Arata Isozaki – Winner Global Art Affairs Prize 2012

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The architecture of Arata Isozaki (1931, Oita City, Japan) is influenced by the Metabolism school. His building structures show a mannerism, borrowing from a spectrum of architectural influences. Isozaki’s architecture mainly stresses collaboration and cooperation.

Sarah Gold (SG): In an interview many years ago, you have stated that in Japan you are probably not seen as a typical architect but as an ‘art oriented type of architect’. Looking at your oeuvre it seems you have been always an artist and architect in one; collaborating with other artists and creating not only architecture but also artworks (in the classical sense). How would you describe yourself?

Arata Isozaki (AI): I personally define myself as an “Artist-Architect”. As an Architect, I was close to the Metabolism Group movement. As an Artist, I was associated with various writers and art critics of the art industry in such movements as Neo-Dadaism, which evolved into concepts such as “color” and “environment”, and eventually came into fruition in the form of Omatsuri Hiroba (Festival Square) at the World Expo in 1970. Since I was conceptualizing architecture and cities in the context of art, it only made sense to complement architecture with art.

In Incubation Process (Fuka katei) (1962) I stated that “the future city is a ruin.” I juxtaposed a series of images of future cities called Joint Core System with the ruins of ancient Greek cities. The inspiration to depict a city as an image of unintentional discontinuation came from art works such as Jackson Pollock’s action painting and John Cage’s Chance Operation. A problem I was tackling at the time was uncertainty and undecidability.
“Process Planning” theory (1963) is a text that I added to the first blueprint of the former Oita Prefectural Library (now Oita Arts Plaza). It is about solidifying an image of a building that stretches and shrinks like a carbon-based life form. In other words, it was an attempt to find a solution to resolving undecidability, in a situation where a decision must be made despite the lack of a goal (Telos). After surveying the worldwide eruption of radicalism in the late 60s in Dismantling Architecture, I further realized the importance of eradicating a goal (Telos) when I later was working on the Mirage City project (1994).

Valeria Romagnini (VR): With the urban planning for the Central Business District sub-center for the Zhengdong New District, China, you made a design in order to create a city which works as a closed urban space, independent from its surroundings, and then you compared it to Venice. Can you explain how it is possible to conceive a city which can be independent from its surrounding? What do you mean by the concept of the autonomy of the city?

AI: During the second half of the 60s, I was predominantly engaged with concepts of “color” within architecture, namely the effects of timeless light, whereas in. In the 70s, I took a metaphysical position towards everything I approached, just like Atsushi Miyagawa who critiqued critiques, for example, the Projective Transformation of √2 is one method to this approach. This is a method that I have incorporated over the years, where the artist himself, is not allowed to actually touch anything. The problem is designed in a way to enable the form itself to self-develop, without an artist having to actually do anything. In that sense, it relies on participation from the audience, or in this case, the local residents.

Instead of a top-down structure, the form is developed through an indefinable network. This is a method that has been attempted by many people since, but at the time in the 70s, I was attempting to give a solid formula to the indefinability of a self-creating art form. One places a piece of technology with an inherit system embedded, and without involving an artist, you leave the site. Eventually, a form is generated automatically over time. I experimented with this concept at the Omatsuri Hiroba (Festival Plaza) during the Japan World Exposition in 1970.
The question of whether design is expression or control rose during this time period. “Control” could nowadays possibly be defined as “governing”.

In the case of a city, how would one govern a city? This issue is closely related to events such as: the campaign against the Japan-US security treaty in the 60s, naked Neo-Dada dancing, various “happenings” on the streets, Hi-Red Center, the “Thousand-Yen Bill Incident”, red and black tents in Shinjuku, and the occupation of Yasuda Auditorium at Tokyo University. All of these incidents happened in the 60s, especially during the first 2-3 years of that decade. The relationship between architecture and control is especially salient in the “anti-war folk guerrilla incident” that occurred at Shinjuku West-Exit Square in 1969. The gathering of the “Folk Guerilla” collided with riot police, in which the legality of the occupation was overruled by application of Road Traffic Law that interpreted the gathering as an illegal occupation. This incident is also well known as it leads to the renaming of West-Exit Square to West-Exit Passageway overnight.

It is undeniable that Expo ’70 was the starting point of crowd control developed in Japan. Up until then, I had had experience in city design, but the 300-hectare area involved absolutely all aspects of design. The infrastructure included multiple mechanical contraptions that were potentially dangerous, ranging from the multipurpose underground utility conduits to moving walkways. The magnitude was nothing short of planning an entire city. At the same time, I was constantly thinking about how to break the various boundaries that occur when a city is planned. In that sense, I commend Dada Kan who ran through the Expo naked. What balls he had, literally. The security (i.e.: boundaries) was extremely high. That makes his actions admirable. There was also someone who managed to climb up the Tower of the Sun (Taiyo no Tou). Most people would criticize the design of the tower for enabling this. Regardless, it is incredible that this person slipped through the barriers and climbed the tower. It is about breaking the law. That is in itself, a performance.

VR: We could say that the city is a living organism and as you mentioned a city is a process of change. Many big decisions have been taken and many different influences through architecture have contributed to build the world as we know it. Living in Venice, I am every day confronted with the history of buildings, houses that were built over 500 years ago. What does Time mean for you in relation to the space you create?

AI: The finalized notion of space in Spaces Within Dark (Yamino Kuukan), in Japan for example, begins first with an existence of bright spaces. Then the spaces are forcefully connected together, and eventually become dark. In architectural space, the contrast does not simply consist of light and dark, but all is encompassed and eventually disappears as if it were mist. It gradates into an ultimate form of darkness. The words Signifier (French: Signifiant) and Signified (French: Signifié) defined by Saussure, which were not used at the time, dictate the issue of “what signifies” and “what is signified”, in which the Signifier separates itself, and the Signified becomes “darkness”. The Signifier dissipates into “nothingness”. The parallel is “Darkness” and “Nothingness”. In the middle exists the “real” world. In other words, it is not a conflict between “nothingness” and the “real”. “Nothingness” is “Virtuality”, and “Real” is “Reality”. Subsequently, “Darkness” is interpreted as so-called “actuality”.

Basically, this implies that space is not a tangible form existing in front of us, but rather something that occurs to us when we enter a space and notice its existence. In that sense, I question as to whether we have misinterpreted a very basic principle in this modern era by attempting to define time and space by giving it form and weight. This is something that I have contemplated over the years. During the 20th century, this notion has gradually become refined—referred to as hermeneutics or anthropology—and eventually was philosophically understood as representation and meaning (such as is Signifier and Signified). However, at the time, this differentiation did not exist. Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (In’ei Raisan) are familiar literary references that embody this form of experiencing space.
Backtracking in time, I personally hope that my text Coordinates, Twilight and Hallucinations (Zahyo hakumei to genkaku) (1965) would be revisited and reevaluated. In 1963 I visited New York City.

I wrote about the difference I perceived in the space compared to any other city I had visited before. Despite the lack of color, the city itself dissipates into the light via the glass—a space that dissipates in its entirety like mist. In that sense, Coordinates, Twilight and Hallucinations ties itself to The Castle and In Praise of Shadows.

Karlyn De Jongh (KDJ): The Greek philosopher Protagoras once said: “Man is the measure of all things.” In your architecture, you deal with people from all over the world, who are physically but also culturally very different. In a global world, can you still take ‘man’ as the measure?

AI: When a new city space grows into a metropolitan space, especially the type of spatiotemporal city development that is seen on the coastal regions in North America, it is not possible to grasp what is happening with the modern day notions in which time maintains its continuation on a straight axis. Space spreads homogeneously and light spreads properly. Within the city space, various symbols scatter without weight or size. By recognizing this fact, a person is able to move around in a city. It is simple semiology, which is a question about the signs seen in current cities, or a question of cognition. This kind of change has made obsolete the existing notions of “Time” and “Space” that began with Bauhaus, which had been referred to in modern architecture and modern design. These two words can no longer be used. Furthermore, one cannot go in the direction of weight or gravity. Despite that fact, a structure emerges equipped with its own system. This has emerged as the role of the Architect and Artist, in which a question is presented as to how a city can be built without the previously prevalent notion of time and space, which is as if a city itself is such a hypothesis.

That being said, zapping through the remote control of a television is like looking at a building. Say we have a preconceived image of a piece of architecture, but what we see changes drastically when we move where we stand. It is as if it is a continuous switch of perception, and continuation of image does not exist. It is a form of “monad” where all become particles and time is instantly irrelevant. In order to explain this image, I discovered that comparing it to “zapping the remote control of a television” is relatively easier to use as a metaphor.

KDJ: Already in 1962 you spoke about decay. Lee Ufan told me: “Man is always trying to ensure that human-made things exist, or ‘live on’ forever. But, nature always works to break them down and return them to their original elements. Thus we could say nature and humans are fighting.” This “disappearing of things” seems to be connected to the understanding of ‘infinity’ in Japan. In your work, you probably deal with nature all the time. How do you see this relation between man-made objects and nature? Do you strive for infinity? If so, how do you understand infinity?

AI: My impression of the year 1968, is that of being involved in social disturbance—being pushed around by waves not knowing what we were drifting towards. However in the 70s, I had the impression that color was being lost, or decolorized all of a sudden. At that moment, everything fantastical disappeared once again. In the 60s, anything technical or high tech was still considered partially fantastical. At that time there was the psychedelic and drug culture, and a movement to connect everything toward illusions. That suddenly all disappeared in the 70s. Drug culture was reduced to merely one dropping out of society or a movement of returning to nature. Hippies became nothing more than the way they dressed.

Architecture was no exception, and all expression became bleak. Even fine arts became predominantly overridden by minimalism and conceptualism. Briefly during the early 70s in Japan, the Mono ha emerged. Various works and artists such as Arte Povera in Italy, “Support/Surface” in France, Joseph Beuys in Germany, and Richard Serra in the US, all had roots in the rejection of illusionism, and embraced ideas which were supported by various notions such as the laws of nature, and the presence of matter or space correspondence. They shared common ground regarding the rejection of illusionism.

Personally, I believe that the Mono ha movement, to an extent, was driven by a rebound effect. Saying “no more” to art forms that utilized technology. For example, calling for people to “plough soil”—that was the result, which would be fine if it were merely a primitive form of expression. But I believe it is more of a rebound effect.

In 1985, I was involved in designing The Palladium. This was an old opera house built in 1926 that was being converted into a disco. At the time I mainly designed cultural facilities such as art galleries and libraries, so people wondered why I decided to work on something that was so commercial. I didn’t particularly understand why myself, but I gave it a thought and this was the conclusion:

When I was contacted about working on this project, the first thing that caught my interest was when they explained to me that this was not like a typical disco club or cabaret club you would find in Japan, but that the objective was to create a disco that enables the audience to have an altered-space experience. Instead of an altered-space experience induced by the effects of marijuana or cocaine, the theme was more literal. With lights flashing simultaneously with the music, the challenge was to test the extent to which the image of the vintage space could be altered with technology and modern media. Architecture is inherently limited to creating a static contour. However, the essence lies in the various contraptions that are installed within that contour. When it is time for the contraptions to be installed, light and sound designers work together with the sole focus of figuring out how to most effectively shower the human five senses with a combination of images, lights and sounds.

However, when I began thinking about experiences in such settings, I encountered some problems. It was already clear that nature was disappearing from cities. The same could be said about mountains, rivers and forests. Furthermore, religious facilities traditionally served as a sanctuary to the people. For example, it had always been tradition to go to a church to be in touch with God, but that custom was being lost.

Because of such shifts, it has become more and more difficult to encounter another person or a thing, or even ideally something divine, when living the every day city life. I am very certain about this fact. That was when I thought I may be able to create a space that provides a simulated experience of that something divine, regardless to how artificial or fake that actually may be. That, I thought, was what a disco could be.

VR: Visiting you in Tokyo last January, impressed me very much. I am now 26 and I’m trying to understand as much as possible about concepts like Time Space and Existence. Once you were 26 and must have been discovering the same topics. You are now 82, what should I learn about Existence?

AI: After the burst of the economic bubble in Japan in 1990, I noticed that Post-Modernism as a topic was mentioned less and less. Today, you seldom hear about it. The same thing happened 25 years ago. Modernism was under full-scale attack, and after the cultural revolution in 1968, it was never mentioned by anyone. The fact that the generation who studied architecture during the oddly quite years of the early 70s produced a large number of architectural historians, may be further proof of the rebound effect that affected that time period.

To place these events in the context of different eras, one can refer to two events that happened in Japan in 1995: The Great Hanshin Earthquake and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. This was exactly 50 years after the end of the Second World War. In place of Post-Modernism, Information Technology and Globalization were the hot topics. These were followed by the Superflat movement. Post-Modernism did not only reverse time, but shuffled it in its entirety, and saved it all in a database by utilizing information technology. In short, time was broken into pieces, saved in a non-chronological manner, and readily available to be summoned at will. During this era, space also became subject to shuffling. The world which consisted of boundaries, where the waning of racially homogeneous nations, disappearance of national borders, extending boundaries, and complex systems were separate entities co-existing in a space with its own order, was converted into code and saved on a database. In other words, the time and space that the year 1995 consisted of has been separated from the system that it belonged to, shuffled, and converted into an intangible form of digital code.

Therefore, a large shift in the entity seems to occur every 25 years. Would one call this a law, or simply repetition? In reality, it is simply an unexpected change. The truth is, the ages that we live in are subject to shifting. It is a phase shifting out of place, and by transitioning smoothly into a new phase it results in a sort of a catastrophe. In that sense, I believe that the current era is very likely to shift once again. The manner in which this shift occurs is not logical, and happens without you noticing it. The only time you realize it has happened is when you start to notice that people around you are talking about different things.


Article by by Karlyn De Jongh, Sarah Gold & Valeria Romagnini.