In the new exhibit at the Kroiz Gallery in the Architectural Archives, “Critical Abstractions: Modern Architecture in Japan, 1868-2018,” on display through Sept. 24, School of Design architecture lecturer and exhibit curator Ariel Genadt challenges prevailing ideas on the reasons behind the international appeal of modern architecture made in Japan.
“The exhibit takes the entire century and a half [since the Meiji Restoration of 1868] and tries to retell a story,” Genadt says. “Here, I pick what I call ‘critical abstractions’—a term that warrants some explanation—and, instead of looking at ‘What is Japanese about that architecture?’, look at what Japan has in common with modern architecture, worldwide, through the lens of abstraction.”
That is, he examines the nuances of the nation’s architecture by demonstrating examples that will be of great interest to artists, architects, and the public at large.
In considering what abstraction actually means in architecture, Genadt, who teaches the course “Modern Architecture in Japan—Culture, Place, Tectonics,” approached the exhibit with three guiding themes: one, that architecture is not as context-free as abstraction in art can be; two, that architecture is relative and may have meaning based on what is not shown; and three, that architecture is not disconnected from symbolism—that a building may prompt a variety of unpredictable associations.
The result is approximately 80 items, including drawings, models, photographs, videos, and books that portray 50 buildings in Japan—most of which exist in Tokyo. They are organized in a non-chronological fashion, grouped under 10 themes, arranged into sections of the gallery. The exhibit came together through a combination of Genadt’s own material-gathering over the years, and works brought in thanks to funding from the Lauder Institute at the Wharton School, PennDesign, and the Japan Foundation of New York. Those works include photographs by Vincent Feldman, drawings and models by PennDesign students, videos by Hiromoto Oka, rare books and models from Penn’s collections, and digital animations by Harvard Graduate School of Design students.
The overarching story of the exhibit—triggered by a celebration of 150 years of the Meiji Restoration in Japan—begins with a Japan that quickly reconsidered its traditional architecture upon opening its borders to the West in 1853.
That opening meant examining how Western architects interpreted Japan’s buildings.
“Very often, this was the way Japanese started looking at themselves, at their own architecture—through the eyes of foreigners,” says Genadt. “They were rapidly looking for the foreign expert because they considered themselves as being feudal [at this time] and disconnected, very humbly.”
That inward-looking act, he argues, was a kind of Japanese modernism avant la lettre—a narrative bundled as one of the exhibit’s 10 themes: “Styles.”
Emblematic of this particular concept is the inclusion of three photos by Vincent Feldman that portray buildings, and a bridge that could be mistaken as European but exists in Tokyo—created by Japanese architects with little or second-hand knowledge of Europe or the Renaissance. The idea, Genadt says, is that the lack of context for those so-called “styles” made the works seem abstract to the Japanese, because without knowledge of their original context, they were stripped of any meaning they might have in their original place of creation.
The entirety of the exhibit, in fact, is organized according to similarly abstract themes. Many of them are rooted in interdisciplinary concepts from art and literature that, to Genadt’s knowledge, have rarely, if ever, been used jointly to tell the story of Japan’s contribution to modern architecture.
To describe certain buildings from the 1970s and ’80s, for example, Genadt uses the French Surrealist term objets insolites, or “Strange Objects,” recognizing a collection of buildings with bizarre, dream-like qualities. In another instance, “Defamiliarizing,” he uses a Russian literature concept to explore buildings that boast a quality of unusualness with an element of familiarity that harks back to traditional forms.
The larger point of the exhibit, he says, is to encourage learning about other architects’ creative challenges, and ultimately bridging cultures, using abstraction as a tool.
Certainly not specific to Japan, Genadt says it’s always a challenge to appreciate buildings outside of their context, but that can also be an opportunity to focus on certain qualities and let go of certain biases.
“The main thing I’m trying to convey is that what made architecture in Japan so compelling to a lot of people is not the fact that it’s ‘Japanese’; it’s that it’s abstract,” he says. “A lot of people can find themselves in it. They can find something that relates to their own world. I think that’s architecture’s most compelling power.”
The Kroiz Gallery at the Architectural Archives will host an opening reception on Thursday, Aug. 30, from 5 to 7 p.m. From September 20-22, Penn will host an open-to-the-public, international symposium “Philadelphia and Meiji Japan,” exploring the city’s ties with Japan, with a session titled “Meiji Architecture Between Tradition and Abstraction,” chaired by Ariel Genadt with papers by Yatsuka Hajime, Alice Tseng, and Jonathan Reynolds.