The Role of Architecture in Contemporary Society

Jun Aoki, Architect, Jun Aoki and Associates
Kazuyo Sejima, Architect, Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA Ltd.
Richard Gluckman, Architect, Gluckman Mayner Architects


Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia University

Jun Aoki, the architect who recently designed the exterior of the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York, posited, “I think I am an architect, but what differentiates architecture from commercial decoration?” He addressed his question through a series of images of his recent projects.

Mr. Aoki’s Louis Vuitton store replaces the New York Trust Company building completed in 1930, an era when skyscrapers were represented (in the view of one artist) as a bundle of crystals, and when King Kong mistook the Empire State building for his mother country’s mountain in Africa. “King Kong had enough of a sense of beauty to see that the Empire State building was influenced by the shape of mountains in drawings,” Mr. Aoki said whimsically. But, he added, the “dream of architecture as a bundle of crystals” could not be realized without “bringing daylight into the building.” Mr. Aoki said that Louis Vuitton New York brings architecture closer to the ideal by manipulating cloudy and clear textures; specifically, the glassy external wall interacts with an inner wall in a checkerboard pattern to create a sense of ambiguous depth.

Mr. Aoki explained how the Vuitton buildings are connected by a “signature architecture,” global in concept but local in inspiration. The Nagoya and Ginza Matsuya buildings all have a similar layering of walls; the Omotesando, Roppongi Hills and Namiki Street Vuitton projects are different, but also characteristically diffuse the pattern of light. Mr. Aoki’s Omotesando design was inspired by the Dojunkai Aoyama apartments that once stood across the street from the Vuitton building. His ambition for the Roppongi Hills Louis Vuitton was to create “an alien inside an alien” (the latter alien referring to Roppongi Hills itself) and render it delicate and intricate.

When Mr. Aoki is not designing Louis Vuitton stores, his work reveals itself as a controlled, solution-seeking schizophrenia where the mental finds the elemental. His Mamihara Bridge (in Kumamoto prefecture) structurally inserts itself, virus-like, into the streets that host it; its shape like a pair of lips inverts the traditional curve of Japanese arched bridges. A removable roof system for a tomato farm is built up from a disfigured hexagon shape. Mr. Aoki seeks a generative architectural grammar for circular elements as in the spiral-form observation gallery and stairs of his Fukushima Lagoon Museum. A project in the Aomori Museum of Fine Art disallows ceiling and floor to define the boundaries of space: ceiling and floor are the interstices, used as galleries for special exhibits. The inside is not able to be imagined from the outside.

Kazuyo Sejima, who runs SANAA Ltd. with partner Ryue Nishizawa in Tokyo and has a small independent private practice from her home, discussed several current projects. Among them was an extension of the Museum of Modern Art in Valencia, Spain, which was to be enhanced by an entrance to the old town, more storage, additional gallery space and a public venue. Ms. Sejima’s solution is to extend the facilities into the basement, bring the galleries inside, transform the old and new town zones and add a small building for an office and auditorium. For the public space, she sought to exploit Valencia’s good weather by using steel panels to create an external public space that shields visitors from sun and wind and creates a sense of interiority.

Her proposal for the Toledo Museum (Ohio) entailed building a glass pavilion as an extension for the museum’s glass collection and showcasing glassblowers at work from inside a “hot shop.” Ms. Sejima proposed carved glass and opaque walls for the exterior to demarcate the outside, while gently beckoning the visitor inside.

Size was the main constraint in Ms. Sejima’s relocation of New York City’s New Museum from Broadway to the Bowery. Her challenge: to turn an 8,000-square-foot parking lot into a state-of-the-art, multiple-use facility. Plans call for a 60,000-square-foot building (twice the size of the museum’s current facility). “People can enjoy the gallery and the city setting. Some galleries have windows and some do not. Each has its own character,” Ms. Sejima commented.

For a museum and cultural center in Kanazawa (a city in Western Japan known for its rich history), Ms. Sejima chose a round shape to open it up to a famous traditional garden. The site will boast a contemporary museum in the center (a pay zone) as well as free admission public spaces on the perimeter. The design of the site allows for flexible spatial interpretation, both between the pay and free admission zones and between the galleries.

Within her private practice, Ms. Sejima described two homes—one near Omotesando in Tokyo, the other 30 minutes from Tokyo by train—both interpretations on the theme of “smallness.”

Richard Gluckman praised Ms. Sejima’s “use of structure as skin” and her technical precision. Of his own aesthetic he said, “I am interested in ambiguous surfaces and the phenomenal structure of building.” But while metaphysics interests him, the physical is still fundamental: “It’s nothing until it’s visible—it’s not architecture until it’s built.”

One of Mr. Gluckman’s projects began as an animation of the façade of Gianni Versace’s second South Beach building in Miami. The project did not come to fruition after Mr. Versace’s death, but the ideas were picked up by fashion designer Helmut Lang for a site in Aoyama. An extraordinary investment in time was made to adapt the plans to a Tokyo climate and Tokyo zoning laws. Subsequently, the $6.5 million building was cancelled by the sponsor, Italian fashion house Prada, which had two very large buildings going up in Tokyo and New York at the same time.

The site plan for another project was inspired by the famous Ise Shrine, which, every two decades for the past 1,400 years, has been rebuilt on an adjacent plinth. Mr. Gluckman’s pavilion for about a dozen Isamu Noguchi sculptures on an estate in Bridgehampton, NY, is built on a lawn adjacent to a brickwalled garden. Utilizing a glass roof and all wooden joints, the pavilion employs “fairly traditional techniques, coming up with a fairly modern structure.” His Mori Art Center in the $4 billion Mori project in Roppongi Hills also involved glass. Conceived as a “dynamic elliptical shape,” the structure took shape by means of an iterative computer process. Upon its completion, Mr. Gluckman reflected that the structure seemed to echo the form of a traditional Buddhist bell, though this relationship was not apparent to him during the design phase.

Moderator Kenneth Frampton posed five questions with regards to the panelists’ comments on the role of architecture in contemporary society. First, if the domain of architecture is the building but not the surroundings (leading to a “proliferation of freestanding buildings forever”), then what about the possibility of landscape? Second, does architecture play a part in ecological sustainability? Prof. Frampton proposed energy conservation as an area to which architecture might bring solutions. “It’s notable that none of the presenters touched on this,” he observed. Third, how does the architecture of public spaces reflect the contemporary psyche?

According to Prof. Frampton, the master builder’s role is to “design public institutional buildings and form public institutional space,” but the boundary between public and private or commercial space has been blurred, and museums are now the quintessential contemporary honorific space. He noted that most museums presented in the Symposium, especially Sejima’s, created public space for introspection as well as display. Fourth, how does architecture explain itself to society? Prof. Frampton characterized contemporary architecture’s self-representation as “sensuous minimalism,” in which the question of identity or character is avoided and the emphasis is on the skin, “a de-materialized, almost hallucinatory surface.” And finally, what about the sociology of building, itself? According to Prof. Frampton, Japan’s culture of building is characterized, not by “fame and stardom and cocksure capacity to build,” but by teams of anonymous architects working together to produce buildings of “astonishing” sophistication. “I don’t think there’s another society like it!” he exclaimed.

Question & Answer

Museums used to be boxes to display precious objects. Has art gone beyond precious objects?

Mr. Gluckman declared, “The architect will trumpet art with enclosed space.” He also exclaimed over the “incredible evolution” in the idea of a museum—from a palace for cultural treasures, to a warehouse for industrial-sized art.

Ms. Sejima concurred that art museums have gone beyond boxes for precious objects, offering, as an example, her space in Kanazawa, where the walls expand and contract to accommodate gallery and public spaces.

Mr. Aoki stated that a museum is not constituted merely by a building, since a building’s space can be converted to serve other functions. That is, a museum is only a museum when it functions as such—when it houses and displays art or artifacts. But museums do provide an opportunity to create a unique space that is in some way “characteristic” of the city. “Architects have to work according to the specifications of the client, but more fundamentally, they have also to create something that relates to a city’s environment.”

Could you address the sustainability of the past as part of architecture now?

Mr. Gluckman said sustainability of the past is becoming a self-regulatory issue. He noted that it is of special concern to Japan: “If it’s going to be solved, it will be solved there.”

“I feel that in Tokyo, if we can build a good environment, it is ecological,” said Mr. Aoki.

Ms. Sejima added that she hoped there were many ways to be ecological: “How can the understanding of the environment be boiled down to one idea?”

Is the interiority or exteriority of the conception of landscape an East-West issue?

For Mr. Maki, the shape came from the interior; for Mr. Gluckman, it came from the outside; and for Ms. Sejima, it was shaped from small elements.

Mr. Aoki commented on the difficulty of doing landscape within the density of surrounding structures. “You cannot expect to change the surroundings.”

Ms. Sejima observed that there’s not such a big difference between building in the center of Tokyo and building in the center of Manhattan; both cities present major challenges in integrating new buildings into a highly dense urban space. Especially given that the scale of urban architecture is so large, it’s imperative that new structures have proportional relationships with their neighbors. It’s not important, however, that a new building share stylistic elements with the existing landscape.

Presented as part of the symposium, "Technology & Tradition in Contemporary Japanese Architecture" on February 26, 2004.
Topics:  Design

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