Friday, 30 August 2013

Photo Journal: Tokyo 8.2013 (part 2)

Museum Visits

Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館) at Ueno Park. 

  The Japanese Gallery looks dated and does not have a great depository of its national arts as anticipated. Comparatively speaking, the collections in Asian Gallery on right is richer in quality and better by display.  I happened to miss out on The Gallery of Horyuji Treasure (法隆寺宝物館), which is positively smaller but nicely contemporary in design.  This gallery and the Museum Garden (with restored Edo timber buildings) would justify a revisit to Ueno Park.

The Gallery of Horyuji Treasure on left and
 Museum Garden on right. ( and
  The latter with tea houses is open for two periods of time in spring and autumn only.  

Three-storey Asian Gallery with artefacts spanning from the Orient to the Middle-East.

Stone sculptures and relief works dominate the venue. 

Tang dynasty pottery figures remind one of the Star Wars princesses.

Rare collections of Egyptian and Mesopotamian art are present.

American pop art and photographs by Andreas Gursky were on show at the Tokyo National Art Center (国立新美術館) in Roppongi.  Having seen in other places, I skipped both to lunch at Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musee on one of the giant drums and acclaimed locally as a value-for-money establishment. 

The foyer is packed with three restaurants and café, cutlery clanking fills the high ceiling.  The museum entrance has the impression of a trendy hotel lobby.

Seductive curves of the external wall summarize this work by Kisho Kurokawa (黑川纪章, 1934-2007).

Passed Aoyama Prada in a leafy neighbourhood is the Nezu Museum (根津美術館).  The little custodian of oriental arts was completely remodeled by Kengo Kuma (隈研吾) in 2009 after the initial opening in 1940.

The foyer overlooking the garden.
The building is deceptively simple in design. Yet it is loaded with values underscoring Japanese design philosophy - simplicity of expression and efficiency of use.

The clever use of real bamboo shoots screens the site away from the busy traffic outside. The resulting long possession towards the lobby allows people to prepare for the mood of museum visit. 

My flight schedule prevented me from a proper visit of the museum.

Floor plan showing the revered café nestled in 
garden setting. ( 

As the terminating point of the fashion walk along Omotesando, Nezu would make up a peaceful winding-down of any visit schedule.  

Kawagoe (川越)

This small town of 30-minute journey from Ikebukuro Railway Station retains the old charms that has disappeared in down-town Tokyo, hence the affectionate name of “Little Edo”.  Despite the fact that most buildings are replicated from the past, the time-honoured urban fabric is preserved. The Tower of Bell, initially constructed for fire warning, tells the time once every fifteen minutes.

Amid tourist trails, there are genuine domestic neighbourhoods around.

The traditional Japanese house is where the architectural influences of the Tang yynasty (618-906) from China remain traceable.  It had been revealed that the US government consulted the Chinese architectural scholar Leong Si-cheng (梁思成, 1901-1972) prior to the massive raids of Japan towards the end of WWII.  Leong advised that Nara (奈良) and Kyoto (京都) be spared due to the fact that its existing architectural heritage even surpassed those remained in China.  

Thriving street life and interesting shops abound.

People, in formal attire, paying respect to shrines at the famous Youjyuin Temple (養寿院).

Buddha with serene gaze at the cemetery of the temple.

Observe the beautiful piece of paper weight on free booklets for visitors.  This unguarded snake ornament would have been pinched in most countries.

Country at Crossroads

Amid the economic downturn from the 1990s up to now, the Japanese government has tried various fiscal policies to dig themselves out from what is known as The Lost Decades (失われた20Ushinawareta Nijunen)One of them is the bidding and eventual selection to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.  Will this city, indeed the whole country, get out of the dogged recession and go through another economic miracle just as it did half a century ago?

Understanding the People

Without actual fieldwork at the time, much of Ruth Benedict’s distant anthropological work The Chrysanthemum and The Sword, 1946 is still relevant.  Distance is relative, being near does not automatically imply that one has a clear understanding of things.  On this occasion, photographic narratives are correlated as impressions for readers.

Beauty and cosmetics are huge businesses here, the alternative pedicure massage at the entertainment district of Kabukicho (歌舞技町) offers a quiet spectacle.

The Japanese sense of aesthetics and attention to detail can be overwhelming.  In this instance the shop sign (framed at centre) of an unassuming gift retailer was the kind of laconic composition that impressed me when I studied graphic art years ago.

Sushi-making has quintessentially the virtue of dedication wrapped within.  A proper chef often has to go through years of apprenticeship before starting to learn the trade proper.  The traditional way is that most people would stay in one business and earn their time-honoured expertise.

It is quite unlike Stephanie Key, the daughter of the New Zealand Prime Minister and an art student, who manages to shoot to fame in no time by posing as sushi-on-naked-flesh (女体盛 nyotaimori) for her photographic show in Paris Design Week in September. (

The Japanese zeal for outsmarting nature can be admirable but at times intimidating such as their humanoid robot technology.  Fresh fruits grown in this country can command tens of dollars(US) a piece.  The fruits photographed here, completely artificial but tasty anyhow, are usually presented as novel gifts.

If the molesting giant monsters from the film “Pacific Rim” prove to be too hard to swallow for fit minds, the wholesale obsession with kaiju (literally “strange beasts”) is much to be found in film, TV, comics, and toys.  This institutionalized attachment is deeply rooted in the modern Japanese psyche.  The preoccupations with great disaster and impending destruction, whether to do with the perennial threats of earthquakes and experiences of atomic bombs, have been elevated to the level of totem worship.  The kaiju characters, collective embodiment of such obsession, are simultaneously feared and worshipped.

The antagonist of monsters – Ultraman Ginga is celebrating his 45th anniversary of busting villains this year.

Japan Sinks (the English translation of 日本沉沒
by Sakyo Komatsu (小松左京, 1931-2011).  

  No country is more obsessed than Japan when it comes to doomsday paranoid.  The book, spun off with TV drama, film releases in 1973 and 2006, has a cult following since its publication in 1973. Flashes of the old film still remain intact in my mind.

It is said that the annual revenue drawn from pachinko business is bigger than the car industry in Japan.  The popularity of these steel balls is a legendary myth to gaijin (foreigners).  Perhaps it takes one obsession to fend off other obsessions.  Most joints are operated by yakuza gangs and photo-taking remains off-limits.

These cosplay gears were not photographed in a sex shop but superstore admittable to all.  They are an extension of the addictions to manga (comics) and anime (cartoon).  The costumes are accepted by all walks of life and are seen worn night and day.  Kinky, risqué, kitsch or corny are no words to label this phenomenon.

In contrast, enduring hardship as portrayed in this bronze arhat monk is buried deep in the collective psyche.

The same attitude of endurance is expected of in real life – in this photograph, scores of participants bathed in icy water at the Teppozu Inari Shrine (鉄砲洲稻荷神社), Tokyo to purify their souls. (image/ 

War and Peace

The Tomb of the Shogitai Warriors (彰義隊墓所) at Ueno Park says: “At the fall of the Shogunate Government in Edo, Shogitai warriors resisted the new Meiji Government to the last and died here on Ueno Hill”.  Even though the Meiji is unequivocally regarded as the government that lift Japan into the modern world, no samurai, whatever their cause, would be forgotten had they done honour to the country.  This no-surrender mentality is a double-edged sword of pride to themselves but incomprehension to others.

Right-wing militant groups at Yasukuni Jinja Shrine (靖國神社) commemorating the 68th anniversary of atomic bombing in Hiroshima on the 8 August.

The whole parade was intense to the effect that there was complete dead-air and everyone stood aside to watch.

The large shrine is where the Japanese WWII dead soldiers are worshipped.  They include those who were classified as Class-A war criminals by the Allied judges of the Tokyo Trials after the war.  Protests in many Asian countries are fervent whenever the Japanese government officials esp. the prime minister visits the shrine.  This is the background of my visit to the temple.

Deep in the compound of the shrine is Yushukan (War Museum) exhibiting Japanese arsenal and their version of military aggressions in Asia from the 1890s to 1945.  Foreign visitors may not notice this plain-looking establishment but this is the place to see the shadow - in Jungian terms the unconscious, which gives light to the conscious.    

Apart from the killing machines, a train engine on display paints the story of economic contributions to Thailand and Burma during the war years.  Tens of thousands of POWs and civilians from Asia and the west were forced to work and died during the construction of the so-called ‘death railway’. (The Bridge on the River Kwai and more recently The Railway Man retrace the stories on the wide screen.) The works was presented as a local contribution in the ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ unilaterally imposed by Japan to other Asian countries.    This museum, reflecting so different in attitude to those in Germany, is designed to justify a colossal mistake than to provide lessons for the future.  

New developments of the city across Tokyo Bay.  

  In the context of persistent economic downturn, jitters with neighbouring countries and constitutional reform of the military, it is in everyone’s concern to see what direction Japan is heading.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Sanctifying Glass and Steel: M+

"The outcome is a building that is not simply anchored in its surroundings; it is also formed by them.  The precise and urban, almost archaic in shape, reiterates the iconic character of Kowloon's skyline" *

* Herzog & de Meuron (on their winning competition entry of M+ - the contemporary art museum at West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong)

Proposed M+ viewed from Victoria Harbour.

Inverted T-shape hovering above ground.

Photo-montage of M+ somewhat exaggerated in scale and shown in absence of the clustering of buildings to be built on this reclaimed site.

To stretch the design association with our mountain backdrop and to patronize on the issue of regional identity, it is as if the architects had seen our skyline epitomized by the Lion Rock in the shape of a tombstone.

The "rock" in Kowloon celebrated locally like a totem.  (imageNohead

Another icon: the well-known TV drama ‘Below the Lion Rock’ that carries the bitter-sweet memories of this city.  Could this glass and steel tablet, eager to please as demonstrated by its authors, fill a place in our heart?  (

“Paradoxically, yet another work of engineering defines the specificity of this place: the underground tunnel of the Airport Express.  Initially an obstacle that complicated planning, this distinctive feature has become the raison d’être for our project, consisting of a rough, large-scale exhibition universe which quite literally anchors the entire building.  By uncovering the tunnel, a spectacular space is created for art and design, installation and performance; the excavations reveal nature of a “second order”, a “Found Space” that is a challenge to artist and curator alike, a space of unprecedented potential” *

* Herzog & de Meuron

According to the architects, the subterranean 
exhibition gallery of the “Found Space” anchors 
the conceptual basis of the entire museum.

The tunnel of the Airport Express (red) is decidedly too far away to have any connection with the M+ museum (blue).  And should there be an unexcavated space in this recently reclaimed land that was unearthed by the architects, the government owes us an explanation of how the public expense was used here.  (background imageWest Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

As the above quotation suggests, the architects have created an archaeological myth on the reclaimed land where this museum will be situated.  In fact, the location of the “Found Space” was anything but a patch of sea in the harbour, devoid of meaning.  Nonetheless when built, it might become a cultivated space filling a blank an architect so dreads.

Herzog & de Meuron is unable to defend their design on well construed premises.  This sudden liking of our local value reminds us of the faux donation (partly free, partly paid) of China art from Uli Sigg to M+, opportunistic and thoroughly presumptuous.

*All quotations and M+ images (unless otherwise stated) from West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and Herzog & de Meuron.

M+的神話構建            〈中文摘要〉

建築物的具體設計建基於四周環境,同時又與之相輔相承。M+的外形設計精準,近乎還原基本。它重新演繹出九龍半島天際線的一貫美態,並將之轉化為展現藝術及藝術家的明燈。 Herzog & de Meuron

從上述引言拉扯九龍半島山巒為概念源頭,又巧納本土身份議題,瑞士建築師Herzog & de Meuron似乎運用獅子山的山脊線,設計出M+美術館墓碑般的外型。

玄機在於選址上現有基建工程 機場快線隧道。它正是選址的獨特之處。機場快線隧道最初本是該區繁複規劃的障礙, 現卻成為主宰整個M+項目的關鍵,開闢出粗糙、寬敞的大型展覽領域,引領M+地下展區設計。Found Space展區展露隧道外形,為當代藝術與設計、裝置展品與表演藝術勾勒悅目的展覽空間。多重挖掘工程進一步體現發掘現有隧道新秩序的概念。這雖然為藝術家與策劃展覽者迎來挑戰,但又充滿前所未有的創意潛力。  Herzog & de Meuron

兩位設計師這填海得來的基地創造了俱考古層次的迷思。現有機場快線隧道的文化底蘊或地理位置與M+風馬牛不成關係。事實上,塲館的Found Space坐落於維多利亞海港,完全沒有設計師所描繪的詮釋脈絡,反之只含新泥悶土。無然,當這藝術館蓋好後,勢將搖身轉化為文化焦點,驅散建築師懼怕的空白。

Herzog & de Meuron沒有令人信服的理據解釋建築設計。正如Uli Sigg虛假的藝術饋贈(部份是捐贈,其他則購置),這樣怱怱而來嘗試擁抱我們的本土文化,完全揭露他們的投機及剛愎自用。


Reader’s inputs via e-mails:


I'm a journalist working on a story about the new M+ architecture exhibition at Artistree. I've enjoyed reading your blog and I was curious if you'd had a chance to visit. I'm interested to hear what you think of the museum's architecture collection and whether it is heading in the right direction in terms of focus and acquisitions. (Christopher DeWolf)

Hey Chris

Nice to hear from you and your responses. As you mentioned on the archie exhibition at Artistree, honestly, I am hesitant to visit not because of the specifics of the models/drawings (ie. the quality or design of which), but because I have a reasonable knowledge of them (quite a lot of them had been on display under different angles). It might to do with the fact that I am an architect by profession and I am aware of the 'what's going on'. I think the exhibits do not have enough polemics.

I understand that that M+ is doing everything to get the local people into museum and be aware of visual arts (the museum to house the widest spectrum - in order to get as many audiences as possible). The so-called architectural collection is largely about models and drawings, not a lot more. On a personal level, West Kowloon Cultural Development Authority is guilty first and foremost to choose Norman Foster, and secondly H&dM. It is no sour grapes, but the proposed works by both architects do not share anything with local culture and values. They are the choice of convenience and blind-faith from the govt appointed panels. So you should understand my bitterness.....especially when an architecture related to exhibition is organized by M+.

Having said that, I hope they succeed to bring in more visitors; but to raise the quality of audience, I would not count on their efforts. Enough said so far, would you think? Hope it is not too subjective for you.

Just saw this mail (after 2 days), my reply as spontaneous as could be. Best (Sundial)

Hi Sundial

Thanks for your thoughts! I agree with you regarding H&dM and the Foster plan, though the models, drawings and artworks collected so far give me hope that M+ could shed some interesting light on architecture in Hong Kong. They have some interesting correspondence between Tao Ho and the Lands Department regarding the demolition of his shipping container office in 1989, for instance. (Christopher DeWolf)

From Assange to Snowden

Brothers and sisters,
haven’t we been suspecting this…

Source of wallpaper: 

(This post was spurred from the exposés by Edward Snowden and the subsequent public outcries against the US surveillance policies)

由亞桑奇到斯諾登      〈中文摘要〉




“在普世盡是欺騙的時代,說出真話是革命的行為”  佐治.奧維

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Photo Journal: Tokyo 8.2013 (part 1)

The city prefecture, inhabited by tens of millions and sprawling endlessly on the horizon, is often associated with clashes of extremes.  From overbearing concrete blocks towering above intricate timber structures at close proximity to fashionista crossing path with kimono cladded youngsters on the streets, Tokyo though seems to be in perfect harmony with antithesis.

Series of Torii (lit. birds’ habitat) through narrow passage to Hanazono Jinja Shrine in urban Shinjuku.

It may be argued that nowhere has city dwellers more attached to their traditional costumes than kimonos worn by men and women in Japan.  Many of them especially young people wear the national robe for hanging-out and dating.  This photo of a kimono shop for gentlemen at Aoyama marks a sharp contrast with fancy boutiques nearby.

The unfailing restraint of the people can be mercilessly interspersed with moments of forthrightness – this time in your face, a parade with gaudy anime dolls.

Unique bar district of Shinjuku Golden Gai  (新宿ゴールデン街 where timber buildings still exist and most watering holes are less than 80m².  Lives only get started after dark.

Alternative doorkeeper to chill out with.

Shopping Galore

There are simply too many shops, malls or clusters of streets to visit. If you cannot find what you want, it is only probable that your sore feet drag behind your pocket.

The symbolically shaped castle-in-the-air of Tokyu Plaza (東急廣場), by Hiroshi Nakamura and opened in 2012, is the latest landmark at Harajuku.

With no guilt attached, shopping is a pastime for most.  Living in an average family unit of 60m², people here even rent a booth to watch DVD or just to be alone for a few hours. 

Spiral by Fumihiko Maki was completed for the lingerie company Wacoal in 1985.  It is a multi-purpose complex of arts and retail spaces.  Well composed with platonic shapes on the façade, Spiral might score high along photogenic parameters but definitely below par on architectural merits.

Fantastic view out and air-conditioned comfort for all casual visitors, this space is a disaster as far as electricity bill is concerned.   Expressive on the exterior and in the middle of the shopping route, the over-designed landing is practically beyond rectification to cut down on volume.

The semi-circular ramp, inspired the name of the building, sculpts a huge space which is tugged at the back behind a café and shop above.  Its location and inherent acoustic problem render most activities unfeasible.  I attended a talk by the architect years ago, the memory of his vacuous ramblings on design still haunts me up to present.

Gallery showing photographic works by David Sylvian – former singer-song writer of the cult band “Japan”, which made it big in this country.

Opposite to Spiral is Ao.  Realized in 2009, the contemporary development of retailers, restaurants and offices was designed by another local practice - Sakakura Associates.  It is a more efficient design with designer chairs to recuperate tired shoppers.

By carving out segments of the rectangular volumes, the high and low blocks are posed to create visual tension.  But that is about the entirety of the concept.

The office lift lobby at ground floor appears as if the stonework was pixelated.

Prada Aoyama is still awe-inspiring as it was completed in 2003.  With the simplest task of planning a shop, the crystalline blotch is an ideal project for most architects – thoroughly vain and almost budget-free to play with.

The shop was embarrassingly quiet on the day of visit.  There were evidently more sales assistants staring out than shoppers looking in.

Distorted view of reality from either side of the bubble-like glass.

(imagegray malin)

If Prada’s Tokyo store is celebrated as the high priest of retail architecture, Prada Marfa might be a sharp joker on global consumerism and regional identity.

Open in March, 2013, Kengo Kuma remodelled the former Central Post Office into a multi-purpose arcade and office tower called Kitte.

The exterior (right) was renovated but a restraint of decoration was enforced despite the retail nature of the project.  This conservation approach was adopted owing to the Victorian-styled Tokyo Station (left) situated across the road and 17 years older than the post office building of 1931. 

A detailed report of the interior design will be made later.

Tiffany & Co. in Ginza, also by Kuma, at first glance does not owe any design affiliation with the nature-inspired architect.

Upon close inspection, the sandwiched curtain wall reveals his preoccupation with natural elements and subtle oriental influences.

Skewed look of the glass wall (left) and entrance to lift lobby (right).

Nicolas G Hayek Center is a showcase of hydraulic lifts more than that of luxurious time-pieces.  Shoppers take one of the many glass lifts surrounded by watches before landed to respective shop floors.

If this is not impressive enough, the dark glass enclosure at the right is a hydraulic car lift that completes an overkill.  Shigeru Ban (坂茂) realized this building in 2007 amidst his more eco-friendly experimentation of cardboard tubing structures.

To end a shopping day, there could also be serious spending just above your average grocery store.

Thrifty Appeal

Scarcity of land in this populous city has led to the widespread adaptation of space under flyovers and bridges. Note the filling of shops beneath the bridge to the right.  

Some are better presented than the others depending on location.

So far, none is better conceived than 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan.  The awkward-sounding name derived from the railway nomenclature of its distance from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tokyo-eki), which is 2.54 kilometres between Akihabara and Okachimachi.

Floor plan and directory of shops.  Note the bicycle parking lot at upper right hand side.

From December 2010, the space was remodelled to gather style-conscious artisans from around the country to produce and sell their crafts on the premises.  

This new shopping experience is well-equipped with bicycle parking and ample seating spaces.  No air-conditioning is required in this summer heat thanks to the high headroom and cross ventilation.  Can’t tell what it is like in winter.  For intended visitors, most shops are closed at 7 pm.

The densely packed concrete columns remind one of peristyle architecture in Roman times.  The white shade on them is a beauty to look at.  But observed the few shoppers on the this Saturday afternoon, it is worrying how long the shops can survive.

Casual seating outside café unlike any average mall setting.

From Distant Modern to Bravely Experimental

Although not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, the discovery of the girls’ school - Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan (1921-27), the “House of Tomorrow” (自由學園 明日館)was a surprise while researching for this trip.  

The building was restored in 2001 and listed as a national cultural property.  A wedding ceremony with photo session was taking place on this glorious Saturday morning. 

The floor plan of Jiyu Gakuen, not found in books, shows a symmetrical layout with the assembly hall at the centre.

Famous buildings often affect its neighbourhood just as powerful people do in their circle.  A posh residential building with deep overhangs reminiscent of the prairie style is found nearby.

High on anticipation, the National Museum of Western Art (1957-59) by Le Corbusier was a disappointment.  It was not the restriction to photography but the fact that this poorly preserved building is downright mutilation.  Much of the original layout was altered; as a missed opportunity, the extension gallery wings are poorly designed and executed.  Rarely is a nominated building turned down to become a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, it is a justified decision by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 2011.

Terrible fittings of glass and metalworks are added.  The current exhibition “Le Corbusier and 20th Century Art” could not save from resentment from true fans of Corbu including myself.

The original Modular inspired concrete fins at ground floor were completely gutted.

Once open and airy, the gallery looking down at the entrance portico was walled to the ceiling.

Ground floor, first floor plan and section. The building section illustrates the dramatic space and lighting at the interior.

(above four imagesLe Corbusier, 1887-1965; Zurich:Éd.d’Architecture)

Mezzanine floor and roof plan.  The former, once open to the public, was barred from access. 


The interesting exhibition space is located above ground.  However, the mezzanine level to the right has been extended with floor slab that makes the space dark and oppressive. The blockade of the walk-up gallery is particularly regrettable.  

Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (靜岡新聞) by Kenzo Tange of 1967, playing a tree with branches, is exemplary of plug-in ideas of the Metabolism movement.  This one is in better state of preservation.  However the row of the more recent buildings to the right, butt-jointed with the ‘tree’, would not relent on the architect’s lofty ideals.

Nakagin Capsule Tower (中銀カプセルタワー) by Kisho Kurokawa of 1972 is another core representative of the movement that may be quietly awaiting the wrecking ball.

The dilapidated towers are completely wrapped up in ugly netting.  It seems that the brave new world envisioned here has lost all momentum of life.  Unconfirmed reports suggest that most capsule owners are lobbying to demolish the buildings despite oppositions from architects’ circles.

Plug-in-City, Peter Cook, 1964. 

Metabolism was the mainstay of Japanese architectural influence to the modern world.  Its polemics paved the way for Archigram of the mid 1960’s, which in turn inspired the Hi-Tech fad in the 1980s.  It may be suggested that Centre Pompidou is a distant cousin of this Japanese creation.


Meet the willing tenants to tell you what it is like to live in an architect’s dream at below.