Offering Asian insights Shaking the Foundations: Japanese Architects in Dialogue Edited by Christopher Knabe and Joerg Rainer Noennig. Prestel, 1999. 160pp. £19.95. (Distributor 01403 710851)
When the inevitable backlash comes against the cult of Koolhaas, one of the charges against him will be that his polemic about Asian architecture and urbanism is based on a shaky understanding of the countries involved. Koolhaas will no doubt be accused of creating a modern form of what Edward Said termed 'Orientalism'; that is, the tendency to impose a Western construct on Eastern cultures.
The accusation is hardly likely to trouble him. Koolhaas has always made it plain that his goal is provocation, not education. Concepts derived from Asian buildings and cities are used to confront Western architects with their cultural marginality and self-deluding ideologies. What Koolhaas points out is far more shocking, which is that we in the West are still almost wilfully ignorant about architectural culture in the East.
So this book in which 15 Japanese architects are interviewed about their ideas and work is welcome. It is refreshing that they are given so much time to speak for themselves, without being endlessly interpreted for Western consumption. No biographical information is given about the two interviewers, who appear to be young German architects and in the main do a good job. At times their questioning can become a bit fawning, but mostly the material is fascinating.
What is readily apparent is the degree to which Japanese architects are urban in their approach. 'Japan is a nationwide metropolis,' claims Ryoji Suzuki, and like the other interviewees he shows no sense of angst about the fact. One criticism is that the selection of architects could have been broader. There is only one female architect, Itsuko Hasegawa, and she gets by far the shortest interview. That is a pity, because she reveals a different, more explicitly political approach.
There is also a bias towards Tokyo, which means that quirkier regional figures such as Takasaki Masahura are omitted. Tadao Ando is the only exception here, being based in Osaka. He is frank in his admission that he is better liked by Western architects than by his fellow Japanese; though, after the damning things that he has said about the post-war built environment, along with his consciously introverted design approach, perhaps it is not so surprising.
Ando styles himself as lying apart from the mainstream of architectural culture in Japan: 'I am an outsider in all aspects.' But even this is not quite true, for it is pointed out that he has moved closer to the centre of the establishment by becoming a professor at the prestigious Tokyo University.
The strength of the book is its insights into many of the better-known Japanese architects, charting their rise within the boom-and-bust economic cycles of recent decades. It includes the grand old men such as Arata Isozaki, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki, as well as the younger generation of more media-orientated figures such as Toyo Ito and Ryoji Suzuki.
Of the former, the sparkiest is Kurokawa, who insists that he is a philosopher who happens to deal with built space, and not an architect who philosophises through his work. In contrast, the main concern among the younger group is to create an architecture that dwells both in the real, corporeal sense, and in a virtual, consumerist realm. A recurring metaphor is that of built form as the hardware of the city, and people and their movement as the software.
But even such concepts tend to be reflective rather than angry or subversive. What is remarkable is the shared belief in a dense, diverse urban development in Tokyo, and in the acceptance of modernity and change. It makes the title of the collection, 'Shaking the Foundations', seem nonsensical. 'I don't think the Japanese are avant-garde at all,' says Suzuki - somewhat ruefully this time.
Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University