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'Beyond Disaster, through Solidarity, towards Sustainability'

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The UIA conference of 5,000 architects in Tokyo is a tribute to Japan’s resilience

Following the Fukushima disaster it looked as though the triennial congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in Tokyo might have to be cancelled, partly because of the time and resources needed in responding to the crisis, and partly because of concern that there would be reluctance on the part of potential overseas delegates to attend.

So attracting 5,000 architects was something of a triumph for Yoshio Ogura and the team from the Japan Institute of Architects that made it all happen; apparently nearly 2,000 of the delegates came from overseas, though there was scant representation from the UK. The honourable exceptions were Angela Brady and Ian Pritchard from the RIBA, keynote speaker David Adjaye, and a small team from the World Architecture Festival.

Rafael Viñoly’s still magnificent Tokyo Forum was the main venue for the congress, whose theme was Design 2050: Beyond Disaster, through Solidarity, towards Sustainability. The main hall was packed for the opening ceremony, with the Emperor and Empress in attendance. There was a wealth of lectures and seminars, including a brilliant keynote speech by the artist Christo and final keynote lecture by Fumihiko Maki, as well as a trade exhibition and social events such as the welcome reception on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills.

The best associated event of the congress was also in this venue: the Metabolism: the City of the Future exhibition explored the extraordinary rise of young architects including Maki, Arata Isozaki and Kisho Kurokawa, who took the industry by storm in the 1960s and 70s, before going their individual architectural ways. The nearest European equivalent was Archigram, whose own exhibition took place in the Mori on its world tour a few years ago.

The exhibition is about as good as it gets in terms of presentation. Drawings, laboriously hand-made 40 years ago, have been digitised and computer programmed so that city-scale construction sequencing looks effortless displayed on giant display screens in a series of huge rooms that also feature drawings, models, films, magazine extracts and so on. It is a show that should come to London but I can’t think of anywhere that could stage it so successfully.

One intriguing thing about the Metabolism movement was its connection to international design thinking, symbolised by a World Design Conference held in Tokyo in 1960, four years before the Tokyo Olympics marked the return of Japan to global acceptability after the Second World War. That conference saw delegates from across the world meet to discuss the dilemmas facing architecture (the British delegate was Peter Smithson). The same sense of internationalism was alive and well at the UIA last week, where the key issues concerned the impact of architecture on the environment, the question of sustainability in relation to energy use, and the role of architects in rebuilding communities and neighbourhoods in the wake of natural disasters of the sort recently experienced by Japan.

There were other subjects discussed; I was the only non-Asian to attend a talk by veteran engineering professor Mamoru Kawaguchi on ‘Structural truth and deception in Japanese architecture’. He argued, among other things, that Bruno Taut’s analysis of the Ise shrine, which concluded that it was an expression of structural honesty, was mistaken. In a masterly series of images he showed other examples of what he described as the ‘spaghetti paradox’, where it is not the fork holding up the pasta but the pasta holding up the fork – because both are made of plastic. Of course, in the case of the shrine, no plastic was involved, but what was holding up what was still far from straightforward.

Yet, instead of condemning Taut’s view, he simply cited a Japanese writer who said, ‘Art lies somewhere between the two thin lines of truth and deception’. A nice sideways view of the architectural orthodoxies being absorbed by the 5,000 in Tokyo.

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