Tradition – Cube – Machine – Chaos

Productive Contradictions in the Working Methods of Kazuo Shinohara

Alberto Dell'Antonio and Tibor Joanelly

The Japanese master architect himself divided his creative work into four styles. His design interests moved from a conceptual view of the Japanese architectural tradition to a confrontation with the chaotic metropolis of Tokyo. Accompanying Shinohara’s unusual view of his own work, a particularly fascinating aspect of Shinohara’s oeuvre is his vision of a close connection between practice and theory and finally an approach that consciously situates his own work in a charged relationship to social and cultural themes.

Given the important influence that Kazuo Shinohara, born in 1925, exerted on several generations of Japanese architects, his work is astonishingly little known in the West. The reasons for this may well lie in the experimental character of his working methods and in the close relationship between his built works and his own theoretical writings. In reading the few texts that have been translated into German or English one finds very different intellectual perspectives that one then pieces together to form a multi-dimensional image, similar to a Cubist painting. This calls for a willingness to deal with something unfamiliar.

In attempting an approach to the built work a host of difficulties arise: many buildings are not accessible or no longer exist. The dwellings, which are generally small, appear abstract and difficult. They even seem to contradict each other so that, without knowledge of their theoretical background, the observer can be misled into a superficial reception and interpretation. But an overall view reveals that – like a series of laboratory tests – they coalesce in a self-shaping field of inspection. This shifts back and forth between complementary pairs of terms: house and city, tradition and function, even individual and society. From the mid-1970s Shinohara counters heterogeneity of theory-and-buildings with the term ‘style’. From that time on he divides his own creative work into consecutive periods, which ultimately number four, but in fact each style is more like a research phase, relating to different concepts of space and intended to reflect the particular social situation in Japan at a given time1.


Shinohara‘s first house, the House in Kugayama (1954) signifies an homage to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. At the same time it seems a purged version of Kenzo Tange’s own house, built around the same time. The formal reduction of this first work introduces important aspects of the First Style2.

The house can be seen as an attempt to develop further the physical and spiritual essence of traditional Japanese space. At the same time it clearly distinguishes Shinohara’s approach from a prevailing attempt in Japan at the time to enrich functionalist architecture by imposing a traditional symbolism.

As a trained mathematician Shinohara meets tradition with conceptual terms (such as “masculine-feminine“, see the interview with Shuntarō Tanikawa in this issue). Such encounters lead to his highly personalized abstract spatial concept3. Here he appears strongly influenced by Sigfried Giedion, whose book Time, Space and Architecture was translated into Japanese in 1955, in which the author was able to place Western architecture in a relationship to the respective kinds of mathematical thought Shinohara so much admired4. However – and this is typical of his way of working – Shinohara denies any possibility of directly applying Giedion’s concepts to Japan. Time, Space and Architecture is more a stimulus for his own fundamental reflections than a binding intellectual context within which a theory might be developed. The Western way of thinking serves as a kind of counter-form against which Japanese reality and its cultural basis are measured and made accessible.

In his First Style Shinohara attempts, from one design to the next, to explore systematically the conceptual possibilities derived from traditional Japanese building, which leads to a series of programmatic works that examine and develop his theoretical reflections. Around 1970 this recursive method of working leads Shinohara to break with tradition and, by means of an “anti-style”, to devote himself to its “counter-space”.

In the Second Style5 a conceptualized spatiality completely replaces concrete thinking. If recourse to tradition represented a departure from the postwar Japanese mainstream – and from the architecture of Metabolism – Shinohara’s anti-style can be seen as the search for a counter-position. Ironically, this was the exact moment when – as a result of the worldwide student unrest centered in 1968, which also shook Japan – many architects turned towards tradition.

Productive Adaptations

Throughout his creative life Shinohara liked to refer to the influences of other specialist fields and cultures. In this regard his interest is not so much in directly transferring integral concepts but rather in adapting sources of inspiration outside of architecture or the boundaries of his own cultural context. The free and contradictory handling of sources in his thinking was matched by the postulated “acceptance of irrational facts”, which Shinohara saw as part of human nature and which he also applied to his building designs in order to “periodically alter the filter between himself and physical things”.6 It is precisely this process of manipulating influential factors that forms a basis for the dramatic change in the “experimental design” between the four distinct “styles” and led ultimately to a supremely heterogeneous oeuvre.

By introducing a “counter-space“ in the Second Style, Shinohara deliberately contrasts the concept of a white cube reminiscent of American Minimal Art with the traditional Japanese space determined by the rules of handcraft. He thus laid the basis for a working method he describes as at the same time personal, antithetical and shaped by an ambivalent approach.7 In his writings Shinohara’s thinking moved between the description of an inner world of feeling and the role of the observer who stands on the outside8; he encourages the reader to witness an intimate process of interaction between rationality and intuition. Japanese culture, which is known both for its ability to assimilate the “foreign” and the coexistence of contradictions, allowed Shinohara to retain a flexible way of thinking without becoming entangled in his own contradictions. Similar to the “spatial split”9 in the houses of his Second Style, which both connects and separates, he succeeds in building a bridge between the archaic-human at the level of the individual and the programmatic-abstract at the level of society.

The production of meaning

In searching for a spatial concept that could keep pace with rapid changes, Shinohara in his Third Style10 derives inspiration from French (post-)structuralist philosophy. His encounter with the thinking of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduces a change of paradigm. In 1974 a Japanese translation of Deleuze’s study of Marcel Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time appeared11. Deleuze’s exploration of Proust’s poetry of an “anti-logical” montage of self-contained episodes and text elements may be said to elevate Shinohara’s at times volatile working method, his spatial intentions and his reflection on his own work to a new theoretical level. The terms ‘style’ and ‘machine’ are borrowed directly from Deleuze’s book. Similar to the transition from the First to the Second Style, Shinohara distances himself equally from Japanese tradition and from European functionalism of the 1920 and 30s. By means of the “abstract cube” his aim initially is not to put forward the term ‘machine’ in a modernist sense as an obeisance to technology, but rather as an architectural mechanism that focuses on the production of meaning in spaces.

House and City

With the completion of the Tanikawa Residence the machine as the conceptual center of the Third Style develops a hitherto unknown power. This house for a well-known Japanese poet juxtaposes an abstract roof form with a sloping earth floor to create a kind of spatial generator of meaning that is primarily activated by a person moving through the space. Shinohara employs a comparable contrast in his next house, the House in Uehara, located in the orbit of the Shibuya commuter rail and metro node, one of the sub-centers of Tokyo. Six branching concrete columns within a monolithic concrete shell enable the volume to respect the height limitation and cantilever above a carport and entrance. The separation of load-bearing structure and spatial articulation achieved by an inserted wooden mezzanine floor is perceived as lying somewhere between chaos and order. With reference to Lévi-Strauss’s “savage thought” (La pensée sauvage) Shinohara now discourses on “savagery”.12 This intellectual reference is further strengthened by the fact that, while the house was already under construction, the client called for a children’s room to be placed on the roof, which at this stage can no longer be integrated in the overall concept. It seems here that Lévi-Strauss’ reflections on bricolage13 not only offered the solution to a design problem but also provided an answer to the architectural challenge of the chaotic metropolis Tokyo. For Shinohara, the strangely direct way in which this upper room is set above the concrete shell of the house itself becomes an expression linking the “savagery” of the chaotic spatial interior with the “jungle” of the metropolis outside.

At the start of the 1980s the elision of the two terms ‘savagery’ and ‘machine’ to create a “savage space-machine” leads Shinohara to formulate a number of general reflections on the Japanese city (cf. the article by Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli in this issue). Such thoughts reflect his efforts to understand the city’s unplanned form and to make it available for incorporation in his own work. He envisions the problem of urban planning between the solution14 of a mathematical formula with numerous variables and the realization that Tokyo is, in fact, a “phenomenon” and therefore an irrational system15 that cannot be dealt with using the standard instruments of (Western) urban planning. Might this be analogous to the well-known “Great Wave” woodcut by Hokusai, whose very strength the fishing boats depicted cleverly exploit?

In an analogy to the lunar module of the American Apollo program or to the most modern US Navy fighter aircraft of the mid-1970s, Shinohara relates the Fourth Style house to a system of a higher order. He sees the dwelling house as “the forward edge of a far larger machine system” whose functional logic produces an irrational appearance yet whose inner connections remain invisible.16 In contrast to earlier declarations, Shinohara now pays direct homage to the “machine produced by the spirit of the 1920s”.17 He connects it with the “progressive anarchy” of the Japanese city, which embodies a positive strength: “A city that ceaselessly produces such vitality is humanity’s greatest, unintentionally created, machine.”18 The separation of form and function thus becomes the determining criterion of Shinohara’s Fourth Style.19


It is not surprising that Shinohara’s first trip abroad took him to Africa rather than Europe – where he was on the lookout for a “science of the concrete”20 noted by anthropologists as characteristic of non-European tribal societies and that, in his opinion, must likewise be applicable to Japanese culture. For in everyday Japanese life, automated hi-tech and archaic Shinto ritual merge seamlessly with one another.21 A number of works from the especially creative period of the Third Style following House in Uehara do indeed resemble archaic ritual objects, for instance House in Hanayama No. 3 with its curious, creature-like traits in the gable elevation. As he became better known internationally and started to travel more widely Shinohara also confronts the European city. However, it serves him primarily as a counter-form in his attempts to arrive at a useful understanding of the apparently unordered metropolis of Tokyo.

The small House in Yokohama, which he built for himself at nearly the same time as designing the Centennial Hall at Tokyo Institute of Technology, introduces the Fourth Style. The building is the most radical implementation of the paradigms defined at the transition from the Second to the Third Style. As in a Cubist painting, diverse elements that cannot logically be linked are combined: whether surfaces and volumes, functional and symbolic parts, abstract forms and collages made up of fragments of reality. Shinohara compares the effect of the very different parts with “random noise”, namely a chaotic auditory condition that matches the perception of the big Japanese city.

His self-evident conclusion that unadulterated chaos cannot be translated directly into architecture or town planning is converted as a postulate of the beauty resulting from an accidental state of objects.22 He is admittedly fascinated by “the mechanism within chaos that produces a new form of energy”, one comparable to the “qualities of an organism”.23 He views this in general as an expression of constant motion and change rendered understandable in the light of knowledge gained from biology and chaos theory.24 This “progressive anarchy” of House in Yokohama also recalls films from the 1990s by Jean-Luc Godard in which images are detached from plot and sound track.25

After only a few years occupation, House in Yokohama was demolished owing to the fact that the site was sold. As an irony of fate this late masterpiece dissolved in the chaos of greater Tokyo and today it can only be described from an infinite distance. Yet the promise it briefly fulfilled of a new architecture of vital change - one that confirmed the relationship between house and city, tradition and modernism and the individual and society in an exciting whole – assists in compensating the loss.

Alberto Dell’Antonio (1962) practices as an architect in Zurich and also teaches design and construction at ZHAW.  In 1996, he met Kazuo Shinohara in Tokyo for an extended discussion of architecture.

A graphic overview of the four styles together with a list of buildings, texts and exhibitions can be found in: The Japan Architect 93, spring 2014.

1954–1969, from the House in Kugayama to the South House in Hanayama.

3 Kazuo Shinohara, The Three Primary Spaces, in: The Japan Architect, Tōkyō, August 1964. This is a topological space that is defined by the qualities “functional”, “ornamental” and “symbolic”.

4 Kazuo Shinohara, The Japanese Conception of Space, in: The Japan Architect, Tokyo, June 1964.

Shinohara places the Second Style between 1970 and 1974 and the buildings Uncompleted House and Prism House.

6 Kazuo Shinohara, Beyond Symbol Spaces, in: The Japan Architect 174, April 1971, p. 88.

Cf.: Kazuo Shinohara, Die wilde Raummaschine, in: Reinhard Gieselmann (ed.), Prolegomena 33, Vienna 1980, p. 44: “I came to realise  that first one must negate the old system in order to ensure one’s right to exist in present-day society. From that time onwards this kind of ambivalent approach towards an object is one the principles of my architectural method.”

Kazuo Shinohara, Beyond  Symbol Spaces (see footnote 6), p. 82.

Kazuo Shinohara, Beyond Symbol Spaces (see footnote 6), p. 88.

10 1976–1983, from the Tanikawa Residence to the Higashi-Tanagawa Complex.

11 puruusuto to shiinyu: Bungaku kikai toshiteno “ushitnawareta toki wo motomete“, engl.: In search of the lost time as literature machine, Hosei 1974; in the French original: Gilles Deleuze, Proust et les signes, Paris 1963. On the interaction between post-structuralism and Japanese architecture: Gary Genosko, Felix Guattari, An Aberrant Introduction, London, New York 2002.

12 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Chicago 1966.

13 Claude Lévi-Strauss, ibid, p. 16.

14 Kazuo Shinohara, see footnote 7, p. 55.

15 Kazuo Shinohara, see footnote 7, p. 53.

16 Kazuo Shinohara, Towards Architecture, in: The Japan Architect 09/1981, p. 30.

17 Kazuo Shinohara, ibid. p. 33.

18 Kazuo Shinohara, ibid. p. 33.

19 1984–2006, from the House in Yokohama to the project for a House in Tateshina.

20 Claude Lévi-Strauss, see footnote, pp. 1–34.

21 In the light of current knowledge of the essays on Japan  by Lévi-Strauss that were first published in 2011 Shinohara’s journey to Africa appears additionally important as it was precisely  Lévi-Strauss who saw in Japan the realisation of a “humane modernism” between developed and primitive civilisations. Cf.: Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Other Face of the Moon, Cambridge 2013.

22 Kazuo Shinohara, Chaos and Machine, in: The Japan Architect: Shinkenchiku 373, May 1988, p. 27.

23 Kazuo Shinohara, ibid. p. 31.

24 In the essay Chaos and Machine he mentions the Russian physical chemist and Nobel prize-winner Ilya Prigogine, whose book Order out of Chaos, New York 1984 he must have surely known.

25 In particular Nouvelle Vague from 1990 and Hélas pour moi from 1993.

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