Kunio Mayekawa

My interest for Kunio Mayekawa was awakened quite unexpectedly during a field trip in Japan in 1994. With a Europalia Nippon Kinen scholarship I went to Japan that summer to document on surviving Japanese modernist buildings. The names of Kenzo Tange, Junzo Sakakura, Yoshizaka Takamasa and others were familiar to me, but for some reason I had not yet heard ofKunio Mayekawa. This intensive field survey brought me to many peculiar and often forgotten architectural jewels all over the country. Continuously I was struck by the beauty of buildings that I had encountered by coincidence. More specifically, it was the spatial effect of buildings like Okayama Prefectural Office, the Kyoto Kaikan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival that aroused my curiosity. Upon inquiry each time the name of Kunio Mayekawa popped up. On the same trip, in a small bookstore in Tokyo, I discovered a five-year-old edition, two heavy- weight books, on Mayekawa’s work. Considering the weight I had second thoughts, but I couldn’t resist. Ever without regret! These books showed me a powerful array of work, which I promptly went to discover. After visiting many projects my conclusions were drawn: this oeuvre felt so Japanese to me. One day, however, I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival hall accompanied by a Japanese architect. When I explained to him how Japanese this building was, he replied to my utter surprise how western it was to him! From that moment on, I was fascinated by the mechanism of melting western modernist notions with Japanese spatial qualities.

The name Mayekawa was not at all unfamiliar in Japan, but unknown to the West. He apparently had been an architectural hero before the Second World War. Kenzo Tange, however, had taken over the lead position after the war and gained international fame, while his predecessor Mayekawa continued his architectural search in silence. Yet, when studying his designing strategies made clear that Mayekawa has brought important insights to the understand- ing of the serenity of Japanese traditional architecture, and that Mayekawa had been paving the path for Japanese modernism since the thirties.

Japan had been struggling with its identity since early twentieth century, trying to find an architectural expression matching a modernized Japan. After 250 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan was forced out of its feudal regime and was urged to westernize completely without respecting its own traditions in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Immediately after the first World War a feeling of uneasiness towards the transplanted western culture rose among Japanese architects. Japan’s own identity and traditions seemed to per- ish.

How to return to one’s own tradition without returning to feudalism? How can one create an identity worthy of the traditional values, but representing a new world power? After many attempts to define a proper style based upon Asian or European models, modernist architects recognised that their own architectural tradition could be brought into dialogue with modernism and the modern style, because of several common characteristics. The process of this transformation is expressed in the architectural oeuvre of Kunio Mayekawa.

Working as one of the first in the office of Le Corbusier in Paris from 1928 to 1930, Mayekawa brought the modernist experience firsthand back to Japan. Consecutively working in Raymond’s office, a Czech architect who focused on the relationship between modernism and traditional architecture, Mayekawa was introduced to his own Japanese cultural past. A fusion of these two expe- riences will lead Mayekawa to develop his own architectural identity, Japanese modernism.

Mayekawa was convinced of the fact that the creation of a new modern nation was essential to put Japan into the twentieth century. On one hand using the models of Le Corbusier as a possible carrier to find an architectural answer for a country in need for an identity, Mayekawa on the other hand equally tried to look for the essence of Japan-ness in questioning the Japanese architectural tradition. Although moderns was essential to create an architectural identity of the new Japan, this could not be realized without the quest to know and understand the intrinsic spatial Japanese qualities.

Through competition design, through research by sketches Mayekawa tried to catch the essence of his cultural heritage.

Finally Mayekawa develops a designing method, able to abstract all influences creating both traditional and contemporary readings of the same component. His buildings attain a harmonious, peaceful spatial richness and accomplish an unusually sense of proportion. His projects are transcending both the mod- ernist name-tag as the traditional label, bringing about a kind of surpassing quality that might be useful for understanding the absorption, digestion and assimilation of foreign models leading to unique new models belonging to and fortifying the proper culture.

Hera Van Sande

Doctor in Enigineering of Architecture

Vrije Universiteit Brussel

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