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Kurokawa and Ungers remembered

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Following their deaths, Charles Jencks remembers OM Ungers and Kisho Kurokawa

I met Kisho Kurokawa and Oswald Mathias Ungers in 1966 at a Team 10 meeting organised by Giancarlo de Carlo in Urbino, Italy. Both became friends whom I would see every so often at international gatherings, or in their countries. Because of this friendship I will limit myself to a few comments mostly of a personal nature, and not attempt an
overview of either’s life work.

Both were forceful polemicists and creative artists who saw their work in a wider historical perspective. Both were passionate advocates: Ungers for the logic and beauty of basic types; Kurokawa for the philosophy of life and symbiosis. At that Team 10 meeting I watched Kurokawa give a dazzling display of his Metabolist theory and Ungers take on the Dutch Modernist Jacob Bakema. The older Team 10 members – Revisionists of CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) to give them a ’60s label – were outflanked in their critique of Modernism and annoyed at these two pstarts both for their theory and obvious competence.

Ungers went on to develop a coherent theory of architecture based on geometry and the reduction of building to abstract themes and the familiar archetypes of Euclid. In 1982 I asked him to summarise this theory as the New Abstraction, and it became an influential part of the Post-Modern Movement, including architects in Japan, America and Italy, especially Aldo Rossi. Ungers loved historical artefacts and had the most comprehensive private collection of architectural books anywhere. This confirmed his theory of form as autonomous and based on fundamental themes. Perhaps because he was conscripted by the Nazis as a youth, he had an intense dislike of Expressionist aesthetics, which he connected to fascism. This did not keep him from collecting such literature – the only magazines of architectural Dadaism and sexI have seen from the period.

Heinrich Klotz had assembled an outstanding collection of Post- and late-Modern work.
Ungers’ building, and its ‘house within the house’, remained the primary exhibit – a stunning reduction of the basic house form to its square essentials and pitched roof. Even if one were not religious, not romantic, not a minimalist, and didn’t believe in archetypes as the answer, inside the ‘house within the house’ one was entirely convinced of the vision. That is also true of some other small-scaled work, particularly Haus Ungers III in Cologne, based on fundamental proportions.

Ungers sent me, several times, his white square book, called U after the first letter of his name. It was shaped like a single white building block, 6 x 15.5 x 15.5cm. Clearly it was a bible of historical work leading to his own codex. It had echoes in its 10 chapters of Vitruvius, plus the new holy writ, all carried through in pristine line drawings. One could literally build a ‘house of books’ from this volume. Architecture and the written treatise were fused as one, as if the tablets if Moses were themselves constructional archetypes. I urged Ungers to go to Egypt to see his antecedents, and the origin of Euclidean types, but he resisted the idea in fear of death.

Noriaki ‘Kisho’ Kurokawa was in some ways complementary to Ungers, but also driven by theory, the written word and building. In a world of workaholic architects he outperformed Norman Foster and, it was noted in the press, even slept one hour less than Napoleon (five per night). Indefatigable as a publicist and performer on the stage of power, with emperors and prime ministers in his thrall, Kurokawa also had a voracious intellect, devouring material with an insatiable
appetite for ideas. He wrote over 50 books, among them two bestsellers, and translated another 20, including those of Jane Jacobs and several by me. In the 1970s, when I first came to know him well, Kurokawa was famous to the point of absurdity in Japan, having his own TV show and being the attention of weekly newspaper gossip. After the emperor and the prime minister, he was said to be the third most popular Japanese, something that got him into trouble with other intellectuals for whom popularity was unforgivable. He often said, ‘the Japanese bang in the nail that sticks out,’ and because he was a nonconformist in many ways he took lots of hits.

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