Kenzo Tange, Hiroshima and Japanese Architecture
by Jonathan Glancey
Tadao Ando, one of Japan's greatest living architects, likes to tell the
story of the stray dog, a stately akita, that wandered into his studio in
Osaka some 20 years ago, and decided to stay. "First, I thought I would
call her Kenzo Tange; but then I realised I couldn't kick Kenzo Tange
around. So I called her Le Corbusier instead."
Kenzo Tange, the most influential figure in post-war Japanese
architecture, who has died aged 91, was profoundly influenced by the work
of Le Corbusier. In turn, Tange's hugely impressive body of work was to
influence, indeed dominate, that of a younger generation of brilliant
young Japanese architects up to, and including, Ando.
If Tange began by imitating the late-flowering, sculptural concrete
designs of the Swiss-French genius, he went on to create a body of
internationally recognised work that was very much his own, fusing
traditional Japanese forms with the very latest in structural daring.
His finest buildings include the twin arena of the two national gymnasiums
for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Yamanashi press and broadcasting centre
at Kofu (1964-67) and, beginning at his beginning, the peace park and
peace centre at Hiroshima (1949-55).
Many of Tange's later buildings, including the new Tokyo city hall complex
(1991), the United Overseas Bank Plaza, Singapore (1995) and the Tokyo
Dome hotel (2000), were realised on daunting scales. Yet, as the prolific
architect said: "We live in a world where great incompatibles co-exist:
the human scale and the superhuman scale, stability and mobility,
permanence and change, identity and anonymity, comprehensibility and
"I like to think there is something deep in our own world of reality that
will create a dynamic balance between technology and human existence, the
relationship between which has a decisive effect on contemporary cultural
forms and social structure."
Ironically, as a young man, Tange did not expect to become an architect.
He was born in Osaka, and brought up, in modest circumstances, in the
small city of Imabari, on Shikoku Island. Nevertheless, he won his way to
the University of Tokyo's architecture department, and began working, in
1938, for Kunio Maekawa, who had practised with Le Corbusier in his Paris
studio in the late 1920s.
During the second world war, Tange furthered his studies as a graduate
student in Tokyo, becoming an assistant professor at Tokyo University in
1946. He set up his own studio, through which such distinguished
architects as Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki passed,
learned, contributed and flourished.
His first major commission was hugely symbolic: the replanning of the city
of Hiroshima after its destruction by Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped
by the USAF B-29 Enola Gay on August 6 1945. At the heart of the revived
city, Tange built a peace centre, raised on stilt-like, Le Corbusier-style
columns, or piloti, faced by a monument that married ancient forms and
the latest structural technology.
This peacetime fusion of a traditional Haniwa tomb and a concrete
hyperbolic parabola was very much a symbol of the new Japan, resolutely
looking to the future while proudly recalling the best of its pre-imperial
As Le Corbusier long dreamed of rebuilding the centre of Paris, so Tange
worked long and hard on a comprehensive, and highly contentious, redesign
of his country's capital city. His plan for Tokyo (1960) received
worldwide attention. In practice, it would have meant projecting the city
out over the bay, using man-made islands connected by a proliferation of
bridges, and characterised not by buildings as such, but by eye-boggling
These great concrete concatenations, although never realised on the scale
Tange had intended in Tokyo, were hugely influential in Britain,
encouraging a generation of architects who were in love with raw concrete
and sheer scale, and were labelled "brutalists" by the critic Reyner
Banham. For many, Tange was the godfather, or shogun, of 1960s brutalism.
In fact, his most successful brutalist design, the Yamanashi press and
broadcasting centre, was as much a samurai fortress brought into the late
20th century as it was a modern concrete megastructure. Intriguingly,
although it seems all of a piece, this was a determinedly indeterminate
building in the sense that, theoretically at least, its 16 massive
cylindrical towers, housing the centre's services, could be greatly
extended, while yawning gaps left between occupied floors could be filled
in with future offices and studios as required.
Today, these gaps have been filled in with terraces and roof gardens,
adding to the enigmatic and unexpectedly romantic quality of this powerful
"The role of tradition," said Tange, "is that of a catalyst which furthers
a chemical reaction, but is no longer detectable in the end result.
Tradition can, to be sure, participate in a creation, but it can no longer
be creative itself."
The cathedral of St Mary, Tokyo (1964), another powerful meeting of
historic and contemporary form and structure, both confirms and denies
this article of architectural faith. Tange visited several medieval
cathedrals before producing his design. "After experiencing their
heaven-aspiring grandeur and ineffably mystical spaces," he said later, "I
began to imagine new spaces, and wanted to create them by means of modern
technology." Which he did, and yet the soaring concrete cathedral is
recognisably medieval in inspiration.
Outside Japan, Tange was more overtly modern, as in the examples of his
extension of McKim Meade and White's Minneapolis art museum (1975), his
only work in the United States, and in the office and hotel towers he
designed for the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, and Singapore.
An often profound thinker and learned teacher, in Japan, Canada and the
US, Tange continued until he died, although he retired from practice three
years ago, to imagine how architecture could be convincingly reconciled
with the very latest communications and building technologies. He had
disliked the wilful excesses of postmodern design in the 1980s, and
watched cautiously as a new wave of gratuitous bendy, twisty buildings
sprouted from city skylines worldwide in the 1990s.
He was, though, quietly optimistic, considering these fashionable
affectations to be no more than "transitional architectural expressions",
an accusation it would difficult to level at the Yamanashi press and
broadcasting centre or the national gymnasium, Tokyo.
Kenzo Tange, architect, born September 4 1913; died March 22 2005
This is slightly abbreviated from The Guardian, Wednesday March 23 2005.
Posted at Japan Focus March 25, 2005.
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