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Cultural mix calls for critical edge

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Fumihiko Maki: Buildings and Projects Edited by Maki and Associates et al. Thames and Hudson, 1997. 272pp. £29.95

The production line for architectural monographs never stops. Publishers, driven by a constant craving for seductive visual material, find a natural affinity with architects who want a more respectable form of practice brochure. The impulse behind monographs presumably stems from a desire among architects to distinguish their work intellectually from ordinary commercial products of the capitalist environment. Some of these enhanced practice brochures try to hide behind an image of avant-gardism, as with Rem Koolhaas's S,M,L,XL or Bernard Tschumi's Event-Cities. Most, however, take the traditional approach of this offering on Fumihiko Maki.

The problem with this monograph, as is so often the case, is a complete absence of critical edge or substantial intellectual content. Interesting themes are raised - urban design, lightness in construction and transparency - but they are never really explored in relation to the projects on show. Instead we must content ourselves with a collection of fawning contributions from Maki's admirers.

What no one picks up on is that Maki is important because he is a self- created cultural hybrid. His natural home has always been Tokyo, and he revels in the complex and multiple levels of social life that exist there. Yet his formative academic period was spent in the us, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he picked up the principles of solid, American-style professionalism at roughly the same time as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

Maki went on to participate with the Metabolist group back in Japan, but he was never a fervent exponent of megastructures. His thinking was far more in tune with Team X and its Eurocentric, anthropological interpretation of non-modernised cultures. Indeed, many of his projects are still rooted in quasi-structuralist terms, such as collective form and open-ended patterns within urban formation.

Practising in Japan for the last 30 years, Maki has managed to draw together these strands from the us and Northern Europe. His single most interesting proposition is the search for transparency, as a means to retain architectural lightness in Tokyo - historically a city of wood and paper, but reliant on the inherently heavy materials of Western industrialism for its massive post-war reconstruction. Maki combines an emphasis on lightness and transparency with a subtle use of asymmetrical and collaged forms, taken openly from European Modernism (Cubism, De Stijl). The best known, spatially complex product of this approach is the Wacoal Media Centre, Tokyo (1985), an innovative multi-use cultural building commonly referred to as 'the Spiral'.

When Maki comes to tackle larger projects, a lack of finesse in the use of heavy technology, plus a tendency to rely on awkward geometric forms, result in giant lumps of buildings that are reminiscent of sleeping tortoises or fallen silos. It is a pity then that this monograph should devote so much attention to two rather dull gymnasiums at Fujisawa (1984) and Tokyo (1990).

Maki's skills are far better suited to a more local scale and two extremely fine projects stand out in this collection. One is the Hillside Terrace residential district in Tokyo (1969-92) that he has been developing for the Asakura family over the last few decades. The scheme has grown into a carefully composed, asymmetrical collection of buildings that blends abstract concrete forms with understated Japanese courtyards; a kind of Modernist model-housing estate from the 1920s, sculpted to the needs of modern Japan.

The other is Maki's design for a multi-cultural arts centre in the Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco (1993). Here we find another intriguing cultural mix: a Japanese architect reworking European Modernism for another economic superpower on the Pacific Rim. Maki's gallery sits low, sleek and white on its site, a deliberate rebuke to the solidity of Mario Botta's Museum of Modern Art across the street. It literally turns its back on Botta, preferring to open off the main garden spaces. A careful attention to the site and programme, along with the controlled use of daylight and a lateral staircase that runs along the main facade a la Meier, make the scheme a lively and accessible contribution to the Yerba Buena complex.

Maki should resist making grand claims for his work, and he should definitely stop others doing so for him. Instead, he should concentrate on executing such finely-crafted buildings.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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