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07.03.2017 / ArtsPeople, Tokyo

'Tokyo Calling' Article in Look Magazine

In the lead up to the ArtsPeople-led tour of Japan More than Meets the Eye: Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design commissioned by the Art Gallery Society of NSW and Renaissance Tours, ArtsPeople's Kathryn Hunyor was asked to write an article for Look Magazine, Australia’s highest circulation monthly arts magazine.

Daily life in Japan can be an aesthetic feast for the senses that blends nature, city and culture, writes expat Kathryn Hunyor.


At first glance, Tokyo is the same city I left 12 years ago – a bustling maze of shifting scale that stimulates the senses to almost overload. But wandering through the back streets of the Aoyama neighbourhood recently and stumbling upon architect Kengo Kuma’s SunnyHills cake shop, which is literally hidden behind a dense wooden lattice, I became aware of the depth of the transformation that has taken place in Japanese culture and design over the last decade.

Like a single Cherry Blossom tree optimistically blooming amongst the city’s heavy overhead power-lines and crumbling post-war apartment buildings, SunnyHills reminds us of Japan’s deep reverence for nature – a reverence that too often became lost in the architecture of the preceding two decades.

Kuma is one of international architecture’s biggest names. Responsible for works such as Tokyo’s Nezu Museum, his oeuvre of the past decade is dominated by beautiful, contemporary interpretations of Japanese tradition. Together with his renowned compatriots Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa at SANAA, his creations exhibit a deference and respect for their surroundings, be they a busy metropolis, or serene rural landscape. Luckily for Sydney, both SANAA and Kuma are bringing a Japanese sensibility to the city’s architecture: SANAA with their design for AGNSW’s Sydney Modern, and Kuma with his stunning wooden spiral “Darling Exchange” for Darling Harbour.

Kuma has also been the talk of Tokyo since his design was selected as the new 2020 Olympic Stadium, a project plagued by controversy since the late Zaha Hadid’s ambitious plans were scrapped by Prime Minister Abe mid-last year. If anything symbolizes the change that has occurred in Japanese aesthetic priorities in the last few decades it is that Kuma’s tree-lined stadium made of timber was chosen over a concrete-and-steel monument for such a showcase facility.

With these recent developments it’s hard not to feel an enthusiasm and confidence in Japan’s rediscovered ability to seamlessly blend both traditional and contemporary art, craft, design, architecture, culture, commerce and even sport. Art is infused through everything from shopping to catching a train (the “Genbi Shinkansen”, a bullet train from Echigo-Yuzawa to Niigata, has just been launched, featuring the work of Japanese and international contemporary artists). In Japan, daily habits become an aesthetic feast for the senses that serve to illustrate the lack of distinction between high and low art here. There is just a commitment to beauty, attention to detail, and an elegant refinement.

One way to really experience this blending of art and design through everyday life is to visit one of Tokyo’s mixed-use facilities, which combine offices, shops, restaurants, and art and cultural facilities. Highlights include Roppongi Hills, Hikari-e, and Tokyo Midtown. These massive developments also show how the big corporations who carve up Tokyo compete with each other for the distinction of ‘most fashionable destination’.

When I returned to Sydney from Tokyo in 2004, Roppongi Hills had just opened. There was still a feeling of disbelief when hearing about developer Minoru Mori’s vision for Roppongi to become Japan’s centre of art, culture and design. Roppongi?!  Seedy Roppongi with its overabundance of salubrious nightclubs and reputation for shady dealings? Gentrification is nothing new, but the speed and might with which Roppongi transformed from pebble to shining jewel is remarkable.

Roppongi Hills burst onto the international art scene in 2003 with the acclaimed Mori Art Museum and several significant public artworks. Not to be outdone, Mitsui Fudosan hit back in 2007 with Tokyo Midtown, built on the former Defence Agency site down the road. As well as beautiful design stores, gourmet food shops, glamorous boutiques, and sumptuously landscaped gardens, Midtown also houses legendary architect Tadao Ando’s Design Sight 21_21 and Kengo’s Suntory Museum of Art. The adjacent National Art Center by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the greats of Japanese architecture, completes the trifecta of major art destinations.

Meanwhile, the regions of Japan are experiencing a transformation of a very different kind; one that equally illustrates the Japanese ability to not only blend art, design and traditional culture into everyday life, but use these as key ingredients for popular success. Since the 1990s an abundance of regional revitalisation projects have emerged that use contemporary art as the key driver to address issues of de-population and declining economies.

These efforts, funded through a mix of public, corporate, and philanthropic sources, are symbolised by two major contemporary art triennales: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (Niigata) and the Setouchi Triennial (occupying 12 islands in the Seto inland sea), both of which are now well-known across the globe and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each edition. With innovative approaches to curating, such as the adaptive re-use of traditional farmhouses into contemporary artworks, this regional transformation feels equally as authentic and rooted in Japanese culture as the evolution occurring in Tokyo.

Of the Setouchi “art islands” Naoshima has become the most well-known, having launched the first of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima Museums in 1992. Initially defined by the architecture of Tadao Ando and his love of smooth-faced concrete harmonising with nature, this museum boldly showed the world how a museum can play second fiddle to the landscape. This idea is now illustrated in a multitude of ways across Japan, in particular through the work of SANAA – a firm synonymous with re-defining museum architecture.

For the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa on the opposite side of Japan, SANAA created a shimmering pavilion that blends with the surrounding parklands and – unusually for a public art museum in Japan – feels absolutely part of the local community. The building is not a monument. Instead the architects took a deferential approach, making the art and surrounds the hero. A visit to Kanazawa paints a beautiful picture in your mind’s-eye of the potential for Sydney Modern and the Botanic Gardens to achieve a similar harmony. Kanazawa has also become a mecca for SANAA fans from across the globe, attracting more than a million visitors a year.

So it’s not at all surprising that Nishizawa’s most recent creation – the Teshima Art Museum – takes museum architecture to a new extreme. Nishizawa’s building, nestled in the rice-paddy-dotted mountains on the island of Teshima, is a masterpiece. Created in collaboration with artist Rei Naito, the architect is not only deferential to the surrounding landscape, but also his artist collaborator. The result is a free-standing structure where artwork, building and nature are indivisible. Nishizawa has positioned the island itself as the museum.

In this way, Japan in 2016 exudes a new quiet confidence. Perhaps these shifts are a reflection of the change in people’s priorities, where developers and decision-makers are recognising a greater need for harmony, and demanding fewer monuments that stake claim to the city and landscape. Or perhaps the challenge of the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon is helping to sharpen everyone’s thinking about what authentic contemporary Japanese culture looks like.

Either way, I can’t help feeling there has never been a better time to be an Australian in Tokyo.

Words: Kathryn Hunyor


Look Magazine, Winter 2016

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