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LE CORBUSIER’S JAPAN

CHARLES-ÉDOUARD JEANNERET, nom de plume Le Corbusier, was one of the most important architects of the 20th century. Though he has only one building in all of East Asia, his Japanese students have played a role in that country’s love affair with Western Modernism, melding it with its own “Japan-ness.”

Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier, completed in 1959. Image by 663highland.

“How Le Corbusier Became Big In Japan,” by Nikil Savel, The New York Times, August 8, 2018, gives details of this Swiss-French architect’s sole visit to Japan, his single building there, and his subsequent influence. What follows are tidbits and photographs from this article, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

The tale begins with Kōjirō Matsukata, son of a Meiji period Finance Minister and graduate of Rutgers College, now Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. While at Rutgers, Matsukata played on the freshman football team and was a member of Delta Upsilon fraternity. He returned to Japan where he rose to president of Kawasaki Shipbuilding in 1896 and, later, head of Kawasaki Dockyards from 1916 through 1923.

Kōjirō Matsukata, 1865–1950, Japanese businessman and collector of Western art.

Matsukata invested a significant portion of his wealth in Western paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. His collection includes works of Cézanne, Chagall, Delacroix, El Greco, Gaugin, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Rodin, Rubens, and van Gogh.

Matsukata’s aim was to exhibit these in a museum in Japan, but his plans were complicated by the country’s 100-percent tax on imports and World War II. Many of the works stored in Britain during the war were destroyed; others in Japan met the same fate. It wasn’t until 1959, nine years after Matsukata’s death, that the museum he envisioned was completed.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, Le Corbusier, 1887–1965, Swiss-French architect, urban planner, and writer, one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Image from theartstory.org.

Le Corbusier’s—and Matsukata’s—major achievement is the National Museum of Western Art, located in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. Ueno is also known for gatherings at its springtime Sakura Cherry Blossom Festival. Le Corbusier designed the building and commissioned three of his Japanese apprentices, Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Takamasa Yoshizoka, to develop the design and supervise its construction.

An interior of the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo. This and the following image by Anthony Cotsifas for The New York Times.

Japanese aesthetics versus modernity presented Le Corbusier and his students with a challenge. As noted by architect Arata Isozakim “Japan-ness,” as it was called, was typified by “simplicity, humility, purity, lightness, and shibusa (sophisticated austerity).”

By contrast, Nikil Savel observes in The New York Times article, that Le Corbusier’s concepts were exemplified by “the ‘free plan’ that banished load-bearing structures from central spaces; the transformation of the reinforced concrete column-beam system into a dynamic exhibition of technological prowess.”

In a sense, traditional Japanese aesthetics versus 20th-century technology.

However, Savel notes, “Le Corbusier was deeply influenced as a young art student by Japanese woodblock prints, and on his one visit to Japan in 1955, he toured the major temple sites in Kyoto and Nara.” The slim columns of his National Museum of Western Art echo Japanese tradition in wood-slat impressions in their site-cast concrete.

Le Corbusier’s influence is evident in subsequent designs of his students. For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall, one of Kunio Maekawa’s major works, is also located in Ueno Park on land adjacent to the National Museum of Western Art.

Above, the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall, designed by Kunio Maekawa and opened in 1961, faces Le Corbusier’s museum in Ueno Park. Below, Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, France. Image from dezeen.com.


Savel cites a Maekawa colleague noting the Festival Hall’s “resemblance both to Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp and to the Shinto sanctuary at Izumo dating to at least the seventh century—one of Japan’s oldest.”

Izumo Taisya, Shimane prefecture, Japan. Image by 663highland.

What a fine synthesis of modern architecture and Japan-ness! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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