USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program


As we begin to settle into Korea, many differences between our new environment and Japan make themselves evident. Soon after arriving at our new home, we began to notice that – though we are surely still within a dense urban environment – Seoul presents a markedly different approach to urbanism than does Tokyo. Though Seoul exhibits a fascinating juxtaposition of building types and uses, the dense layering of circulation, program, and infrastructure (which at points approaches absurdity) abundant in Tokyo seems markedly diminished. Likewise, the immaculate joinery and building quality of Japan is replaced with a less pristine attention to detail. Seoul runs less mechanistically than does Tokyo, instead comprised of individuals who operate as mortals rather than as an extension of the city itself.

Perhaps the most intriguing difference, however, was alluded to in a class reading entitled Aesthetics Of The Self, written by John Clammer. Within, Clammer discusses Japanese consumerism, and in so doing, sheds light on cultural values and aesthetic predispositions common throughout Japan. Regarding the Japanese conception of beauty, Clammer eloquently states that “function is beauty,” an observation with which I immediately identified. In contrast with some Korean (and to an even greater extent, North American) aesthetic tendencies, the Japanese appreciate form developed through the hyperfunctionalist urban environment typified in downtown Tokyo, an approach predisposed to simplicity and effectiveness of the built environment over an approach which favors disguise and manipulation of function.

This appreciation of functionalism leads to incredibly unconventional forms, which by Western conceptions of beauty would be labelled as ugly, unappealing, and unrefined. Such an examples are abundant both in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan – three smokestacks combine to form a mutated tower, a car park consisting of a massive, windowless box-tower supported by a diminutive entry barely large enough to accommodate a compact car, a blank metal-caged apartment facade punctuated only by tubular fire stairs. These forms are documented at length in the book Made In Tokyo, which chronicles a seemingly endless series of bizarre formal resolutions. While many would regard such buildings with distaste, I appreciate not only their honesty, but also their unconventionality. This aesthetic is a far cry from many polished, “modern” structures which, though claiming to derive form from function, present a highly edited and dishonest representation of their constituents. When efficiency and cost drive an aesthetic which must operate at a highly performative level, there is no room for edit, for massage. The results are unconventional, perplexing, exciting.

Such aesthetically blunt designs (which are most often “undesigned”) stand in opposition to many contemporary architectural formal ideologies and trends – seen in projects which exhibit endless complex curves and a decidedly “Rhino-generated” aesthetic. While fashionable aesthetic philosophies have a beauty unto themselves, the starkness and unconventionality of many of the structures seen throughout Japan deeply interests me as a style of formal syntax often overlooked in a world of formal acrobatics. Though often at odds with Western conceptions of architectural beauty, they are proof that prevalent notions of aestheticism are not a requirement to provoke intrigue and fascination. Rather, the anonymous, undersigned, and hyperfunctionalist structures of Tokyo present a blunt resolution which presents an architecture brimming with unconventional ideas and unorthodox interpretations of classic typologies.


Filed under: America, Architecture, Japan, Korea, Tokyo, Urbanism

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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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