The Generation of Japanese Architects Before Sejima

“Houses are works of art […]” These are the opening words of an article from 1962, in which I advocated for the liberation of the house from the limited perspective of Modernism and Functionalism.1

Kazuo Shinohara

The architects of the generation before Sejima were influenced by one of the two leaders of the 1970s: Arata Isozaki (b. 1931) or Kazuo Shinohara (b. 1925). While Isozaki advocated for “the collective good” through his believe in the city as a project; Shinohara defended an individual approach, expressed in his “Theory in House Design” published in 1970, which questioned the notion of “the public” as a project. In fact, until the 1970s, house design had not been considered architecture in Japan; the driving force behind the change was Shinohara, who from the mid-1960s insisted that “a domestic revolution was necessary in Japan.”

Kazuo Shinohara appeared in the 1960s as an aloof house designer. From the beginning, he had no interest in the future city. Or perhaps it would be better to say that through the publication of a series of small, highly autonomous houses, he tried to directly antagonize to Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists. His House in White, published in 1967, had a particularly important impact on me.2

Toyo Ito

Shinohara made housing the central element of his speech. Under the motto “a house should be a work of art”3, Shinohara created his school among the architects of the generation born in the 1940s. Toyo Ito and Itsuko Hasegawa were his most notable disciples. The architects of his school denied the possibility or effectiveness of a comprehensive intervention in cities, so in their practice they withdrew from the public sphere to the private sphere. That generation focused on the design of small “haute couture” houses – especially in the 1970s – which in most cases maintained an introverted attitude towards their urban environment.

“Architect and critic Hajime Yatsuka has referred to this group as the Surface Generation; their early works, mostly residential, explored an independent architectural language unrelated to trends at home or abroad and intended to be influenced by personal vanities rather than professional concerns.”4 “Instead of designing for the society, they designed for people,”5 Hajime Yatsuka stated6 referred to the Superficial Generation—under the influence of Shinohara’s ideals—as follows:

It is true that superficiality is one of the key words of some aspect of Japan’s most sophisticated postmodern culture, and Ito, above all, spoke about the concept of ephemeral at the time. […]

It was Koji Taki, the contemporary critic of Shinohara and Isozaki, who seriously influenced this Superficial Generation. He was an informal mentor to both Ito and Hasegawa. Around 1980, he taught a seminar at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where Shinohara was a professor. Ito and Hasegawa followed. These architects would be called the Shinohara School. Taki even influenced Shinohara. At that time, after the Metabolism, Shinohara and Isozaki were the two leaders of the younger generation, and Taki was close to both. As a critic, Taki occupied the polar opposite of Noboru Kawazoe, a founding member of the Metabolism. While Kawazoe was very active during the 1950s and 1960s, Taki began his career in the late 1970s. […]

In the seventies, Taki was trying to give a theoretical framework for the emerging Japanese culture under the hegemony of Japanese capitalism, in a sophisticated way. Like his contemporaries, Taki was undoubtedly under the influence of Marxism, this starting point gave him an ambiguous complexity that was never, I think, understood by Ito and Hasegawa. They took Taki’s rebellion too literally, superficially. They lacked the understanding of Taki’s general concern about poststructuralist theory, phenomenology, contemporary art, sociology, geography, and so on.7

Hajime Yatsuka
Repeating Crevice, Kazuo Shinohara, 1969–71, Photography by Koji Taki
Repeating Crevice, Kazuo Shinohara, 1969–71, Photography by Koji Taki

Koji Taki was the ideologue who inspired and promoted Toyo Ito’s work, as Yatsuka explained. Taki defended the ephemeral against the monumental, as a way for architectural innovation. Sejima was influenced by Shinohara through Ito, but mainly by her personal interest in the photographs Taki took of Shinohara’s work.8 Taki photographed Shinohara’s houses as uninhabited works of art, increasing their surrealist character. Sejima would later take a turn —in contrast to Shinohara’s ideas— by focusing on the individual, and even incorporating her own image into the photographs of her buildings.9 If anything, Sejima took from Shinohara the idea of “style” (yoshiki) associated with the constructive concept, as a way of experimentation.

The Japan Architect magazine —an international version of Shinkenchiku magazine— published in December 1988 an issue under the title Tokyo’s New Breed, including the work of the generation of Japanese architects born in the 1950s to which Sejima (b. 1956) belonged. “Those born in the second half of the twentieth century have never experienced the desperate and tragic drama depicted in modern Japanese history.”10 This is how Riichi Miyake—one of the fifty architects—introduced his own generation in the article “Farewell to the Post-war Syndrome.”

In the same issue, Katsuhiro Kobayashi (b. 1955) published an article under the title “Where to Go, What to Fight?”, in which he explained that that generation —successor of the Superficial Generation— “sometimes was called the ‘generation of sensibility’, arguing that their sensitivity was not strange, provocative or offensive, but rather soft, friendly and acceptable”11. It also stated that it was described as the “generation of tacticians” or the “generation of entertainers”, compared to their predecessors.

Tokyos NewzBreed 1988 copy

Tokyo’s New Breed, 1988.

In addition to Sejima, it included Kengo Kuma and Satoko Shinohara among its ranks. Sejima would stand out among all of them not only for the experimental nature of her work but for creating “School” even beyond Japanese borders.

The Japanese version of the magazine published a questionnaire under the title “Now”, made to fifty architects. While her contemporaries explained extensively the theories that informed their early architecture, Sejima mainly used silence and onomatopoeias, which were a hint of her very intuitive design process, that began with her own body. To the question, “When designing a house, do you have particular daily activities or a sense of reality that you prioritize?”, Sejima replied: “That residents can live free and without limits.”12 Which is an aspiration that we find throughout her work without exception, represents a counterpoint to Ito’s Pao projects, and is the starting point of her subtle revolution.


1 Kazuo Shinohara, “A Record of Significant Space”, 1975, en Kazuo Shinohara & Irmtraud Schaarschmidt-Richter, Kazuo Shinohara (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1994), 133.
2 Toyo Ito, Tarzans in the Media Forest, 179.
3 Shinohara, 1970, en Katsuhiro Kobayashi, “Where to Go, What to Fight?”, The Japan Architect 8811/12 (1988), 94-97.
4 Dana Buntrock, “Architecture-Modern Japan”, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia 1 (2002): 145-148.
5 Hajime Yatsuka, interview with the author, Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo, 21 December 2012.
6 Yatsuka was a pupil of Kenzo Tange and later a disciple and collaborator of Arata Isozaki.
7 Yatsuka, interview with author via correspondence Berkeley-Tokyo, November and December 2012. In response to a question about the concept of Superficial Generation, referring to a group of post-modern architects, including Ito and Hasegawa (Riken Yamamoto).
8 As curator of the 2010 Venice Biennale, Kazuyo Sejima paid tribute to Shinohara, recognizing him as a figure of great influence, both for her and for the entire Japanese contemporary architectural scene.
9 It was Sejima who first began to pose with her projects, as we have seen, especially eloquent in the photo, inhabiting her Women’s Bedroom, next to the architect Nagisa Kidosaki.
10 Riichi Miyake, “Farewell to the Post-war Syndrome”, en The Japan Architect: Tokyo’s New Breed 379/380 (1988), 8-11.
11 Kobayashi, “Where to Go, What to Fight?”, 94-97.
12 Kazuyo Sejima, “Now”, Shinkenchiku (Nov.-Dec. 1988).

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