Roland Barthes, while wandering the streets of Tokyo in 1966, noticed the Japanese culture of gift boxes. “Geometric, rigorously drawn,” he wrote, “and yet always signed somewhere with an asymmetrical fold or knot, by the care, the very technique of its making, the interplay of cardboard, wood, paper, ribbon, it is no longer the temporary accessory of the object to be transported, but itself becomes an object; the envelope, in itself, is consecrated as a precious though gratuitous thing; the package is a thought.”
In Empire of Signs Barthes compared the tradition of Japanese packaging to architecture, in which what is important is the wrapping, often delicate but at the heart of which is empty space. He implicitly compared this to Tokyo itself, a complex, super-dense city with a void at its centre, the inaccessible imperial palace, the house of a man who is never seen.
As an intellectual culture often more engaged with the sign than the signified, modern France has fetishised the minimal aesthetic culture of Japan, perhaps as an antidote to the rich, gilded rococo of its own built fabric. From the Impressionists through to Jacques Roubaud, Chris Marker, Michel Foucault and even Jacques Chirac, Paris has been gently marinated in Japanophilia. There had been successful Japanese national pavilions but the first permanent (and very visible) signs of this fascination on the skyline came during a wave of construction in the La Défense business district in the late 1980s, notably Kisho Kurokawa’s Pacific Tower with its Zen-ish rooftop garden (1992) and Kenzo Tange’s curious Grand Ecran complex (1991). Then, in 1995, came Tadao Ando’s striking meditation cylinder at the Unesco building, with its hovering disc of a ceiling.
And now Ando is back with another concrete cylinder. The conversion of the city’s central Bourse de Commerce into a public gallery for the luxury goods magnate François Pinault is the latest surge in a sudden flood of Japanese architecture in the French capital.
Last year Shigeru Ban completed La Seine Musicale concert hall on the Île Seguin. With its death-star dome and dramatic concrete interiors, this is very much a building in the city’s tradition of grands projets. Ban’s previous Parisian building, the delicate, translucent extension to the Musée du Luxembourg (completed 2011), was very different, featuring his characteristic use of cardboard tubes as a construction material.
Meanwhile Kengo Kuma, having built the Pôle multi-équipements Macdonald, an impressive mixed-use college and sports centre, in 2011 is now at work on the huge Aurore scheme. A combined “eco-luxury hotel”, performance space, offices, hostel and co-working space above the railway tracks at the Gare d’Austerlitz, it is scheduled for completion in 2022. In the renderings, it looks like a kind of bamboo-framed jungle, its hanging gardens and timber terraces having more of Bali in them than Rive Gauche. But it will certainly make an impact, as will Kuma’s other major project in the city, an elegant-looking transparent and terraced building for the Grand Paris Express, the Gare Saint-Denis Pleyel (due 2023).
Amid all this activity, the building that is making the most waves is Sou Fujimoto’s Milles Arbres, a floppy pancake that straddles the Périphérique in the Pershing district. It will be, as its name suggests, crowned by a thousand trees, but it will also include a village of translucent houses amid the greenery. Fujimoto is also designing the delicate glazed and faceted École Polytechnique at the Université Paris-Saclay campus.
And then, after all that, there’s SANAA. The practice formed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa was arguably responsible for sparking this new explosion of Japanese architecture with their ethereal Louvre in Lens (2012), which has turned out to be one of the most memorable museums of the modern age. From its inception as a published design, its almost disappearing architecture generated a particular excitement in France, a renewed passion for the minimal Japanese aesthetic.
It has proved difficult, however, to translate that architecture into Paris’s fiercely protected streetscapes, and SANAA has been working on the rebuilding of the city’s La Samaritaine department store for what seems an eternity. Originally scheduled to open in 2013, the design has faced opposition at every stage, with conservationists seemingly determined to put a stop to the arrival of contemporary architecture in the very centre of the city.
Yet the design is hardly the kind of aggressive intervention that might be expected to raise hackles. What looks like a delicate net curtain is drawn around the structure, and its curving folds subtly echo the rhythm of the neighbouring building’s structural grid. From the renderings at least, it appears to be a lovely thing.
But perhaps the problems encountered in the construction of this building highlight precisely the differences between SANAA’s home city of Tokyo and Paris — differences that help explain the yearning of the latter for the former. For Tokyo is everything Paris is not. Its architecture is unruly and unregulated, it is high-tech and highly illuminated, a sci-fi city of filmic intensity and churning change. It is a city of fleeting images rather than permanent physical fabric.
Paris, on the other hand, has long been stuck in its own perfection, bound by strict codes that govern appearance, dimensions and materials. Its architects dream of Tokyo’s freedom and easy-going attitude to the existing physical fabric. They yearn for an architecture of disappearance rather than solidity. Just as Barthes was seduced by a city of mysterious codes, contemporary Parisians have been attracted to a culture of ethereality.
You might think that, in an era of globalised architecture, there is nothing unusual about a European capital boasting so many buildings by Japanese architects. But then you might look over the Channel to another capital, one that has always proclaimed itself to be more open to international influence and more welcoming of change — London — and find not a single work by a Japanese architect. In fact the only work I can think of that would qualify in the whole of the UK is a wall built by Tadao Ando in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens which is about to be demolished.
It’s possible that the waters of this architectural deluge might be receding. Not all recent designs have been universally welcomed — as witness SANAA’s Samaritaine difficulties — while Shigeru Ban’s Metz outpost of the Pompidou (which last year hosted an exhibition of Japanese architecture) is a far less elegant building than the Louvre’s in Lens. Fujimoto’s Mille Arbres design is also drawing criticism for its lack of public space. So just as we are about to enter the phase when so many of the results of this architectural amour will be opening, perhaps the affair with Japanese architecture is fading. As Roland Barthes wrote: “By its very perfection, this envelope, often repeated (you can be unwrapping a package forever), postpones the discovery of the object it contains — one which is often insignificant, for it is precisely a specialty of the Japanese package that the triviality of the thing be disproportionate to the luxury of the envelope.”
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