The Beauty of Chaos

Plea for a City of Tolerant Coexistence

Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli

A correspondence between Kazuo Shinohara and Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron from 1998 throws some light on the city in which we live today. Here two different readings encounter each other: one of the “Japanese” city, an open system, and one of the “European” city as a closed form – much the way in which it was seen by Aldo Rossi.

“I hope to have the opportunity to hear how you in Switzerland, a country that has constructed cities that are beautiful in a more widely accepted sense, view this theory of Tokyo.”1 This was how Kazuo Shinohara ended a brief correspondence with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 1998. In this correspondence he explains his hypothesis that the contemporary city cannot express anything other than the beauty of confusion. We are not aware whether his friendly enquiry was ever answered and so this text could be understood as an effort to provide one.

Shinohara is generally seen as an architect of masterly individual buildings. Far less well known is the fact that he developed his position from the very start on the basis of two foundations: on the consistent exploration of the architectural potential of the individual building, and, equally, on the reality of the modern Japanese city. Three hypotheses, which Shinohara presented at an early stage in his career, between 1961 and 1964, explain this: “1. The space of a house must be as large as possible2; 2. A house is a work of art3; 3. The expression of modern townscape must be found in the beauty of chaos, and not necessarily in that of harmony4.”

Tokyo as an area largely laid waste by bombing resembles the white sheet of paper on which the young Japanese avant-garde plans the realisation of a modern vision.

Shinohara writes this hypothesis at a time in which Japan finds itself at a cultural turning point. Almost completely destroyed as a consequence of the defeat in the Second World War, in the 1960s the country moves into the economic fast lane and commits itself to Western consumer culture and the belief in technology. Tokyo, an area largely devastated by the bomb attacks, resembles a white sheet of paper on which the young Japanese avant-garde plans the realization of a modern vision.

Shinohara doubts whether a city can be planned. In the mid-1960s the knowledge gradually grows in him that the city of economic and technological progress cannot be grasped, neither on the basis of Japanese tradition nor with the help of the theories of Western modernism. He justifies his reservations with a term which finds no place in the new technocratic culture of planning: “beauty”. «There is a certain beauty in districts never intended for (aesthetic) appreciation, while beauty does not exist in modern communities in which individual houses were designed to be beautiful.»5

On his forays through the rapidly growing Tokyo he discovers a new form of city that is developing on the basis of the old-small-scale plot structure. He is fascinated by apparently irrational, chaotic and rampant growth of a primitive and living city of houses that stand side by side as if they had nothing to do with each other. Nevertheless he sees in them an urban landscape that surpasses the metabolist large projects of his contemporaries in terms of dynamism and liveliness. Chaos and irrationality were seen at that time as negatively connoted terms. For Shinohara, a trained mathematician, they are however phenomena which are to be found in chaos theory and later in the complexity sciences.6 Through his mathematically trained way of thinking he sees the city as an abstract system that is determined by an infinite number of functions.7 Complexity of this kind can never tend towards a final and essentially self-contained solution.

For Shinohara the mechanism of chaos represent a productive basic condition: he calls this phenomenon: “progressive anarchy”.

Growing complexity accompanied by a simultaneous loss of political control leads, he said, to cities ultimately expressing disorder rather than order.8 For Shinohara the mechanics of chaos therefore represent a productive basic condition, as they are a necessary catalyst for the vitality and viability of a city; he describes this phenomenon as "progressive anarchy“.9

Less surprisingly Shinohara prophesied that the cities of Europe would eventually have to experience this state of chaos. In his essay Wien und Tokio, written during a two month stay in Vienna, he compares the two urban models and expands his hypothesis by adding the pair of terms “open and closed systems“.10 As Tokyo has abandoned the aspect of unity it has become an open city, he writes, whereas Vienna represents a closed system. Openness however is an essential characteristic for the vitality of large cities and their ability to survive. A cool view of reality of this kind leads to a different understanding of beauty, a beauty of liveliness, of contrasts and disunity. With this radically affirmative approach there is no longer any necessity to recall pictures from the past.11 In this approach, which is diametrically opposed to a European understanding, one can recognize an ideologically explosive contrast: freedom versus control!

In characterizing the Japanese city Shinohara also used the term savagery“. The martial undertone here describes from a western viewpoint the struggle between the often almost uncontrollable forces of the city rather accurately: the city as a jungle. In the context of wildness the processes of discovering form become contradictory, control is lost and chance or randomness becomes a design tool. In projects such as the House in Uehara or the House under High-Voltage Lines internal and external contradictions are not only allowed, they become the generating moment of the architecture.

It is to a certain extent paradoxical that these theories and reflections on the city come from an architect whose built oeuvre consists largely of single-family houses. But for Shinohara the relationship between building and city is not contradictory but reciprocal: for him the house is always also the expression of a whole and a static composition that embodies daily life. The city in contrast produces precisely the beauty of chaos that collects all these entities.12

Tradition can represent the starting point for the design but not the goal

At approximately the same time we find in Europe, in the person of Aldo Rossi, a personality who devoted himself to the architecture of the city in an equally radical way. In his case however the examination of the history of the European city and its fracture points led to a diametrically opposed understanding. As a collective project the city for Rossi is the sum of all rational and irrational circumstances, a built piece of architecture. With the hypothesis of the indivisibility of the city he formulates a fundamental critique of the functionalism of modern urban planning. His morphological approach enables the reestablishment of link to history, in which the term “type” becomes a decisive conceptual instrument in order to bring analysis and design practice together. The memories of the collective, which preceded the creation of the form, are stored in the type. However this utopia of the form engages actual urban development and the unloved reality almost automatically with an amalgam of history diffuse memory, longings and ideology – with the “always“ of history.13

This brings us back to the question raised by Shinohara at the start. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who were students of Aldo Rossi at the ETHZ, recognised at an early stage the limitations in applying the theoretical apparatus of their Italian teacher to conditions here and accordingly radically expanded their set of instruments for investigating the city.14

Whereas for Rossi architecture ultimately represents a memory technology with the goal of historical continuity, Shinohara departs in a series of stages from traditional architecture and its cultural ties. Shinohara’s path leads away from historically determined architecture which sees itself practically as a generally valid distillation of timeless contents to a thematic one. The railway junction Shibuya in Tokyo becomes for him a place at which the lack of images from the past represents an explicit quality. Directly developed from the local circumstances of mobility and commerce this place stands only for itself as a radically new form of city and architecture.

At its edges and in the agglomerations the unfettered forces noted by Shinohara have long been at work

Let us thus leave for a moment the clichéd images of the world of our „beautiful cities in a more widely accepted sense“ as Shinohara describes them in the letter referred to that he wrote to Herzog and de Meuron. Let us look with a cold but empathic gaze at the reality of the contemporary European city. At its edges and in the agglomerations the unfettered forces noted by Shinohara have long since been at work, despite a dense network of rules and regulations and planners attempts at establishing order. Eight years before the correspondence between Shinohara and the Basel architects the archithese published an issue with the title Neue Ansichten – Dirty Realism. This issue contained an essay by Fritz Neumeyer with the eloquent title Realität als Disziplin (Reality as Discipline) which describes the transformation of cities through the concentrated force of industrialization and the associated reorientation of architecture, - ironically only a few years before Neumeyer’s transformation into a theoretical apologist for the traditional European city.15 With a look at the historical recollection influenced by Rossi he urges that a modern architecture for the big city should not be viewed as a historical desideratum but as an instrument for the perception and construction of contemporary reality.

Here the question arises as to what extent Rossi’s term “type“ which establishes its legitimacy primarily through history (although in fact it does not have to do so), is at all suitable as a working tool for our reality. Marcel Meili for instance has defined the type less as a design instrument and more as an epistemological one which can measure the invisible qualities of general cultural processes. Architecture is - and this is decisive - no longer only «evidence of the historicity of a city which is no longer our one“, but it becomes a medium for the whole.16

Shinohara’s work can be better understood through this view of architecture as an organ of perception or transformation apparatus. From the phenomenologically influenced “Crevice Space“17 of various houses in the second style to the House in Uehara the path to the Centennial Hall of Tokyo Institute of Technology seems to be already indicated. In fact the leap from the perception machine to the urban machine takes place here: the Centennial Hall is technoid and mysterious, heroic and industrial, eloquent and silent at one and the same time. It is not comprehensible and yet it is present, it products a genuine piece of Tokyo. Shinohara‘s radical emancipation from Japanese tradition to an artistically autonomous architecture rooted in the reality of the contemporary city describes the path from an „art of interpretation“18 to an architecture as medium.

Shinohara‘s politely expressed reservations about the “closed“ European city – and its inability to change which he implies – today seems to us an intensification typical of this Japanese architect. We live in cities that are both “European“ and “Japanese“. Shinohara’s view of their complex reality could however serve us as a model: what is there and not what perhaps once was there, would then provide the material for our Modern next19. This would be the material for a city of tolerant coexistence, a city of programmatic, typological and architectural freedom – the European city of the future.

Mathias Müller (1966) and Daniel Niggli (1970) together run the architecture practice EM2N in Zurich.

1 Kazuo Shinohara, The Mechanism of Fiction Never Stops Functioning, in: SD (Supesu desain) 2-1998, Tokyo 1998, p. 115.

2 Shin-Ichi Okuyama, Worlds and Spaces: How Kazuo Shinohara’s Thought Spans between Residential and Urban Theory, in: 2G No. 58/59, Barcelona 2011, p. 36. He quotes Shinohara as follows: «Seikatsu kukan no atarashi shiten o motomete (Seeking new viewpoints about living space)», Shinkenchiku, vol. 36, no. 1, Tōkyō, Januar 1961, p. 105.

3 Kazuo Shinohara, Jutaku wa geijutsu de aru (A house is a work of art), in: Shinkenchiku, vol. 37, no. 1, Tōkyō, Januar 1962, p. 77.

4 Kazuo Shinohara, Jutaku Kenchiku (Residential Architecture), Kinokuniya, Shinsho, Tōkyō, 1964, p. 103.

5 Kazuo Shinohara, as note. 4, p. 102.

6 Kazuo Shinohara, Toward a Super-Big Numbers Set City and a Small House Beyond, 2000, in: 2G 58/59, Barcelona 2011, p. 281.

7 Kazuo Shinohara, as note 6, p. 280.

8 Kazuo Shinohara, as note 6, p. 284.

9 Kazuo Shinohara, Auf dem Weg zur Architektur, in: Baumeister 11/1984, München, p. 49.

10 Kazuo Shinohara, Wien und Tokio, in: Institut für Wohnbau und Tadao Andō (eds.): Bewohnbare Architektur, Viena 1990, p. 92.

11 Kazuo Shinohara, The Context of Pleasure, in: The Japanese Architect, Sept. 1986, Tōkyō, p. 23.

12 Kazuo Shinohara, as note 6, p. 287. Elsewhere Shinohara describes the house and the city as dependant on each other. Cf. P. 15 in this issue.

13 Ulrich Schwarz, Dieses ist lange her, in: archithese 3.2014, Sulgen, pp. 34-39.

14 Philip Ursprung, Genealogie – Aldo Rossi und Herzog & de Meuron, Tec21 25/2011, Zürich, p.31, see also Marcel Meili, Ein paar Bauten, viele Pläne, in: werk, bauen + wohnen 12-1989, pp. 26-31.

15 Fritz Neumeyer, Realität als Disziplin. Grossstadtarchitektur und urbane Identität, in: archithese 1.1990, Sulgen, pp.22–27.

16 Marcel Meili, Probleme unserer Entwurfsarbeit, Harvard Lecture, July 2002.

17 Kazuo Shinohara, description of The Uncomplete House, in: Kazuo Shinohara, Berlin 1994, p. 32.

18 Fritz Neumeyer, as note 15.

19 Kazuo Shinohara, Chaos and Machine, in: The Japan Architect: Shinkenchiku 373, May 1988, Tōkyō, p. 31.

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