Modern Japanese Architecture: Characteristics & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan has an ancient architectural tradition, but is also at the forefront of modern design. In this lesson, we'll explore modern Japanese architecture and see what defines it.

Modern Japanese Architecture

Have you ever heard of the Pritzker Architecture Prize? It's a big deal. Think of it like the Nobel Prize of architecture. Since it's founding in 1979, more architects from the United States have won this award than from any other nation. However, that may not be the case for long. Trailing the United States by a single prize as of 2016, Japan has come to represent one of the most respected architectural centers in the world today. Japanese architects have become a new guard for modern architecture, releasing innovative, functional, and aesthetic designs that are lauded around the world.

Modernity and Tradition

So, what is it that's making Japanese modern architecture so successful? To understand this, we need to understand the relationship between modern architecture and Japan's traditional culture. When the world began embracing international styles of modernist design in the 20th century, Europe and the United States faced a challenge of abstracting architectural features into their simplest versions. Architects of Japan did not necessarily share this challenge. Throughout much of Japanese history, the concepts of simplicity, honesty, and purity have guided architecture. What the rest of the world calls modern, Japan can claim as tradition.

Of course, creating modernist architecture has presented many challenges in Japan. However, the artful combination of modern tastes with respect to their traditions is what has set these architects apart. Japan itself puts more effort into maintaining and reinterpreting its traditions than nearly any other nation. Rather than simply allowing traditions to stagnate in rehearsed repetition, many Japanese artists have reinvented traditions through new art forms like anime. Architecture in Japan, therefore, is only one part of a larger cultural movement to evaluate the meaning of modern Japanese identity.

Simplicity and Honesty

With of that being said, we can look at a few characteristics which are really defining modern Japanese architecture. One is the focus on simple forms and an honest treatment of materials. While these are both tenets of international modern architecture, these ideas have held spiritual and philosophical meaning in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist architecture for centuries.

One of the masters of this is Tadao Ando, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1995. Strongly influenced by the religions and aesthetics of Japan, Ando's work is defined by its elegant simple forms that combine into rational and complex structures. In fact, his style has been said to share the artistic philosophy of another Japanese art form: haiku. In haiku, deep spiritual, philosophical, and personal meanings can be discovered through the simplest of forms. Ando achieves this through the use of smooth, flat concrete and glass. The materials are unadorned and undecorated, representing the simplest and most honest version of a structure.

Structure by Tadao Ando
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Exploration of Culture

This exploration of traditional Japanese culture is something we see widely throughout modern Japanese architecture. However, this can have several outcomes. One great place to see an innovative mixture of old and new is the Tokyo Skytree, a roughly 2,000-foot tall communications tower. As one of the tallest structures in the world, it is a modern and inspirational marvel of engineering. Yet, it's also a testament to Japanese traditions. The unique structure gets its shape from two sources of inspiration: the wooden pillars of Japanese pagodas and the curve of the famous samurai sword. These are the basic shapes that make up the tower.

The Tokyo Skytree
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