Most St. Louisans know of our European inspired architecture -- Gothic spires, Roman temples and Mansard roofs, but the city owes much of its beauty to architects from a country on the other side of the world: Japan. For the last 60 years, Modernist architects such as Tadao Ando and Gyo Obata's masterpieces continue to shape the landscape of our city. Consequently, the Kemper Art Museum's new exhibition on the work of Japanese architect Shinohara Kazuo is all the more relevant today.
Born in Japan in 1925, Shinohara's career lasted more than 30 years, and his mentoring of rising young architects carries his legacy to the present day. Japan, after World War II, was a country rebuilding from the extensive destruction of the war, but it also was experiencing an economic miracle that necessitated an intensive building boom. Shinohara came of age when the Modernist movement in architecture, with its clean lines and emphasis on simple and functional design, would meld comfortably with the already austere, yet elegant, design of traditional Japanese homes. See also: The Gothic Revival Churches of North St. Louis
The exhibition space takes advantage of the "white box" gallery at the Kemper; the floor continues the white walls of the gallery, requiring visitors to remove their shoes, as in a traditional Japanese home, to keep the white floor immaculate. Architecture exhibits in museums are difficult; you cannot magically bring an entire building into a gallery, so Seng Kuan, exhibition curator and professor of architectural history at Washington University, provides an array of Shinohara's working drawings, blue prints and photographs to transport us into the architect's working process and philosophy.
Eschewing the placing of exhibits on the wall, Kuan instead displays the drawings and photographs on tables in the middle of the gallery. The walls of the gallery are bare, save for some select quotes from the architect and wall text. The tables are arranged in an almost classroom-style arrangement, suggesting drafting tables at an architecture school. The exhibit proceeds chronologically through Shinohara's four stylistic periods before terminating in a single row of his students' works.
Shinohara's 1964-6 House in White is an elegant introduction to the architect's work. Deceptively simple in its design, the house features only a couple of rooms but demonstrates his emphasis on beauty in simplicity. Tradition also appears in the placing of a "heart pillar" in the middle of the public room; this ancient post features in Oceanic architecture and frequently is not a structural, but purely symbolic design element.
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The Tanikawa Shuntaro House, designed in 1972 for a famous Japanese poet, combines tradition with innovation. Tanikawa desired both summer and winter houses, but it's the summer house that truly stands out. Shinohara dispenses with a floor, and instead leaves bare (and inclined) earth under the house, with only minimal furnishings. A steep peaked roof alludes again to traditional Japanese homes; natural and human forms meld together seamlessly.
Perhaps the sign of a great artist or architect is his or her legacy; despite his death in 2006, Shinohara's design philosophy has inspired any number of talented new architects working in modern-day Japan. But they are not slavish copyists of his styles; instead, they grasp his overall philosophy in their own designs without simply regurgitating his ideas. Nishizawa Ryūe's Teshima Art Museum explores Shinohara's philosophy of space with the fascinating, almost organic, design that both complements and confronts the natural environment. Simultaneously rounded like the surrounding hills yet starkly white in contrast to the colors around it, the structure is pierced with two "oculi" that let light into the interior. It is a masterful space, one meant to be experienced merely for the sake of it.
Shinohara did not design a single house in St. Louis, but his architecture can provide valuable lessons to a home-building industry in this city that seems addicted to faux-architectural styles placed out of context within ridiculously contorted and complex roof lines and appendages. Complexity does not always equal sophistication. More than ever, Shinohara's simple, elegant designs offer us a better way.
On the Thresholds of Space-Making: Shinohara Kazuo and His Legacy is on view at the Mildred L. Kemper Art Museum through April 20th.
Chris Naffziger writes about architecture at St. Louis Patina. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com
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