Melancholic Black Joke from Tokyo, 2020

Book Review on Gendai Shisō, Vol. 48, No. 3, special issue for Arata Isozaki, February 2020 )

Kenchiku Toron web, 1 May 2020; original article (Japanese; external site)

Hiroshi EMOTO


The writer must first apologize for the hatred he had felt in finding Why Japanese Architects Are Loved Around the World [2] in the shelf of a bookstore, with its agitative, chauvinistic, and therefore aversive title. He, being beautifully taken in, was shy with an uncomfortable frown on his face, when he finally read it. Oh shame — he must have been aware by himself that a square look at one’s massive sense of abhorrence that haunted him was, indeed, a discipline for the eyes. Without confronting and struggling with this impure inner world, the complacent “global” fashion of thinking and speaking shall be of vacuity, or that globe will remain centered forever.

A riddle posed by a book that one hadn’t read with prejudice; and its manner of riddle-making produces certain associations. Arata Isozaki’s career is presented here, unusually devoting over thirty pages to it, and the reason for this is probably not just the weight of an objective historical assessment (is there such a thing?), taking his immense literary influence over domestic architectural criticism in Japan beyond generations; no doubt the author, Tarō Igarashi, was one of students of architecture stimulated by Isozaki’s profound, but at the same time saponaceous writings of prolificacy, to become a critic and a historian himself.

And the time has come. The laureate of the “Nobel Prize in Architecture” was announced in March 6, 2019. He proves to be the eighth Japanese to receive it.

Of all the media out there, the web version of Casa Brutuswas probably the best in terms of breaking news in Japanese. The magazine draws on the words of Tom Pritzker, the award’s founder, to tell the story of why he won the award: “At a time when Western culture was overwhelming, Mr. Isozaki was the first Japanese to make full-scale inroads overseas by creating his own unique architecture based on his extensive knowledge. He is a truly international architect.” It was the due prize so long delayed for him, reported the Asahi Shimbun[3]

But something was on the line. It is usually granted in Japan that “Tange is the pioneer who opened the door to the world,” and I also believe this was the so-called “common sense” of the architectural world. History is implicitly being rewritten without our knowledge; and this is Japan in the realm of world history, and prehistory has always been carried forward[4].

The world has begun to forget that World War II even existed. Even in the history of modern and contemporary architecture, “post-war” will lose its relevance as an absolute period division. Isozaki’s “long delayed” award may be a timely opportunity to dim Japan’s postwar history from future historical writing. Will Isozaki’s deep Oedipal sense of patricide be remembered at that time?

The time will come for Japan in the history of modern and contemporary architecture to begin to be written about from Arata Isozaki. Even the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (1964) could fall into the same rut as the Miyakonojō Civic Center (Kiyonori Kikutake, 1966; demolished 2019). The possibility you’ve been thumbing your nose at this as impossible can come true indeed. We are living in a ridiculous world, right now, in this country of Japan.


The special issue of Gendai Shisou(aka Revue de la pensée d’aujourd’hui, Review of Contemporary Thought) was published as a way to close out the academic year, 2019, of the world around him. It constitutes the concluding volume of the “Isozaki Arata Checkered Trilogy,” of which the first part is Isozaki Arata: Interviews, and the second his Debris[5]; even if this naming is self-righteous of course. Pick up the three books and love them physically, to begin with, to feel the tangible reason for such an identification.

But the intrinsic reason why those three works are so called is largely due to the way in which Arata Isozaki as a checkered phenomenon is told. Interviewsis an excellent textbook as a chronology handled by the interviewer, the motorist of curiosity. In contrast, it is Isozaki’s actual hands that hold the reins of restive Debris, as it is a product of godsent free will, more or less free from forcible discourse.

In the midst of this loose conflict, the special issue of Gendai Shisōserves, first of all, as a bridge between the two books, especially in the conversation with Akira Asada at the beginning of the volume[6].

They laugh a lot here. However, the laughter does not only come from the fact that the two know each other and are at ease. Laughter has the function of shelving miscommunication with others and the inability to understand others once and for all. ‘Others’, here, means man, the circumstances of the times, history, technology and nature, as well as the universe itself.

Laughter, as a gesture of awe and longing for such unknowability and uncertainty, fills this ethereal dialogue. That’s why there is a faint smell of eeriness in this open-hearted chatter. The topics surrounding Computer Aided City (1972), one of the gravitational fields of this special issue, such as information technology, technocracy, and giant numbers, are cryptically inextricably linked to their memory of interest in psychic manipulation and the “pyramid power didn’t work at all (laughter)” (p. 26) story, and are therefore important historical testimonies that express the mysterious libido of the postwar world. They constitute, in a sense, an architectural history of the human longing for Divinity that won’t appear in any textbook.

The wheel of history may inevitably be the product of the forgetful creature that is man. The times have changed, and their wild narratives have something to tell humanity that newly thinks it can reach out to transcendence. This featurette rightly kicks off with their cynically wet laughter.


From recollections of friends, through so-called theories of representational culture,  architectural analysis of a former staff member, to a rapper’s lyric and a president’s speech, the formats of articles and variety of the writers directly represent the universality of Isozaki’s gravitational force.The essence of this special issue of the “Checkered Trilogy” lies in the quality of the vectors that tell the story of Arata Isozaki from the outside. Their accumulation brings to light the reality of the provisional images of him.

Whether the structure of this issue, which begins and ends with laughter, was really intended is subtle. However, the interview article of Kishin Shinoyama at the beginning of Part 7 (“From the Art Scene”) which begins with the noisy laughter of the title[7], appears to give the entire issue a violent closing parenthesis that corresponds to the opening dialogue with Isozaki and Asada at the beginning of it.

All sorts of laughs are drawn there. It is one of the pleasures of reading this special issue to appreciate the richness of its variations. There’s no way any of its articles are content with simple laughter from funny episodes. You have to consider the subject, and the potential reader as a formidable Isozaki. For example, the analysis of Isozaki’s duality in Tanaka Jun’s essay is a different kind which is elaborated from a meta-stylistic manipulation (“Word of Demiurgos: The Saturnian Masquerade of Arata Isozaki”).

In addition to these smirking moments, we sometimes encounter situations where we can’t help but laugh. However, we have just achieved a loneliness that can blow away our position where we must not laugh at some seemingly serious thing, and our milieu where we have to disavow any crossing of laughter in our mind. And the harsh self-criticism that follows the laughter is also something to enjoy. Someone in the issue says: “Kenzo Tange was an architect who inherited Michelangelo’s work in a legitimate way”-and where on earth does this “legitimacy” come from (laughter)? 

However, what stuck with the writer personally was the laugh that Eiji Hatō mentioned in “Stand Alone Isozaki Arata.” Perhaps the architect as visionary is now the archetypal object of snubbing, but this episode has more overtones than that. The imagination and the power of action that go beyond one’s own frame of reference will fade if not trained; if we continue to resign ourselves to the status quo, the strength in mind, body, and heart shall be exhausted in combination. This reality of the situation is thus created. From there, it wasn’t long before I was biting my bitter smile behind a cloth mask.


What made me beam when I found it was Kōji Ichikawa’s historical anatomy[8] that, by some mysterious coincidence, delved into China in the 1980s ― the period of the “pirated publication on my works” that Arata Isozaki referred to in his dialogue with Akira Asada. This article examines a strange aspect of modern and contemporary architectural history related to the country’s acceptance of Arata Isozaki, from the transcripts of architects’ remarks at the two memorial symposiums held in China in 2019.

Here I had the illusion that the East Coast of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, when John Ruskin was read only in rough-and-tumble pirated copies, was being recreated in China a century and a half later.

Ruskin was one of the leading architectural critics of Victorian Britain, and the American architectural establishment has been in ambivalence with “the great master” of “the old country” for well over a century. He passed away in 1900, and continues to be hated even after this, serving as a historical scapegoat who was the driving force of American architectural thought by the power of resentment.

However, Ruskin was a sort of the father of American architectural thought, a man who gave birth to a loyal readership that has seen an explosion of pirated copies of his work. It was in the late 1850s, ten years after the publication of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, that the status of this monopoly began to fade. It was around 1870, after the end of the Civil War, that he finally became the object of intense dislike.

The quantity and quality of Ruskin’s writing invoked a variety of interpretations and constituted voices for the interpreters’ own desires. This is a quality that also applies to Isozaki. That desire has always reflected a sense of national belonging.

The onset of Isozaki’s reception in China, discussed in Ichikawa’s essay, was a phenomenon unique to China in the 1980s. The post-reform and open-door policy influxes of Western culture contributed to the momentum for breaking away from the historical stylistic bindings, and for the simultaneous acceptance of modernism and postmodernism. It is in this context that Isozaki was regarded as an idol in the historical context, and Ichikawa carefully discusses this by tracing back issues of Chinese architectural magazines that were first published during this period (and have so far been largely unmarked), such as WA (World Architecture) and T+A (Time + Architecture).

The situation in China at that time suggests a great deal: the revival of professional education in architecture in China, in light of the beginning of this cultural influx, may have raised the question of creating a new “orthodox” educational system; the creation of the journals Ichikawa uses as historical materials suggests that China had previously had an absence of a professional literary field of debate. These are just conjectures, but these situations overlap with the 1850s in the United States.

Most of the speakers of the 2019 symposiums were of the “Isozaki generation” who were architectural students in the 1980s, so to speak. As these symposiums were commemorative, they naturally emphasized Isozaki’s influence in their career. But one of them was the architect Tong Ming, who asserted that “Arata Isozaki had basically no influence on China at all.” If not an affirmation like this, but a statement is also made that gives a warning to simple bouquets to Isozaki. Here’s a flashback to what American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock said: “Ruskin had no influence on American architectural thought.”[9]

What is the historical context of the Chinese sphere of architectural discussion that has made such a statement possible? Two quotations from Li Xiangning and Tong Ming posted at the beginning of the article ask us a huge question. The format is duly scholarly as a historian’s work, but that’s precisely why Ichikawa’s elaboration for intellectual laughter here strikes the reader with historical irony with a certain eeriness.

Isozaki is a modern-day Ruskin. The America of the past is the China of the modern day. The recent movement in China to compile a modern architectural history of its own country, including its Beaux-Arts tradition, is also strongly reminiscent of the United States in the first half of the 20th century. It is impossible to say that these extremely crude associations are completely absurd at this initial stage.

The problem of the acceptance history of Arata Isozaki’s work thus makes me dream about the next 100 years of Chinese architectural thought.

So, what about Japan then?

How much longer will we be able to mock and laugh at Chinese counterfeit?

Hans-Ulrich Meyer, “Die Manier der Ambivalenz: Eine Begegnung mit Arata Isozaki ,” 
Bauen +Wohen, Vol. 26, 1972, p. 454.


It seems that the awarding of the Pritzker Prize was not a direct impetus for the planning of a special feature on Arata Isozaki in Gendai Shisō, which was published about a year after the first news report. Not only that, but it is so thorough that the topic is not even mentioned in the included articles except the oration by French President Emmanuel Macron’s long and wide tongue. Akira Asada’s “heartfelt congratulations” to Arata Isozaki was not for this prize, but for his longevity[10].

This makes it difficult to understand the background of this special issue. There is no statement of intent and no mention of it in the editorial postscript. The fact that the series of articles in Gendai Shisōhas been published as DEBRIS is of course meaningful, but there is no prosaic advertising of it.

True, this issue was formed by being attracted to the existence of an unmistakable, yet unidentifiable center, mimicking the “situation where the center has disappeared.”[11]

The eloquent Sphinx stares at us without asking any riddle here.


[1] Twitter series of daily four-panel cartoons entitled “An Alligator That Will Die After 100 Days [100日後に死ぬワニ]” running from 12 December 2019 to 20 March 2020 became a fad in Japan, while alligator (or shark) Wani has mythological significance for the Japanese descent.  

[2] Taro Igarashi, Tohoku University Urban + Architectural Theory Lab., Why Japanese Architects Are Loved Around the World [日本の建築家はなぜ世界で愛されるのか], Tokyo: PHP Shinsho, 2017. 

[3] Megumi Yamashita, “Flash News: Arata Isozaki won the 2019 Pritzker Prize [「速報:2019年プリツカー賞は、磯崎新。」],” Casa BRUTUS, 6 March 2019, (in Japanese); , Wakato Ōnishi, “The Pritzker Prize Long Delayed: Architect Arata Isozaki’s Avant-Garde Spirit [「遅すぎたプリツカー賞 建築家・磯崎新さんの前衛精神」],” Asahi Shimbun Digital, 6 March 2019, (in Japanese; both accessed 12 April 2020)

[4] Igarashi, op. cit., p. 23. Japan’s history begins from the Meiji Era in Leonardo Benevolo’s Storia dell’Architettura Moderna (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1960), the name of Kunio Mayekawa disappears in the field of world history after Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History(London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).

[5] Arata Isozaki, Naohiko Hino, Isozaki Arata: Interviews [『磯崎新インタヴューズ』], Tokyo: LIXIL Shuppan, 2014; Arata Isozaki, Debris [『瓦礫の未来』], Tokyo: Seido-Sha, 2019. Both in Japanese.

[6] Arata Isozaki, Akira Asada, “Runaway Architect’s Field: 34 Years After ‘The End of Irony’ [「暴走するアーキテクトの現場──「アイロニーの終焉」から三四年」],” pp. 8-30.

[7] Kishin Shinoyama, “Maybe Isozaki-sanWanted to Make a Case,Letting Me Take Pictures (laughter) [「磯崎さんは事件を起こしたかったのかもしれないね、僕に写真撮らせて(笑)」],” pp. 290-303.

[8] Kōji Ichikawa, “What is Arata Isozaki’s Significance for Contemporary Chinese architecture?: From the 2019 Symposiums [「中国現代建築にとって磯崎新とはいかなる存在か?──二〇一九年シンポジウムから考える」],” pp. 69-81.

[9] Hiroshi Emoto, History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin1839-1968 [『歴史の建設:アメリカ近代建築論壇とラスキン受容』], Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2019, p. 394 (in Japanese).

[10] Akira Asada, “Eloquent Sphinx [饒舌なスフィンクス],” p. 64.

[11] Takashi Homma, “Pray Take a Photo at the Situation Where the Center Has Disappeared: Arata Isozaki in 2019 [中心がなくなったところを撮ってくれたまえ——2019年の磯崎新],” pp. 56-60.