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Cacophonous constructions

A panel exhibition of contemporary Japanese architecture highlights its maddening diversity

A young bride, who has just arrived in Tokyo, in an e-mail on her impressions on the city to whose alien ways she will have to adapt herself, writes about what struck her as the strangest sight there. Although she has spotted two old ladies in kimonos, most younger Japanese women have bleached their hair blonde and wear either tight leather skirts or pants and long coats to complete the ensemble.

So one wonders, do the traditional and the modern coexist in Tokyo the way they do in other ancient cities like London and Paris, or have new ways of life elbowed out what is broadly labelled “heritage” from the Japanese capital, as they have in certain south-east Asian cities with booming economies'

Photographs, however faithful they may be to reality, can create a deceptive impression. So it is difficult to arrive at anything approaching a decisive conclusion from the panel exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Architecture 1985-96, organised by the Consul General of Japan, Calcutta, which opens on Friday at the Nehru Children’s Museum. The impression one gets from these beautiful, if somewhat coldly detached, photographs is a tremendous outburst of creative energy that would sweep away anything that comes before its path. But we all know how the Japanese value tradition and how they will pay any price to preserve it.

After the traumatic experiences and the havoc wrought by World War II, the Japanese government undertook massive reconstruction projects, a good part of which was to do with housing.

Patronage was provided by local municipalities as well as the corporate and public sector which, however, allowed much more leeway than one would have expected.

Much that is on display bears the post-modern mark in its random mix of allusions to the past and modernist fragments, and the “cacophony” created thus. It is also informed by the minimalism and grace that one associates with traditional Japanese architecture.

According to an introductory note prepared by the Japan Foundation, the 10-year period the exhibition covers began in the era of the bubble economy marked by ballooning growth that was destined to burst. Once it went bust, sobriety prevailed and budgets were slashed. But fortunately for the Japanese, that was never a dampener. Japanese architecture continues to be as diverse as ever.

The various styles have been documented straightforward and have been divided in seven categories — metropolises, medium-sized cities, towns and villages, suburbs, reclaimed land, countryside and resort areas — “to better show how architectural expression responded to changes in social conditions in Japan.”

In the large cities, the populace mostly comprises a workforce forced to leave their homes. Much that is constructed is demolished once the money invested is recovered, which happens long before a building’s lifespan is over.

So the ephemeral cityscape is alienating and eerily reminiscent of the cult film Bladerunner, in spite of Japanese cities being clinical in their cleanliness. The structures are a maddening and eccentric accumulation and pile-up of boxes, grids, towers, pistons, zany classical quotations and huge structures of light indicative of an imagination gone haywire.

The scene is disconcerting and absolutely inconceivable, to say the least, for people brought up in backwaters such as Calcutta. But sanity seems to prevail in medium-sized cities.

Classical poise is embodied in the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. Apparently, these smaller cities have evolved from the feudal castle towns of yore and certain time-honoured principles.

These are still the inspiration in towns and villages. In the best tradition of that country, art complements nature here.

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