USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program


Letters from Iwo Jima, a 2006 film directed by Clint Eastwood, offers a perplexing example as to the ambiguous nature of authorship in cinema and film. The two-and-a-half hour war epic portrays the battle of Iwo Jima as told from the perspective of the Japanese army, detailing their ordeal from a decidedly Japanese point of view rarely seen in North American cinema. Many who see this movie, however, may question its integrity as a Western piece of film. Though backed by an American movie studio and directed by Mr. Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima would appear to the untrained eye a decidedly East Asian film in terms of its style, language, and especially thematic locus.

Upon viewing the movie, in fact, it is possible to view the film not as a work of American authorship, but rather that so keenly of Eastern influence that its quantitative authorship is entirely superseded. Mr. Eastwood so accurately absorbs the influence of traditional Asian cinema in Iwojima that his direction of the movie seems secondary to the overarching nationalistic influences and stylistic elements which so clearly pervade every frame. Naturally, the question of true authorship and origin in this case is blurred – is Mr. Eastwood truly the creator of the film, or does he merely channel the explicit influence of other filmmakers to produce a piece of cinema devoid of his own influence?

This blurred notion of authorship came to the forefront of my thoughts as our group arrived at the Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo. At first sight, many familiar with modern architecture would credit this hall as the work of Le Corbusier; its use of board-form concrete, sweeping roof lines, and modernist syntax dovetail perfectly with Corbusier’s hallmark style. Upon pausing in front of the structure, however, I was quickly informed that Kunio Maekawa, not Le Corbusier, designed the structure. Though at first perplexed, I later discovered Maekawa apprenticed under Le Corbusier, a mentorship which likely explained the striking similarities observed in the Kaikan. Indeed, in looking at the facade of the building, it was difficult to see any element which was not quintessentially Corbusian.

Like language, architecture relies on syntax as a means of communication, and it is difficult to dissociate a particular syntax from the pen of a pioneering author. This innate association transcends materiality, space, and form, anchoring instead in the theory and methodology of a given designer. While Maekawa conceived the structure, Corbusier’s influence is arguably so great that it usurps traditional notions of authorship, transforming the gallery into a product of the Corbusian school of thought. Though certainly sophisticated, I argue its design turns a shoulder to a meaningful approach for syntactical dialogue and ingenuity. Maekawa’s design recalls nothing but the work of Corbusier (to the point where Corbusier himself is considered its true author), yet acknowledgement and strategic modification of Corbusier’s trademark style would result in a more progressive and ultimately meaningful architectural statement.

Indeed, all architects must carefully consider work produced by their contemporaries as a means of dialogue; to produce in vacuum is to disregard the most fundamental and powerful components of language. Yet in order to maintain originality, authors must carefully filter preconceived notions, systems, and methodologies to produce work which both accredits the past, communicates with the present, and reinvents for the future.


Filed under: Architecture, Japan, Tokyo

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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