul said simply. “Listen to the needs of the people.”
This last lesson should apply to everything in life, not only to architecture, I believe.
To read more about the Grand Midori Ortigas, click here. Main image from the Tange Associates presentation.