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BOOKS: Critical quest for myth and meaning


Numerous architects in Japan have reacted against the forces of materialism and rationalism that were imported in the post-war era, mainly from the United States. Tadao Ando is probably the most vocal critic of materialism, but no architect pushes the position as far as Takasaki Masaharu. His view is that there is a deeper, more primitive part of architecture that has been lost in the drive for modernisation: in his work, ancient myth is recovered and mixed with fuzzy astronomy, as part of an attempt to forge something new and meaningful.

Masaharu's strategy involves a retreat from the Japanese city, away from the forces of global capitalism, and back to mystical sites where memory and landscape can be invoked. He now operates mostly in the Kagoshima area in Japan's southernmost tip, a fantastic land of volcanic islands and crystal-clear night skies. 'Architecture lives together with its site,' he declares, revealing a phenomenological bias that harbours anti-urban sentiments.

As well as blending Western phenomenology with Japanese religion, Masaharu also draws on the European tradition of expressionist architecture from Gaudi to Makovecz. In search of what is purportedly an 'organic' architecture, Masaharu emphatically rejects the rules of orthogonal geometry. Favourite recurring forms are circles, eggs, sloping columns, and strange empty towers that pierce through his roofscapes. All are fashioned mainly out of reinforced concrete, in its roots an ostentatiously Western material.

Masaharu gives his forms mystical associations which rely on a mantra- like use of the word 'cosmology'. Kitchens become a 'cosmology of fire', bathrooms a 'cosmology of water', and quiet contemplation voids earn the honoured title of 'zero cosmology'. It is an intensely personal vision, in which projects possess an internal logic and reference system that link them together more than their actual function or social relevance. This monograph on Masaharu contains a private house, an apartment block, a kindergarten, a museum, a restaurant, and an observatory, all of which look remarkably like one another.

A tendency towards self-absorption is best shown in the architectural museum that Masaharu has designed for himself, in what appears to be a variation on the Soane Museum. Although styled externally in a curious version of 1930s streamlining, its interior spaces are intended to reveal the complexity and spiritual depth of architecture. Spaces are again given portentous names: one is called 'the room of the dreaming soul', bringing to mind Ando's similar view that dreams offer a means to escape the perceived superficiality of contemporary Japanese architecture.

While the architecture of Masaharu is striking in its exuberant formal invention and its desire for meaning, it remains limited. There is throughout a strain of architectural determinism which believes, for some unexplained reason, that non-orthogonal and supposedly organic forms will engender spiritual feelings in occupants. Take one example: Masaharu says of his widely-published 'Earth Architecture' apartment block in Tokyo that it 'will show that housing complexes can be places in which to live a holistic life'. Is this not an echo of the false vanity of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation? Mysticism can, in the end, be used to justify rational or non-rational forms. The problem is more that whenever architects are self- conscious enough to ascribe a cosmological or spiritual meaning to their designs, it is most likely a sign of unease and despair.

Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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