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Setting sun

REVIEW: The Architecture of Fumihiko Maki: Modernity and the Construction of Scenery At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 until 22 July

The typical exhibition on Japanese architecture that we got in Britain a few years ago tended to be all about urban consumerism, digital technology, interactive environments, the electronic future: Toyo Ito and all that.

Now, for the current season in London about Japanese culture, we have a show that is devoted to the older and much staider figure of Fumihiko Maki who, while undoubtedly a designer of quality, does not exactly set the pulse racing.

And this exhibition on Maki is just about as dull as could be. In concept, it is simply a monograph that has been placed on the wall, accompanied by a few traditional models and a solitary TV screen that plays a video loop of Maki's buildings.

The only place where one senses a bit of spark is a long fabric scroll that is festooned with sketches by Maki that presumably have been scanned digitally and then printed out together as if on a long parchment roll.

The exhibition is tucked away in the far recesses of the Henry Cole Wing at the V&A, and the subliminal message given out is that architecture is inherently uninteresting, and thus needs to be hidden away. Of course, it need not be like this. Maki himself writes vividly about notions of interior space and urban configuration in his designs, and indeed the large central project on display here consists of the phased insertions for the Hillside Terrace district in Tokyo, a superb project (easily his best) that he has been designing over the past 35 years.

We are told that the Hillside project has moved on from purely residential concerns to the more complex issue of how to make a mixed-use area within a large city, and that it now blends in restaurants, galleries, social institutions and such like.

Yet you could be excused for not realising any of this from the models or photographs of the scheme, all of which remain resolutely detached and sterile. His more current designs reveal that Maki is still working far and wide across the globe, but once again the formal tone of these projects is subdued and retrospective, not anticipatory.

Perhaps a hidden cultural message is being conveyed. Japan no longer feels as confident about its economic future, and in many aspects is not quite at the burning edge of digital innovation. Internet-based technology has pushed a lot of the power back to the US, and now the sleeping giant of China looks as if it will forge the future direction for Pacific Rim nations. If China succeeds in its declared aim to make the 21st century its own, then Japan might be left as an increasingly marginalized nation.

How should Japan respond to this situation? This question seems to be at the heart of the current debate within Japanese society, but you wouldn't know anything of these wider issues from this particular take on Maki. What we see here is the tail-end of an era of Japanese architecture, but not one that is investigated in any depth.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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