Vital Encounter

Kazuo Shinohara and the Philosopher Koji Taki

Shin-Ichi Okuyama

Many of the photographs printed in this issue come from the camera of a Japanese critic and philosopher. It cannot be due to mere chance that a brief encounter on the fringes of the Japanese culture business resulted in a brilliant work and a close friendship.

In 1964, a joint exhibition by Kazuo Shinohara and Setsu Asakura was held at Odakyu Department Store in Tokyo. Although the work of two individuals, it more resembled a one-man showing of a contrasting pair of revised ideals Shinohara was proposing as residential spaces. Full-scale, fully finished mock-ups replete with furnishings of two Archetypal House designs by Shinohara occupied most of the exhibition area, while the stylish graphic works by Asakura served only to ornament the walls of these spaces. Moreover, several models of earlier houses already completed by Shinohara were exhibited together with elegant texts composed by the architect.

A critique of this exhibition was published in a public relations magazine of a Japanese glass manufacturer. The text entitled “Beautiful Proclamation” included a review of Shinohara’s earliest book, Residential Architecture [Jutaku Kenchiku] published just prior to the opening of the show— most probably because the author of the article was almost bound to examine Shinohara’s ideological foundations. It was curious that this article was unsigned; only the initial ‘T’ was poised at the end of text. Shinohara must have been impressed by the profound accuracy and insight of this critical text, for it is said that he went to the trouble to learn that the writer was the young philosopher Koji Taki, to whom he at once sent a letter requesting a meeting.

Based on this encounter, Shinohara and Taki became sworn friends and frequently engaged in architectural discussion. The inevitable result was that essays by Taki in praise and analysis of Shinohara’s work began to appear in various journals of architecture and art.

Koji Taki showed a strong interest in a somewhat abstract relationship between the visual arts and society at large. In particular, his own philosophy was colored by the thinking of Walter Benjamin. In addition, Taki’s conception of the art of the photograph was naturally another starting point of his thought. For it is today well known that Taki was soon to become one of the principal editors of PROVOKE, a cult photography journal founded in 1968. These brief observations will suffice to characterize Taki’s stance at the time.

Yet given his interests, Taki’s uniqueness was that he didn’t regard photographic art as a mere research aim. He also imposed the praxis of photography on himself for which Shinohara’s works became deservedly rich targets. It is the job of a photographer to shoot a more or less elaborate subject under a shining sun conforming to an exacting composition. Such conditions may be simple enough, but Taki was not looking to become a professional photographer. He tried to extract the deeper significance of his target motifs, namely in this case Shinohara’s residential works, using his lens. He seemed to be responding in kind to Shinohara’s directive to “render in beauty the space of fiction,” intended to suggest that the social dimension of a private residence is in the end limited to carefully arranged publication in the photographic media available to the profession. It is true that Shinohara’s spaces were rooted in clear theories supported by his own writing. However, Taki soon discovered that Shinohara’s creative impulses derived not only from theory but also from the life of the body. He seemed to understand intuitively that one had to take a corporeal to approach such impulses.

A quantity of film focusing on Shinohara’s works shot by Taki from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s remains, amongst which certain amazing individual shots were born that to this day help us grasp the professed “fictionality” of Shinohara’s spaces.

Taki exhibited little if any interest in architecture as praxis directly focused on reshaping an ever more urbanizing society. Shinohara, by contrast, had always sought an origin of life disregarded by the general public at that time. Japan of the sixties, from the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964 to Expo ’70 held at Osaka, was an era during which architects helped reconstruct society and the metropolis by fervently embracing technology under the impulse of a high GDP. Yet, Shinohara by contrast hoped to restore a sense of human life within the space of the small house by reconsidering Japanese tradition— at a time when most saw tradition as little more than nostalgia for the good old days. The start of his relations with Taki was just that two-page spread bearing a short essay without any signature, but their encounter seems scarcely to have occurred by accident and the result was indispensable to Shinohara’s own development.

Epilogue

The abilities of Koji Taki far exceeded his incapacity to remain a mere architectural critic. Shinohara looked forward to a rendering of his works into words by Taki’s unusual skills. But unsurprisingly, the sphere of his friend’s activities expanded and architecture came to be only one source of interest among numerous others. In parallel with this situation, Shinohara began gradually to be appreciated abroad. It's a commonplace of the architectural world that a rising reputation is correlated with an abundance of critical attention. Shinohara’s spaces were no longer a topic Taki was inclined to conjure up at bodily risk. Toward the end of his life, Shinohara wished to engage in a brisk conversation with Taki in the pages of a magazine, but Taki failed to respond to his request. The seemingly inevitable encounter of these two teaches us that any interaction between generous talents within a given creative age carries with it an anxiety for self-improvement, but also that a situation of this sort has the ability to supply both parties with needed support for future achievement.

Shin-Ichi Okuyama is an architect and professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. He teaches Architectural Design and Theory. In his position as custodian of the Kazuo Shinohara Estate documents, he has published or directed several books and essays about Kazuo Shinohara, and edited the final book by Shinohara, entitled Aphorisms (2004). He has also written more broadly on topics relating to contemporary Japanese architecture.

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