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Landscapes from the land of the rising sun

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

The RIBA's exhibition on Japanese landscape design, 'From Modernism to MA', promoted by the Landscape Foundation, certainly has an enigmatic quality. Indeed, it would be easy to miss the display altogether, thinking it was in the process of being dismantled. The models are, with the exception of one, concealed behind a screen, and comprise the entirety of the fixed display. The rest of the exhibition is presented through large, but poor quality, digital images running in a looped sequence on the end wall of Gallery 1. Apparently there are some 300 of these images, representing 15 projects - but there is no indication of running-time, giving little idea of the quantity of material involved.

The exhibition has been curated and designed by David N Buck, who previously worked with the landscape practice Gustafson Porter, and is something of an expert on Japanese design, as well as joint designer, with Makoto Noborisaka, of one of the schemes presented - Osaka City University Media Centre Plaza. The rationale for the approach to the exhibition is explained as one of creating a 'zone of ambiguity between the building and landscape', by separating the exhibition space from the fabric of the gallery - defining a 'culturally different landscape' within the 'Neo-Classical space of the building'. But this is definitely not a themed zone of, say, tatami mats and tea ceremony - a manufactured anthropology of the Far East.

On the contrary, it has the character of a no-man's land of nonspace and minimal content, a seemingly acultural abstraction which is hard to engage with.

This quality is reflected in the work itself - as far as one can see. It appears to be uniformly abstract and formal, with a repetitive, almost static character. The latter part of the exhibition title, 'From Modernism to MA', refers to the concept of 'essence' in Japanese philosophy, implying this is a guiding principle of contemporary landscape design in Japan. But there is little attempt to elucidate, for a western audience, what this might mean in a landscape design context, nor how such a concept may sit within the context of the contemporary social and cultural scenarios with which these projects must engage.

The projects seem to be much the same in terms of programme as contemporary landscape initiatives anywhere else in the world - civic parks and plazas, and landscaping for specific buildings, such as the Natori Cultural Hall, NTT Musashino R&D Centre, or Official Residence of the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Tokyo. Such initiatives undoubtedly take their place on a global stage, yet demand a response to the particularities of Japanese cultural life, which is far from being selfevident or compelling in the work, as displayed, of these, as yet, mostly unknown designers.

l'From Modernism to MA - Contemporary Japanese Landscapes', shows at the RIBA's Gallery 1 until 16 February

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