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The House is Art: Kazuyo Sejima on her fascination with “Shinohara’s way”

House in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture (1984) by Kazuo Shinohara, from the exhibition

House in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture (1984) by Kazuo Shinohara, from the exhibition "Kazuo Shinohara: ModernNext." Photo: Ōhashi Tomio

The diffuse spread of artistic thought and technique that we call “influence” impacts architecture in ways that are often difficult to discern. In his essential study, Influence in Art and Literature, Göran Hermerén explains that the notion of influence is broad and complicated: “Every work of art,” he writes, “is surrounded by what might be called its artistic field.” This includes not only the ideas of other artists, but traditions, contemporary philosophy and politics, the desires of sellers and buyers, the voices of critics, and so on. In architecture these expand to include legal restrictions, topography, context, and the practicalities of budgets.

All of these forces shape the work of designers, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, so that every work must be understood as, in some way, a product of its artistic field. Usually, though, the question of influence gravitates toward progenitors—“Which designer impacted your work, and in what ways?” Even simplified like this, the question presents a challenge because when designers are at their most susceptible to influence—as students or early in their careers—they are often least able to clearly discern the origins and directions of forces that are affecting their work.

This point came out forcefully in “Reflecting on Shinohara,” a conversation earlier this month between the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kazuyo Sejima and Harvard architectural historian Seng Kuan. When describing Kazuo Shinohara’s impact on her work, Sejima paused in her recollections, noting with some amusement that young people sometimes don’t clearly realize their influences. While it was evident later that Shinohara had affected her thinking as an architect (which he pointed out to her in a conversation around 1990), how he did so wasn’t apparent at first.

Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kazuyo Sejima. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Sejima remembered feeling “really shocked” on seeing Shinohara’s houses published in magazines while she was a young home economics student. She was particularly taken with his aphorism “the house is art,” a notion that was so different from what she and her classmates at Japan Women’s University were learning in the late 1970s. Their impulse, Sejima said, was toward the practical. “Circulation should be short,” “the dining room should be next to the kitchen,” and it was important to accommodate the simple lifestyle still prevalent in Japan since after the war.

Shinohara’s houses, however esoteric they might have seemed, appealed to these students because they were somehow realistic. Having been built in the postwar era, they appeared to respond to the scarcity of materials by making it “important to use thin, small members,” she explained, while still avoiding an impression of poverty. So, even as Sejima and her peers admired the monumental space frames of Kenzo Tange’s Osaka Exposition Hall, or the sweeping roofs of his Olympic venues, they were, she said, “fascinated with Shinohara’s way.” His simple, “and very difficult to understand” line drawings, accompanied in magazines by Koji Taki’s bold black-and-white photographs, offered a “very strong expression to us,” she explained.

These were youthful, and perhaps unsophisticated first impressions of Shinohara, whose influence on Japanese architecture in the late 20th century was immense, and whose work expressed subtle, challenging ideas about architecture in Japanese culture. He famously described the progression of his career in four distinct stages, each associated with an intense theoretical preoccupation.

House under High Voltage Lines, Setagaya Ward, Tokyo (1981) by Kazuo Shinohara, from the exhibition “Kazuo Shinohara: ModernNext.” Photo: Ōhashi Tomio

In the first stage, he sought to condense what he called “a hot meaning cultivated in the long process of history.” His domestic spaces in this first phase expressed the “underlying abstract structure” of traditional Japanese building elements and their composition. In the second phase he shifted attention to the cube, a less semantically rich architectural figure, in an effort to create, he explained, “an anti-space” or “a cold space” that could express “an inorganic, neutral, or dry meaning.” In his third period—which coincided with Sejima’s time as an undergraduate—he experimented with assemblages of raw, functional objects without “any predetermined or prescribed intents.” Using posts, walls, and braces he sought to produce a “zero-degree machine” that could express the “chaos which generates the liveliness… of the contemporary metropolis.” His fourth phase, the subject of the “Shinohara Kazuo: ModernNext” exhibition on display in the Druker Design Gallery in the Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall, elaborates on the idea of urban chaos, the near infinite complexity of modern machines, and the meaninglessness of their individual parts. This phase, which Kuan described in his opening remarks as a “counterpoint to postmodernism,” addressed not only the contemporary conditions of Japan, but also its position in a globalizing world.

House in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture (1984) by Kazuo Shinohara, from the exhibition “Kazuo Shinohara: ModernNext.” Photo: Ōhashi Tomio

While Shinohara expressed this thinking in 42 buildings, mostly houses, over the course of a long career, he also communicated his ideas to students at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he served as professor of architecture from 1970 to 1985. In this context his influence was very direct. He gathered a group of students and collaborators—particularly Kazunari Sakamoto, Itsuko Hasegawa, and Toyo Ito—into what came to be known as the Shinohara School. The influence of these prominent architects rippled outward, as Kuan explained in conversation with Sejima, to “a very prominent group of young architects in the next generation.”

Although we can trace an architectural lineage (with offshoots and clusters) among these architects, it is perhaps more useful to envision a changing artistic field that surrounds the production of architecture in Japan. Shinohara was a prominent force within this field. So his investigations into the attenuation of tradition, the nonexistence of space, the rawness of architectural elements, the chaos of the metropolis, and the expressive power of the machine did not end in his buildings or even at the close of each phase in his career. Instead they continue to find new channels of expression in the hands of his students and devotees—and among architects who might have first encountered his work while flipping through pages of an architecture magazine, attending a lecture, or examining models and drawings in an exhibition of his work. “ModernNext” and the events surrounding it will no doubt contribute to amplifying the artistic field that surrounds Shinohara’s work.

“Reflecting on Shinohara” was organized in conjunction with the exhibition “Shinohara Kazuo: ModernNext,” on view through October 11, 2019 at Harvard Graduate School of Design's Druker Design Gallery.