Exhibition Review: A Japanese Constellation

John Hill
21. March 2016
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

A Japanese Constellation is the swan song at MoMA for Pedro Gadanho, who served as Curator of Contemporary Architecture at the New York institution from 2012 until 2015, when he returned to his native Portugal to become the first artist director of the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon. Although it is the last of the numerous and diverse exhibitions Gadanho curated (including Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, 9+1 Ways of Being Political, Cut 'n' Paste: From Architectural Assemblage to Collage City, and Conceptions of Space), he admitted in a press conference before its opening that A Japanese Constellation was "the first proposal for a show upon my arrival at MoMA in 2012," when he brought with him "a strong fascination with Japanese architecture."

Instead of proposing an exhibition on a single architect or a sweeping overview of architecture in Japan, Gadanho opted for a group show centered on what he described as the "radical aesthetic attitudes, ideas of experiencing space in a very strong way, and bringing architecture to the level of a true art practice." A Japanese Constellation therefore presents the architecture of three generations of Japanese architects who have strong connections with each other (Sejima worked for Ito; Sejima and Nishizawa work together; Ishigama worked for Sejima; Hirata worked for Ito; etc.) and whose work has a high level of influence on contemporary practice all over the world. As the show's title indicates, Toyo Ito and SANAA – as a firm and as the separate practices of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa – are the focus of the exhibition, with the "Beyond" consisting of the work of Junya Ishigami, Sou Fujimoto, and Akihisa Hirata.

The entrance corridor to the exhibition, with a single sketch by Toyo Ito on the wall at left.
The 2012 sketch by Ito, which depicts the overlapping of the architects in the exhibition, with Ito at the center.

The exhibition is laid out in a third floor gallery at MoMA with white walls and white fabric partitions suspended from the white ceiling. The spaces flow together seamlessly, but the most direct route through the show starts with Ito's work and then moves on to Sejima, SANAA, Nishizawa, Ishigami, Fujimoto, and Hirata. Significant buildings by each architect are documented through models on stands, drawings on the walls, and photographs projected onto the fabric dividers. After a counterclockwise stroll through the exhibition, visitors come to the last piece, A Home-for-All, a project started by Toyo Ito in response to the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku. Each of the architects in the exhibition, among other architects in Japan, have worked pro bono to realize Home-for-All community centers in affected areas.

Rounding the corner from the entry corridor, visitors come to the section devoted to Toyo Ito.
On the other side of the fabric dividers is an area devoted to the work of SANAA and Kazuyo Sejima.

Given the decision to project the slideshows on the fabric walls – making the photos much less distinct than they are in, for instance, the accompanying exhibition catalog – the models and drawings attract the most attention. For an architect like me, the models are the most rewarding, with some of them highly polished presentation models but many of them study models or highly abstract models befitting the designs of the architects. Not all of the projects presented have been built so, combined with the gauziness of the projected photos, all of the projects exist in the realm of imagination, as if the models are the reality of the exhbition. The "radical aesthetic attitudes" that Gadanho mentioned, as well as the abilities of each architect to push engineering and materials to their limit, and to reduce spatial definition to its most minimal, come across in the models that visitors can peer at and into at close distances (note the photograph of the Ishigami space below).

Areas with the work of Nishizawa, Ishigami, Fujimoto, and Hirata are at the far end of the gallery space.
Junya Ishigami gallery: the models throughout the exhibition attract the most attention.

A Japanese Constellation is an impressive show that is easily one of the best that Gadanho mounted in his three-year tenure at MoMA. It is highly recommended both for architects who know their work well and for visitors to the museum who might not have familiarity with them at all. It is not everyday that so many high-quality models and drawings by some of the world's top architects are assembled in one place. That the architects share certain formal and conceptual predilections (these are expressed well in the quotes written on gallery walls that are presented below) gives the exhibition an aesthetic consistency where the nuances of individual designs come to the fore. It is an exhibition that can be studied intently yet does not overwhelm. With A Japanese Constellation, it's sad to see Gadanho's departure from MoMA, but I'm excited to see what he pulls off at MAAT in Lisbon and what MoMA's new curators, Martino Stierli and Sean Anderson, accomplish in the coming years.

Exhibition review by John Hill.

Toyo Ito quote: "I prefer soft objects to hard, curved lines to straight, ambiguity to clarity, spatial diversity to functionalism, and naturalness to artificiality."
SANAA quote: "Our works of architecture are generally open in character. We make them open because we want to build relationships."
Kazuyo Sejima quote: "As an architect, I feel it is part of our profession to use space as a medium to express our thoughts."
Ryue Nishizawa quote: "Architecture has very broad repercussions. It is not only a private issue but also a social one."
Junya Ishigami quote: "I wish to think about architecture freely; to expand my perspective on architecture as flexibly, broadly, and subtly as possible, beyond the stereotypes of what architecture is considered to be."
Sou Fujimoto quote: "As its form blurs, architecture will exist where, like a cloud, the boundary between inside and outside grows ambiguous."
Akihisa Hirata quote: "I want to create an architecture that is ecological in the purest sense of the word. 'Tangling' is the term I prefer for it."

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