‘Nihon to Seiyō: Japan and the West’ was a fascinating lecture at The Courtauld (fancy) and an excellent way to spend a Wednesday evening. Organised by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, Professor Neil Jackson illustrated 150 years of ‘architectural dialogue’ between the West and a swiftly modernising Japan, alluding to the need to question the prevailing hegemony of western architecture.
Due to a self-imposed seclusion called 'sakoku', Japan had essentially been a feudal state from the 1630s until the 1850s when it was reopened. It was at this point that many aspects of Japanese culture, including architecture, experienced rapid westernisation. This meant redesigning the architectural curriculum at universities; Japanese architects began travelling to the US and Europe seeking precedents; and foreign architects were hired to lead many major building projects (some successful, others not so much).
This influence, however, worked in both directions, and many budding Japanese architects trained under architectural 'masters' (such as Le Corbusier) in the West and had a hand in influential designs we know today. The lecture concluded with several case studies which illustrated how as Japan became ‘fashionable’, it shaped western architects and their buildings; from Mackintosh to the Smithsons. Even Carlo Scarpa said “What we call good taste is present everywhere in Japan.” – “And that’s coming from an Italian!” quipped Neil.
Image: Junzo Sakakura's Japanese National Pavilion, which blends East and West, for the 1937 Paris Exposition