electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 4 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 28 April 2008

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Building Better Architecture in Japan


William H. Coaldrake

Professorial Fellow
University of Melbourne

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Buntrock, Dana (2001) Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process: Opportunities in a Flexible Construction Culture, London and New York: Spon Press, ISBN 0-419-25140-5, paperback, 176 pages plus index.

Practice makes perfect. This applies to architecture as much as it does to any field of human endeavour. Architecture can only be understood if the way that buildings are constructed is understood. Dana Buntrock's Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process breaks new ground in interpreting construction as a collaborative process between architect, engineers and the myriad of other contractors and sub-contractors engaged in making the complex organism that is the modern building. This book is a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of contemporary Japanese architecture and construction. It will be an invaluable resource for architects and builders contemplating working in Japan or with Japanese architects, and for scholars in fields like anthropology and architectural history wanting to delve in the interface of Japanese behaviour and technology.

Buntrock concludes that the flexibility in collaboration in Japan yields not only high quality work but also many inputs into the design itself, leading to enhancement and perfection of the initial design by the architect. According to her, the collaboration process 'makes possible greater experimentation, greater customisation and greater specialisation' (page 4) than is common elsewhere.

Buntrock's extensive experience in Japan informs her analysis in a way not found in anyone else's discussion of contemporary practice in Japan with the exception of the leading architect Fumihiko Maki himself, who has provided a foreword to this book. This in itself is an important overview of Japanese architecture today, in which Maki explains the relationship between aesthetics and engineering. According to Maki, the pride in crafting buildings in Japan is crucial, a dedication to quality that comes deep from within tradition. From the perspective of designing many of Japan's landmark buildings including Spiral, the Fujisawa Gymnasium and Makuhari Messe, he sees the collaboration between engineers, manufacturers and the builder as the key to a unique flexibility in creating crafted responses to particular problems. He cites the example of the cylindrical air-conditioning ducts made of transparent acrylic in Kunihiko Hayakawa's Art Hall. From perfecting such details come eminently usable and intrinsically beautiful buildings.

Maki's foreword sets the scene for Buntrock's detailed examination of collaboration in the construction process in Japan today. The book has a logical and comprehensive organization. After a chapter on traditional practice and the emergence of the modern architectural profession in the later nineteenth century, there are chapters on 'Education and the professions', 'Architectural practice today', 'the roots of collaborative practice', 'Contractors: Collaborators and competitors,' 'Selecting subcontractors', 'Two paths to customization', 'Avant-garde architecture in the public realm' and 'legal issues'. The wide scope and practical focus of the book are clear from the titles of these chapters. They are filled with deep understanding of general principles of construction and complete control of detailed examples, explained in accessible language.

The book is directed at architects and builders, but it has broader interest in terms of understanding Japanese group behaviour in a technology environment. The Japanese build better because they work better as a team than in construction abroad. Such a conclusion as this may not seem surprising to observers of Japanese society in other fields but Buntrock demonstrates convincingly how this occurs in terms of the technicalities and processes of making architecture.

Buntrock raises the broader question of the implications of this collaborative culture for the practice of construction internationally. Of particular interest in this regard is the fact that Japanese architects have worked outside Japan increasingly since the bursting of the economic bubble in 1991, driven overseas by the lack of work in Japan. Buntrock notes the 'difficulty many architects have had building abroad' (page 173). She cites the example of Maki, whose 'North American work, at San Francisco's Yerba Buena, lacks the polish of those buildings he has undertaken in Japan' (page 174). This was despite Maki energetically using the same strategies he employs in Japan, including numerous mock-ups, and working with the subsidiaries of Japanese companies. This example eloquently makes Buntrock's case that there is something residual in Japanese construction practice today, derived from tradition. This is the subliminal pattern of collaboration that ensures finer buildings.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is the discussion of drawing and communication at the building site. Drawing has long been the basis for the profession of architect in the West. Buntrock cites Beatrice Colomina, who wrote that 'only the social division of labor c makes it necessary for the architect to draw. The fact that such a division exists—and with it a kind of bilingualism: the language of information is severed from the language of experience' (Colomina 1994, 65). In other words, architects saw and were seen as higher in social status than manual workers, a distinction they maintained by equating themselves with artists who draw. Buntrock points out that in Japan drawings are less important than in construction abroad: 'architects may supervise simple work without resorting to drawings. More often, teams on site rely on three-dimensional media to communicate. Consultants, fabricators and contractors pass models back and forth for study, samples fill the site offices and mock-ups are a normal part of the process of testing ideas and developing the design' (page 66). In other words, drawing has separated architects from the building process, a problem that construction in Japan has managed to avoid to some extent.

Buntrock concludes with a passionate call for the architectural profession 'to revive an awareness that architecture is a part of building' (page 175). She suggests that construction teams should have 'disparate disciplinary values and differing expertise' and that changes be made in architectural training to include on-site and fabrication shop experience for students to open up their perspectives of the practical reality of implementing design (page 174). To those outside the architectural profession these suggestions may seem obvious but in the context of the development of the profession of architect in the nineteenth and twentieth century it is close to ideological heresy for some architects and design schools. Modernism has left a powerful legacy of architects who do not build and who believe that they should not build. The Japanese government energetically embraced this concept when it sponsored the creation of a Western-style architectural profession to make the Western-style buildings it deemed necessary for its modernization program in the in the second half of the nineteenth century. This has been the source of a great ideological divide in Japan, where the tradition of the chief master carpenter or tōryō as designer and builder was strong. Under the Meiji government-instituted architectural training, the master carpenter became a mere manual worker. He was disenfranchised from his customary role in designing buildings and from developing the type of teamwork in the construction process that Buntrock has identified as still surviving in Japan today despite the best attempts of the Meiji government and the subsequent architectural ideologues to destroy it. It is comforting to read Buntrock's book and learn that they did not succeed entirely and the construction process in Japan today still retains some of the characteristics of collaboration and flexible design-build that historically made Japanese architecture great.


Colomina, Beatriz (1994) Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Cambridge: MIT Press.

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About the Author

William H. Coaldrake is Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of The Way of the Carpenter: Tools and Japanese Architecture (Weatherhill, 1990) and Architecture and Authority in Japan (Routledge, 1996). He is the only non-Japanese member of the Kyoto Guild of Traditional Master Builders. He is currently completing Defining Moments in Japanese Art for Phaidon Press.

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Copyright: William H. Coaldrake
This page was first created on  28 April 2008.

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