Spatial Quest

Mayekawa stated “The only thing in Japanese architectural traditions, which will be useful, may be the sense of space.”1 How should we read Mayekawa’s sensitivity towards Japanese space? What kind of affinities did he have? What does he mean with ‘the sense of space’?

When working in Le Corbusier’s atelier, Mayekawa entered various design competitions independently. He submitted a design for the Nagoya City Hall in 1929 and one for a public office building in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1929, with two of his Paris colleagues, Ernest Weissmann and Norman Rice. Submerged in Le Corbusier’s ideas these projects closely resembled the latter’s work. Here we could speak rather of ‘adopting’ than ‘adapting’ the French modernist’s ideas. This, however, was in the first phase of starting his career as an architect. From that moment on the adaptation of the models started. Mayekawa felt resonance in Le Corbusier’s conviction to see the plan as the generator of the design. In the book Vers une architecture2 by Le Corbusier are the following quotes:

Mayekawa looked at the essence of architecture not as a mass or solid, but as a space, invariably starting his work from explorations in plan and section. He would not permit elevations to be drawn without plans and sections, nor with- out the substantiation of sectional working drawings.5 He stated that the plan was no good if the space could not be somewhat visualized by simply looking at it.6

Throughout his career, Mayekawa transformed several of Le Corbusier’s prin- ciples into his designs. As a researcher, I discerned five types of models: the basic generative unit of dom-ino, the Five principles of a New Architecture, the microcosm of Unité d’Habitation, the sculptural qualities of Ronchamps, and the urban encompassing scale of Chandigar.

Parallell to this evolution Mayekawa explored through the vehicle of competi- tion designs how to express Japaneseness. He started off with a true Corbusian design for the Imperial Household Museum competition in 1931 where he stated that modernism was the logical successor to traditional Japanese archi- tecture, evolving towards the free spatial modernist plan in a traditional yet not historicizing volume of the Thailand Cultural Center Competition in 1943.

His search for truth in design, whether descending from his background, or evoked by his five year stay in the Raymond office, or by his own uneasiness with the blunt transplantation of modernist ideas, or by the realization that traditional architecture and modernism breathed the same spirit, slowly redi- rected his approach of spatial planning.

The infiltration or the awakening of the Japanese concept of space will lead to a proper style, a planning method integrating the spatial overlapping of layers or units, whether interlinking interior units or interior with exterior, enabling the free-flowing space inter-linkage. His new planning method achieved a fluid interconnection of spaces through syncopated overlapping layers. Mayekawa employed the image of the multiplication of spatial units generated from struc- tures geared to a human scale.

This planning concept had its first impact in the design for the Kanagawa Prefectural Library and Music Hall of 1954. Maekawa generated parti diagrams of a syncopated layout for the two buildings. This developed into a spacious entrance for the concert hall and a courtyard-like serene garden for the library in one fluid spatial harmony. The two adjacent spaces - one, a foyer and the other, a reading room - seemingly hold a mutual flow of dialogue. This method is also applied to the Kyoto Kaikan (1960) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall (1961).

The same technique was applied for the interior space, which had become more skilfully subtle. The spaces Mayekawa produced in this way generated a pro- found sense of beauty and calmness.

In the Toronto competition (1958) the interlocking concept was applied to the overlapping spatial units, as in the ganko configuration of the late Edo type of buildings. In his designs Mayekawa tried to achieve a more complicated interference of the units inducing a fluctuating spatial configuration. This technique was elaborated more in depth as Mayekawa’s thinking about mod- ernist architecture evolved.

From the 1960s on Mayekawa gradually lost his faith in the ideals of modern architecture as he became aware that modern architecture was losing its sense of humanity. He was disappointed in the progress of society and tried – in his oeuvre – to challenge with aspiration the rebirth of such humanity and respon- sibility in the discipline of architecture. The first convincing project in his new search was the Saitama Kaikan in 1966, later to be followed by the Saitama Prefectural Museum in 1971, and the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art in 1977.

Mayekawa developed his so-called hitofude-gaki or one-stroke drawing: a design drawn with a single stroke of a brush, gently interconnecting interior and exterior space with a consistent flow, grasping the essence of space. Mayekawa used the words: “(....) the significance of the fluidity of the plan” 7 to refer to his designing method.

“Without the use of a simple rigid frame structure, but by connecting a suit- able scale ofchain-like spatial units in syncopated overlapping layers, Mayekawa sought to establish a basic plan-based technique with which he could ultimately complete a design that can be represented in a single one-stroke drawing.”8

This method engendered its own landscape, merging the architecture harmo- niously with its environment. This simultaneous interaction of interior and exterior led to an adherence to the horizontal, interlocking interior with nature. Especially the two latter above-mentioned works show the Japanese aesthetic sensibility of Kunio Mayekawa. The spatial composition of these two works is demonstrative of the Japanese character. This is also quite apparent in the manner by which these buildings are approached. With twists and turns, the route purposefully takes the visitor on a promenade path, or in other words, rather than focusing just on the goal, Mayekawa’s concept and method was to place the weight of value on the experience of the passage itself. With this deed he referred to the deeply rooted tradition that favours the meandering and spiralling or circular paths, and the particular spaces of interest found enroute. This also reminds of the key concept of le promenade architectural by Le Corbusier.

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