Review

On DISPOSABLE CITIES: thinking beyond VOLUME STUDIES 1-10, 11-20

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In this review, Yushi Uehara describes the Volume Studies project by LOG/OUT magazine, reflecting upon what Volume means for the Japanese architectural scene and more in general trying to map the influence of the ‘superdutch’ experience in Japanese architecture at large.

 

VOLUME STUDIES are theoretical publications that introduce the magazine VOLUME to Japanese readers. They are sold at 53 bookshops throughout Japan and online on the LOGOUT PROJECT website. LOG/OUT translates VOLUMEs into Japanese theory, each one presented in eight A5 pages or its equivalent: some come in the form of an A5 booklet, some in that of a poster or even of a leporello. So for each issue a specific form of representation is created in dialogue with the original, and each one contains one or more articles translated in full and summaries of the content. Currently, two packages of ten issues each (VOLUME 1-10 and 11-20) are available coded 1.0 and 1.1. The packages are boxed in a clear plastic shell through which the seductive contentis visible; putting up eye candy of an architectural theoretical exercise.

Let’s ask why now is the moment to publish VOLUME in Japan. The rise of Rem Koolhaas/OMA, and later MVRDV, made Oranda (Japan still calls the Netherlands ‘Holland’) Architecture visible and known in Japan. Significantly, waves of new trends in design followed suit with Droog Design. The Berlage Institute made academic institutions aware that the Dutch had set up their network for its design trends; it has got deeper bullpens. With these new waves, Oranda Architecture quickly ranked above Structuralism in terms of interest. I have to mention that this impression brought along some mystery on the theoretical frame of such practices. They seemed to make fun of ‘classy’ architecture. Part of the seduction was their ‘cheap esthetics’ that must have derived from an alternative theoretical position. At least, that’s how it was appreciated in Japan. In the early 1980s, Koji Taki, the late Japanese leading thinker, was curious whether it was worth scrutinizing theoretical frameworks of OMA as uprising theoretical paradigm, especially as the 1920s ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ went beyond expressionism by prioritizing practice above romance. In Japan, OMA and MVRDV both have slashed the complex contemporary architecture scene and visualized sobriety by pressing a partly journalistic, partly socio-economical and mostly artistic logic to architecture in the world, as is apparent from the numbers. Curiously, in Japan this was done in a somewhat Epicurean fashion: with a modest taste. Perhaps this is because until 1990 Japan was in the midst of that famous Bubble economy in which money was burnt in the construction of buildings. During the Bubble, architecture discovered a new nature in the metropolis as the new majority of the population, the urban one, spent money differently than the conservative rich or nouveau-riche did. Wide-spread higher education made the new Tokyo the home for ‘urbanoids’ – young and aspiring university students and recent graduates. Urbanoids loved theory as theory empowered their authority (note that the urbanoids are still changing Tokyo). At the time, theory makers such as professor Riichi Miyake, who started to expand the world of new trends of theories to these young Japanese audiences, focused on bringing up sensational trends in architectural theories to accelerate the making of the urbanoids’ pattern of behavior. Still dormant as urban actors, urbanoids were readily representing a newly upcoming comfort market of a cheap but sensual pleasure: bare, instant and global. Thus Oranda architecture made itself firmly assertive to finish off the nouveau-riche attitude and even that of the conservative rich, who repeated their almost religious cliché of the modern masters such as Mies or Corb. Fast-forwarding, Japan was very curious to find out who the Oranda-Jin (obviously the Dutch!) were, as the two countries were just about discovering each other’s value in the late 90s. Since then, the Swiss have arrived in Japan, but they came with a more familiar theoretical frame of tradition & innovation. The theoretical differences are that the Oranda who made an impact in Japan never promoted themselves as domestic Dutch, but rather as globetrotters. In the recent past, Japanese intellectual disciplines around architecture remained faithful to this Dutch paradigm that saw architecture rooted in the science of the world rather than in a national character. It is as if OMA and MVRDV appeared in the line of Claude Lévi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillio, except that they were working on architecture as if it was their language! As a more recent reader of Oranda, sociologist Yoshikazu Nango (http://www.nango-lab.jp/profile) of Meiji University introduced VOLUME to the LOG/OUT publication. The LOG/OUT publication obviously aims at disseminating this paradigm of architecture by presenting a relevant theoretical landscape to a wider public that includes sociologists, artists, philosophers and even policy makers, who are well aware of the Oranda of Shogun to pre-modern times, but are not yet familiar with who the current Oranda are. The LOG/OUT publication is an attempt to review this landscape through VOLUME. In other words: a meta-reading of each issue’s theme as it unfolds in its articles. What is crucial here is that VOLUME came with its American counterpart C-LAB (Columbia University) and the Head of the AMO family.

LOG/OUT magazine, detail.

The unusual A5 formats packed in clear plastic, with a title suggesting going off line, reminds me of the original package that VOLUME issued: a plastic container with the magazine and additional items such as posters, coasters, stickers, booklets and more, adding other perspectives but also inviting action. Indeed, LOG/OUT refers to this original format several times in its issues, but here it is translated into a more affordable range of ‘products’: folded banners, stapled cards, different sorts of papers; the designers experiment to give the sheets of paper such forms that they are no longer books. The graphic design parades the names: Rem Koolhaas, Jeffery Inaba, Ole Bouman, Arjen Oosterman… It suggests to Japanese readers that VOLUME provides us with affordable medicines that cure relevant urban issues of the world at large.

In Japan, theory is an established category that explains the secrets of practice. Japanese theory is often associated with guidebooks on wilderness. Several foreign theoretical architectural magazines are known to the public today in Japan, such as Casabella, Daedalos, and Oppositions. Archis/VOLUME and OASE are less known and seen as the most extreme in terms of theoretical approach. The public expects these magazines to guide it through the world in which Oranda architects construct their architecture. The battlefield of theory in Japan is one where a theory makes the project, i.e. architectural choices, readable as belonging to one system in a way that empowers the reader to apply those notions to his own world. It has often been said that architects are semi-philosophers who prefer to state a simple message in complex wording. Why? It is because architects are often asked to justify the spending of a large sum of money for the construction of a building to the stakeholders who owe explanation to the public – I mean the (paying) mass users, for which obviously each stakeholder needs a clear-cut logic and an authentic reasoning. Traditionally architects end up either with the functionalist’s credo of Form (always) Follows Function or ontology and even today the modernists’ credo Less is More is praised as the eternal truth. The fact is that it makes no sense anymore to say a truth: Form Follows Anything to quote Peter Zumthor from his RIBA award ceremony speech. It might be true, but Mr. Zumthor, your method is a mystery; what exactly do you do to construct your work; what is your map through the confused and confusing global wilderness? I suspect LOG/OUT chose to translate the hard-core magazine VOLUME into this eye-candy format because it aims to provide a Japanese reader with the pleasure of being about theory and, at the same time, to give a tool to operate construction, through its comprehensive texts, colorful prints, and over-all perspectives. The moment a reader takes up the package and opens it, it most certainly triggers the reader’s desire to expand their horizon by understanding the world according to the Oranda theoretical framework.

But here is the twist. As I said previously, in Japan, there are major theoretical magazines of every genre of art: literature, painting, graphic, architecture, landscape, philosophy and even politics. So, why VOLUME now? Do I think that VOLUME is a magazine for architectural theory specifically tailored to Japanese readers? I always thought that VOLUME is not just a coffee table magazine – unlike any other glossy architectural magazine – even though the issues are designed wonderfully. It obviously aims to deliver a message that other texts no longer can deliver. As a matter of fact, I never thought that VOLUME contains easy texts, well, it is more understandable than other books that imitate philosophical wordings. Why? Because I believe VOLUME is made for the next actions. Its core is to exchange an agenda for next steps. It is a record of the discussions for the next scenario in the making; the issues make them public. At the same time, I always thought that VOLUME is not an easy magazine to translate. Why? Because few countries other than the Netherlands allow architects to operate on the larger scale of spatial planning. It is because in Japan, those that expand the front-line of theory, hence journalists (i.e. public opinion) work only on small houses. In Japan, obviously, most of the land is owned by private owners and politics aims to maintain this status quo. Even health is not an excuse for a limited group of stakeholders to alter spatial planning, as is apparent from the recent politics on the Fukushima nuclear hazards; powers that be still ignore people’s voices, no matter how loud they are. Above all, in Japan, the discipline of urban planning belongs to civil engineering, the infrastructure, a discipline considered as a practice of doers. Theory does not exist for the road construction engineers and bridge builders, as they strictly base their reasoning on the prospects of traffic. Theory in Japan is still not produced and used to regulate the use of space.

As I said, the only way to have an impact via printed materials on the built environment and thereby on our lives is by issuing something that doesn’t look theoretical. Even if LOG/OUT looks charming instead of tough, even if LOG/OUT appears easy to digest instead of hard to conquer, it is an attempt to fill this theory gap. Why can I say so? It is because the magazine stems from the interests of sociologists. I have a slight suspicion, though, that it can still be too fancy to bring true Oranda spatial planning to homes in Japan. It’s indicative that LOG/OUT consequently chooses to select the editorial text of each issue rather than the texts that record heated confrontations. Even if the intention of the publication is agreeable and effective in Japan, if VOLUME were to implement its agenda here, the only way for it to fulfill its ambition would be to come over here and tell us what they think on how space in Japan could be used.

The 20th century has been the century of putting use at the core of anything: anything useful has been given priority. I believe we have to carry on digging deep into this use, so much further that it will re-program the way we construct space. To undertake shrewd action is a project for social construct by the hands of citizens.

LOG/OUT magazine, detail.

I now recognize that the Edo period’s Japanese civilization made true Japanese cities. Yet, our cities are polarized; we daily face the invisible consequences of the visible modernity. Behind the awesome mask of the metropolis, academics point at three issues in recent Japanese urbanity: 1) suburbia/periphery and empty provincial city centers; 2) the staggering amount of empty houses throughout the country; 3) aging/isolated inhabitants. These phenomena became prominent in almost any provincial city where children leave after only thirty years, even in Tokyo when we realize that the suburbs of Tokyo Metropolis depopulate. Recently, I came up with one hypothesis. This polarizing urbanity could be simply showing the judgment of the folk with sophisticated spatial order in their DNA; we might have simply seen through the true value of the current cities decades ago. I call this the paradigm of the Disposable Cities. So, I obviously question myself: What is the next move? Yes, VOLUME, here are the readers, if you like to take on…

 

LOG/OUT magazine by RAD, texts Mitsuhiro Sakakibara/editing Ryusuke Wada/design Yuichi Nishimura