Out of the status quo and into the real world

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“The exhibition is about putting the physical artefacts we’ve collected and present them in raw state‚” Keigo Kobayashi and Norihito Nakatani talk to Glass about their pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Venice Architecture Biennale  opened over a month ago now and this year it was International architect Rem Koolhaas’ turn to take the helm. Titled Fundamentals, Koolhaas demanded the preparation time was doubled and introduced three central exhibitions rather than one. Like most years it hasn’t been without the buzz of excitement followed by a whip of criticism. The central pavilion which houses one of the three main exhibitions, Elements, has caused the biggest stir, dividing critics with claims of brilliance and disapproval in equal measure.

The dust has starting to settle and without perpetuating it by commenting on the Elements or Monditalia exhibitions, our concentration shall rest on the third segment, the national pavilions. This is where the biggest diversity of culture, creativity and more importantly interpretation can be seen roaming free between the maze of nations. Koolhaas set the brief as Absorbing Modernity where each nation had to look over the past century and focus on a particular era that best encapsulates this particular notion of modernity. This brings us to Japan.

Rather than concentrate on a period of economic prosperity, the Japanese pavilion organiser Keigo Kobayashi decided to concentrate on the slump of the 1970s. While the oil and manufacturing industries had all but collapsed, Japanese architecture began to thrive. From prospects bleached with un-promise, creativity flourished producing radical art movements such as architecture’s The Metabolism style – epitomised by the capsule-like block formation of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin tower  – has since become a defining period in Japanese architecture.

This pavilion may seem chaotic at first glance, but the studio like presentation dissects a defining decade in Japanese architecture. The use of primary research has allowed the rare chance to discover (and touch) different pockets of creativity that the inhabited the 1970s. Presented as a visual inventory, Kobayashi’s representation of Absorbing Modernity charting the rise of a generation of architects confronted with poor prospects in an otherwise deflated economy is one of the most interesting and unsurprising that Koolhaas exemplified it as outstanding.

Keigo Kobayashi and the curator Norihito Nakatani caught up with Glass and humbly described one of Japan’s defining eras, why they chose to make an interactive exhibit and their proudest features in the pavilion. Through this exhibition, Japan has reminded us that creativity can still flourish despite the palpable limitations of economic uncertainty. Something we can all relate to and strive for.

Tell us about the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
From the very beginning we wanted to avoid anything that simply traced the past and presented pre-accepted ideas as if one just turns Wikipedia into a physical exhibition. Instead, we took the opportunity to undertake experiments and research. Rather than seeing the last 100 years in chronological order we decided to focus on the 70s, a time when all pervious momentum in the fields of architecture and economy faced a sudden stall.

During this time some turned their attention to the past, shining light for the first time on what had been considered worthless or useless until then; others sought a new direction for design across the world; while others rigorously questioning and challenging the role of the architect in the domestic future. Through their eyes and efforts of the ‘70s, we can now see an alternative 100 years in history.

Our pavilion team have spent almost a year researching this particular period of time, trying to uncover what has been forgotten and hidden in this post-modernism period. To discover the unknown we have literally dug through attics and closets across the country, collecting physical artefacts that speak for themselves. The actual exhibition is about putting the physical artefacts we’ve collected and present them in raw state as if they are still in storage just about to be discovered.

How did you approach the brief of 1914-2014 Absorbing Modernity?
To consider absorbing modernity, we had to define the difference between modernisation and modernity. To put it simply, modernisation is the growth of the modern world’s economical system and technology; throughout the 20th century people had hoped that technology would make better living conditions for humankind, but the result is quite doubtful. On the other hand modernity is about the treatment of modernisation to be more suitable and applicable for each different country. Therefore “absorbing modernity” is a continuous effort of this act. We think the Japanese architectural radical re-examination¬†in the 70s is the best example of Absorbing Modernity.

After the euphoria of the ‘60s, Japan during the ‘70s provides an important model for social issues that are still globally relevant today. Revisiting history outside the canonical narrative, as well as the sometimes eccentric take on industrialisation and mass production can still provide huge inspiration for generations to come – not just for Japan – but for the whole world.

How were you approached to do the project?
We became involved with this project through Kayoko Ota who was invited as the commissioner for the project. Since the very beginning she was determined to make this project happen with various people from different backgrounds, which eventually included a curator, archivist, historian, economist, photographer, film director, and an architect.

How important was it for you to create an interactive exhibition for your guests?
I think if one sees the exhibition it’s very apparent that we wanted the exhibition to be interactive.  In fact I think it was one of our biggest challenges to trying and overcome the contemporary paradox of exhibiting equaling shielding. The concept was to turn the pavilion into a kind of a store-house where visitors are expected to find various objects and drawings ‚Äì not displayed with pre-determined values but simply placed waiting to be discovered and to be evaluated.  This approach was particularly difficult in such an exhibition where the exhibiting objects are mostly from the past and incredibly rare.

Instead of jumping immediately to digital interaction, we went through a very rigorous course of selecting which pieces could be presented as genuine objects or replicas. The risk was by introducing too many replicas the whole effort of making the exhibition powerful through physical artifacts may fall apart Рleaving an architectural Madame Tussaud like exhibition. For each object, we spent a long time discussing whether presenting the real was important, or being physical is important – not to mention convincing the owners.

So what are you most proud of in the pavilion?
The blueprint corner. Here we thought if the originals are in blueprints and we make blueprints of them it’s basically as real as it can get whilst allowing people to touch and see it up close.

What is fundamental to Japanese architecture now?
All the individuals featured in this exhibition belong to the generation that became active in the architectural field in the 70s; architects, historians, fieldworkers, artistic publishers to name but a few. They are also the main characters that contributed to the Japanese architectural culture of today. Our exhibit tries to focus on that how they managed to achieve their uniqueness.

We found that they didn’t passively accept reality as it was; rather they actively created and expanded their own reality by re-examining architectural modernisation. As a result, architecture became a mass activity rather than an elite undertaking.

Architects of the 1970s adapted to their situation and moved away from the grand narrative to create their own niche, their own reality. For this, they needed to develop and each architect had their own approach, many of their independent approaches unexpectedly intersected and created new hybrids, eventually gaining enough strength to resist and assimilate the dominant realities. The exhibit, first and foremost, demonstrates their “strategies” for forging new realities. Reality isn’t one individual or strategy; it’s a collaboration of forces.

by Stephanie Clair

Venice Architecture Biennale is open until November 23, 2014