SANAA and “Nice Modernism” in Japan

As much as Nick Currie‘s male privilege and orientalist posturing can get on my nerves, he occasionally comes up with some very interesting gems, which is one of the reasons I think that despite various flaws he’s still worth a read.

One of these gems is Kazuo Sejima and the SANAA collective’s Learning From Japan: Single Story Urbanism. Florian Idenburg has a somewhat florid explanation of the retrospective, translated from the German:

During three spring seasons between 2006 and 2008, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa taught at the School of Architecture at Princeton. The SANAA Studios explored Japan’s contemporary society as a context for architecture and considered its particular perspective on space, the personal and the public realm. Design exercises were situated within the specific demographics and social variables of three distinct sites in Japan.

This book forms an attempt to capture the atmosphere in which the studios were conducted and register some of the findings gained out of exploring the office, its methods and its context. As an overall thematic it asks: What can we learn from SANAA? It tries to frame SANAA’s compassionate search for new architectures within a larger societal context. It combines analyses, essays, documentary, design proposals and “objets trouvés” within one book. For this publication, Iwan Baan, Dutch architectural photographer, has revisited the three sites where the studios took place to capture the spirit of its context and the SANAA buildings in use.

One of the reasons I regularly say that both modernists and urbanists can learn from Japan, particularly its contemporary designers like those in SANAA, is that it innovates constantly with strong modernist language in a highly sensitive urbanist idiom. Much (though admittedly not all) of SANAA’s oeuvre demonstrates what could be called “Nice Modernism”, a humanistic, urbanistic, and contextual/regional approach to modernism that its proponents – such as Dwell, the magazine that coined the phrase – often shoot for and miss.

Not all modernism is necessarily anti-urban or anti-social in the language of a Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier; similarly, urbanism needn’t be relentlessly traditionalist, but it does need to be respectful of the socio-ecological contexts with which it finds itself surrounded. The contemporary Japanese approach to high-modern design, as embodied by SANAA, tries mightily for this, its residential projects taking cues from the machiya houses of Kyoto as well as the single-family housing of the Dessau-era Bauhaus.

The possibility of “single-story urbanism” and “nice modernism” are precisely some of the things I’d like to see entertained in some fashion in any future Anacostia redevelopment or related NU projects, doubtlessly not occurring in all of it, but certainly in some of it, where contemporary architecture has the opportunity to rediscover urban forms and in doing so help to rehabilitate its crises of identity. What’s wrong with being nice?

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~ by J.D. Hammond on November 10, 2009.

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