Take a bullet train an hour and a half north of Tokyo and you’ll find yourself in Sendai, a coastal city of one million known for its trees—and for one of Japan’s most intriguing young architects, Hitoshi Abe. What makes Abe so intriguing is that he continually reinvents his design process, making each project uniquely itself: a football stadium takes on the contours of the surrounding hillside; the rooms of a private art gallery are sized according to its collection and arranged like soap bubbles in a box. Across the street from Toyo Ito’s celebrated Mediatheque in downtown Sendai is Aoba Tei, a French restaurant specializing in beef tongue. The interior of the restaurant is designed by Abe and takes its cue from the double allée of zelkova trees lining the boulevard outside. The architect has employed a sophisticated technique to achieve an extraordinary effect, as the space within the restaurant conveys the experience of being under the zelkova canopy directly outside. Though small in scale, the project is one of those key works that engages significant changes taking place in the field. Aoba Tei places Abe at the forefront of a conversation taking place in architecture about the use of 3d modeling to create complex surfaces, while at the same time the restaurant embodies many of the qualities of older Japanese architecture, before the country opened up and began its mad dash towards modernity.
It is worth looking at that trajectory in order to understand where Aoba Tei’s ideas came from and what makes it so interesting.
The story is perhaps best told by pop artist Takashi Murakami, who describes postwar Japanese art as a progression from flat to superflat. Under America’s influence, Japan became a flat society. Traditional hierarchies dissolved in the new democracy and the middle class expanded to make Japan a nearly classless capitalist economy. In this media-driven age, flat cultural products predominated: billboards, magazines, TV and movie screens.
Postwar Japanese architects meanwhile adopted modernism, a movement whose flat ideals of universality and mass affordability suited the country’s urgent need to rebuild. Tadao Ando and others did for reinforced concrete what Kobe did for beef (and much else besides): they imported something that did not exist in the country before 1868 and raised its quality to the point where the West now copies Japanese techniques. Here and elsewhere, this boxy architecture derived in part from a design process rooted in flat formats. Orthographic projection, the use of plans and sections flattened onto paper and computer screens, tended to produce buildings composed of planes arranged at 90 degrees to each other.
As the economy took off, it was the otaku (geek) subculture that produced the country’s most commercially successful cultural products: manga, anime, Nintendo. Takashi Murakami’s work is a sendup of this trend, flat culture taken to its logical conclusion: superflat. Like Andy Warhol, Murakami’s work is at once a celebration and a critique of the flattening of high and low art, of art and commerce. His signature style, brightly coloured kawai (cute) figures, has found its way onto Louis Vuitton handbags.
Superflat Japanese architecture arrived in the 1970s with the metabolist movement, which proposed that buildings are living cellular organisms that can evolve over time. Its best known product is the Nakagin capsule tower, which is composed of small replaceable concrete units attached to a permament spine.
Today the lines of superflat art and pop architecture converge in Tokyo at Shibuya, with its building-scale jumbotrons, or in the maid cafes of Akihabara; it can certainly be found at the love hotel Adonis in Osaka, where for ¥950 patrons can spend half an hour in kawai intimacy in the Hello Kitty room.
It might seem as though Japanese culture has long since left behind its austere roots. Yet superflat art and modernist architecture fluorished in Japan in part because they resonated with certain design qualities of the past. Manga and anime are direct descendents of ukiyoe and kabuki, while in architecture, modernism has much in common with tatami-era buildings: asymmetrical composition, minimalism, and a modular building system. There is a line of artistic thought that can be traced directly from Edo to the accelerated culture of contemporary Tokyo.
Still, there are other qualities in traditional Japanese architecture and landscape design that have fallen into disuse in the process of modernization. These qualities are most evident in the temples and gardens of Kyoto, which was spared the bombing, but can be found throughout the archipelago, often in the rural, slower parts of the country.
It is difficult to point to any one thing that produces the effect of traditional Japanese design because the different elements work so well together. The natural materials—dark wood, thatch, straw, rice paper—engage the senses. They limit light, reduce contrast, and have an earthy aroma. They are well-adapted to the climate, expelling heat and repelling water in the humid summer and rainy fall. In the winter, heating comes from a hearth sunken in the floor, which is used for cooking and serves as a social focus. The straw tatami mats are sized to the body, creating a human-scale module for room sizing, rooms that are often kept deliberately small to foster intimacy. The transition from outside to inside is measured, with deep eaves and long verandas, while the view from inside to outside is often carefully framed.
For novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, whose 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows laments the passing of traditional Japanese aesthetics, the key element binding everything else together was light:
Our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s end. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else.
The aesthetic system does not stop at the building materials. Tanizaki cites a lacquer bowl, which in electric light looks garish, but which in the dim shadows of a Japanese room takes on a lustrous depth.
Modern materials and lighting make this kind of effect difficult to achieve. Even in a modern masterwork such as Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, which lights the nave by cutting a glass cross out of the concrete behind the altar, the transition is too sudden, too high-contrast to achieve the gravitas of traditional Japanese space.
Yet while it may be hard to set the mood, as anyone who has sat down to contemplate a rock garden knows, the tranquility can be broken by just about anything. By the busload of school children filing past. By the tinny music playing on the loudspeaker behind you. By the fellow next to you snapping photos with his mobile phone. The rocks don’t seem to have an answer to any of this other than to sit there, enigmatically, photogenically. As solemnly beautiful as these places are, there is an incongruity to them as well, as if they find the modern world a bit trying.
Returning to Hitoshi Abe, the genius of his design for Aoba Tei is that it evokes the mood of older Japanese architecture while being at ease with the gadgetry and pace of the times. The compressed, shadowy space transitions seamlessly from the from the leafy boulevard to the dining room. Sitting in the restaurant under the pixellated Zelkovas sets up a view of the trees outside. The effect is highly place-specific, not just to Japan, but to this particular spot in Sendai. Move Aoba-Tei three blocks in any direction and it would lose much of its power.
The making of this effect is just as interesting. The tree images were made from digital photos taken inside the zelkova canopy. The photos were then pixellated and applied to a surface designed to wrap the interior of restaurant, a process known in 3d game development as texture mapping. The difference is that Abe has brought this technique to life, drilling holes of varying sizes in sheets of steel, which were then shaped by marine welders to match the 3d model. When backlit, the trees render as pixellated outlines of limbs and leaves, enveloping the diners in a variation of shadows much as the zelkovas do the pedestrians outside. The likeness is even stronger during the winter Festival of Starlight, when the bare zelkovas are lit with strings of white lights.
Though modest in scope, Aoba Tei is one of the better examples of an important shift taking place in architecture. Innovation in the field has always been fueled by technology. If modernism was the working out of the logic of new building materials —concrete, steel and glass—what we are seeing now is the logic of the computer. Abe’s design relies on perspective, a view that defies measurement, or did, before the advent of 3d modeling. Where 2d drawing led to boxes, 3d modeling is just as happy with angles and curves. This development has had a surprising effect: the computer, which was supposed to distance the designer from the haptic qualities of building, has instead in the right hands brought a new sensuousness to architecture.
While technologically sophisticated enough to accommodate the inevitable mobile phone, Aoba Tei is also a place where the lacquerware would show its beauty. It seems fitting though that the restaurant is international, with its chef having trained in France and its architect in the United States. Perhaps most globalist of all is the use of 3d modeling, a technology that has spread across the arts and around the world, but which Hitoshi Abe has used here to create a very local, and very beautiful space. As for the beef tongue: that is a matter of taste.