Japanese Pavilion





As the commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion for the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture, I had visited the pavilion almost continuously for two weeks. In recent years, to see both the art and architecture exhibitions, I have visited Venice annually. In other words, the Japanese Pavilion is the architecture outside of Japan that I am most familiar with.

Among the national pavilions that are housed in the Giardini, the Japanese Pavilion, built in 1956, stands on a unique site where the ground is not leveled. The building engaging the sloping landscape is its major character. Takamasa Yoshizaka, the architect who designed the pavilion, worked for the office of Le Corbusier from 1950 to 1952. Because of this, it is easy to suspect the pilotis of the pavilion to be inherited from the master. The fact is, unlike the pilotis of modernism that become a device to separate the building from the ground, the ones for the Japanese Pavilion suggest a complex relationship with the small hill of the Giardini. The area at the foot of the pilotis was intended as an exhibition space for sculptures. Circulating around and up from the stairs to the left, one can enter through the main entrance into the elevated exhibition space. No other pavilion in the Giardini has such relational character with the landscape. In 2002, storage and toilets were added at the pilotis level, and a ramp was also added next to the entrance stairway. As a result, the natural light was blocked from reaching deeper below where the space had originally been more bright and airy.

Looking at the drawings of the Japanese Pavilion when he was still a student, one architect recalls being amazed at “how beautiful the drawings were.” The drawings back then showed intricately drawn stones surgically placed with plants and ponds. One can observe the carefully positioned bending approach and building layout, with special attention paid to avoid cutting the existing trees. The drawing for the pilotis level with only the wall pillars expressed, fading into the presence of the building, looks like a landscape drawing. The pavilion does not merely divide the building and the landscape into “figure” and “ground,” but rather conceptualizes them together as one entity. Yoshizaka was an architect who loved nature and loved climbing mountains. Because of this, he is not a nature-confronting modernist. Back then, natural light poured in through glass blocks in the ceiling. Directly at the center of the building was an 86-cm-square opening in the ceiling and a 175-cm-square opening at the floors, providing a space where light and air flow inside. They unite the inside and outside environment together without detaching the two, but these openings were later modified. In reality, the environment is not ideal for the sensitive paintings. Although it was well received in terms of its design at the time, questions regarding its function inevitably arose.

When I meet the people from the Art portion, they always complain about the difficulty of using the Japanese Pavilion. Predictably, it was the architects who respected and actively engaged with Yoshizaka’s original design intent when developing their exhibition plan. In the 1996 Venice International Architecture Exhibition when the Japanese Pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion, the award-winning exhibition was known for the rubble that Commissioner Arata Isozaki had brought over from the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake. But what should have been noted is the reopening of the concealed ceiling and floor of the pavilion. In a dark room with stacked rubble and large photo prints recreating the devastated scenery, light flows in perpendicularly from above as it does in the Pantheon. The former staff of Yoshizaka Atelier were deeply moved by this exhibition and shared his view about how it brought back the original form of the pavilion. The Japanese Pavilion was conceived to represent the rebuilding of architecture from the ruins of World War II in tangible form.

In the 1995 Art Exhibition, Kengo Kuma came up with a design for the Japanese Pavilion that proposed placing water on the floors inside to transform the entire building into a garden so visitors could experience circulating around a pond in the exhibition space. The 7th Architectural Exhibition in 2000 is also interesting. Titled “City of Girls,” the Japanese Pavilion housed works of artists, including the youngest participating artist Deki Yayoi, that expressed the sensibility of young women. But SANAA transformed the pavilion space into pure white. The white, representing innocence, does not stop inside. White sand filled the landscape all the way under the exhibition space to the pilotis, and white artificial flowers were planted along the slope next to the steps with tree trunks covered with white cloth. In addition, 60 white delicately thin chairs were placed throughout the entire site. Kazuyo Sejima mentioned she had aimed for a park-like architecture treating the inside and outside the same. The idea of treating both the inside and out equally relates back to Yoshizaka’s original idea. The opening on the floor was also used effectively. (On a side note, the person who was working as a staff to set up that exhibition was the architect for the 2008 Japanese pavilion and the 2010 Golden Lion award winner, Junya Ishigami.)

Before the current Japanese pavilion was built, the Japanese side had sent drawings of a pavilion to the Biennale organization in 1932. It was a design called “the imperial crown style” of a modern building with a traditional Japanese tiled roof. This design was becoming a popular trend at the time, reflecting rising nationalism. Eventually, problems with the site and the expanding war prevented it from being realized. The Japanese Pavilion was not seriously considered until Japan officially announced its Biennale participation in 1952. Although the land was provided by the organization, Japan initially had difficulty financing the project, and its realization was threatened. With the 3 million yen allocated from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and 20 million yen donated from the president of Bridgestone tires, Shojiro Ishibashi, the pavilion was built. Ishibashi was known as an art collector and a fan of architecture, who also financed the construction cost for the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo in 1969. Yoshizaka, who had just returned from France, was selected as the architect at the recommendation of the Japanese architectural community. Yoshizaka, whose father worked for the United Nations, was a cosmopolitan who traveled back and forth between Geneva and Japan and toured Europe as a young child, which was unusual for a Japanese person born in 1917. He was an architect who possessed a spirit other than the imperial crown style. While the Imperial Crown style expressed Japan-ness via semiotic means, Yoshizaka instead inherited a different Japanese sensibility by paying careful attention to the landscape and bringing nature inside.

Once, the art commissioner requested his permission to make some modifications to the pavilion, but Yoshizaka curtly refused, saying, “Why not create an art piece that does not lose to architecture?” As mentioned earlier, the pavilion was not popular among the Art contingent. The complaints included the small space, narrow walls, a marble floor that’s too strong, a gloomy pilotis space, that the exhibition often gets dissected, leaks, a space that gets dirty easily, and the space not being in tune with the scale of contemporary art. Though not all these issues are the fault of the architect, by 1970 the opening in the ceiling was closed with a lidlike covering, and in 1986 gray carpet was installed. By 1988 the floor center was transformed into a bench and sealed. Also, the glass-block roof was overlaid with asphalt weatherproofing, and the pond was covered up. In fact, the 1950s program of using the exhibition space for paintings and pilotis area for sculptures does not work well with evolving contemporary art and large installations.

The exhibition record shows traces of anguish. For the photographic exhibition by Kishin Shinoyama in 1976, Arata Isozaki arranged a homogenous space by installing carpet and covering the walls and ceiling with white fabric. In contrast, the exhibition I saw in 2009 by Miwa Yanagi and the one by Tabaimo in 2011 both had nicely incorporated the characteristics of this architecture into their work. The former leaned large photo prints against the wall pillars, and the latter decided to interpret the opening in center of the floor as a well. For the 2010 Architecture Exhibition, Atelier Bow-Wow installed a giant architectural model that seemed to be penetrating the floor center with its base hanging from the pilotis ceiling. Tadashi Kawamata in 1982 assembled wood pieces to look like a construction site and attempted a daunting architectural installation that intervened in both the inside and outside of the pavilion.

For the exhibition by Junya Ishigami in 2008, where I was involved as a commissioner, we also agonized about the space inside. No matter how we placed an object, it did not feel right. Eventually, we decided to leave the space free from objects in order to bring out the beauty of the space itself and instead left detailed drawings on the walls that can be seen only when viewed closely. Also, to enhance our interpretation of Yoshizaka’s ideas, a group of small greenhouses borrowing the green scenery from the adjacent Russian and Korean pavilions was constructed outside, aiming for a landscape that blurred the boundaries between inside and out. Admittedly, the Japanese Pavilion is not an all-mighty white cube that is used with ease. But having come to understand its flaws, I am fond of this building because it contains the potential to withdraw and allow work to be exhibited in a unique way.


Taro Igarashi was born in Paris, France in 1967. He received his BA and MA in architecture from the Engineering Department at the University of Tokyo and his Ph.D. in the history of architecture. He presently is a professor of engineering in the graduate school of Tohoku University. He was the curator for Japan’s section in the Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2007 and a commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion for the Venice biennale in 2008. He will serve as artistic director of the Aichi Triennale in 2013.

Igarashi has produced extensive writings of architectural criticism. A sampling includes: “Kenchiku wa Ika ni Shakai to Kairo wo Tsunagu no ka” (How Can Architecture Link Society With Its Circuitry?); “Kenchiku/Toshi Book Guide 21 Seiki” (Architecture/City Book Guide, 21st Century); “Owari no Kenchiku/Hajimari no Kenchiku” (Architecture of the end/Architecture of the beginning); “Shinshukyo to Kyodai-kenchiku” (New Religions and Gigantic Architecture); “Senso to Kenchiku” (War and Architecture); “Kaboubi Toshi” (City of Excessive Defence); as well as the “Post-bubble” Era and Architecture (Touring Exhibition “Parallel Nippon: Contemporary Japanese Architecture 1996-2006,” the Japan Foundation/Architectural Institute of Japan, 2007).