11 October 2007

Architectural Historiography 1: Growing-up in Antonin Raymond’s Kawasaki House of 1934

Views and rendering of the modernist Kawasaki House in Tokyo, completed in 1934. Architect: Antonin Raymond

It would be safe to say, that the most common question addressed to an architect is why one opted for this career path in the first place. How this question is posed – alternating in our own experience, from incredulous to a veiled awe – generates various responses. We have learned to craft ours in a very straightforward way, as we gain more experience and with the added benefit of refreshing hindsight. There are also pragmatic tools – books, recent exhibits, and travel to places we used to live – that generate other ways to recall personal influences in choosing this field, overlooked in a simple resumé.

In my own case, I am more aware today of periods from my own up-bringing – notably living in Japan - that continue to influence how I approach architecture. In fact, some of this history plays a role - retroactively that is - far more important now then one would have ever assumed at the time.

Growing up in Tokyo in the early 60’ies and then in mid-70ies (my father was a career diplomat) I was afforded the chance to live in two modernist homes designed by Antonin Raymond, the expatriate-architect, friend of Noguchi, former collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel, and un-sung pioneer of the European avant-garde in Japan. The most influential of the two houses, was the seminal Kawasaki residence of 1934, built in reinforced concrete, with curved windows, flat roofs and round pilotis columns emulating, and following by just a few years, LeCorbusier's Villa Savoye (The Franco-Swiss architect referred to Raymond’s studio in his Oeuvre Complete, third volume of 1934– not an unworthy footnote to claim a position as an earlier precursor of the Modern Movement).

The Kawasaki House was for 50 years a landmark destination in Tokyo, for its white-washed walls and modernist aesthetic, ideal for fashion photo-shoots for the up-and-coming Rippongi district. It was, to quote Raymond himself: “The result…of the earliest truly modern residences in the world: monolithic reinforced concrete, natural concrete finish on the exterior, proper orientation of all rooms to the South, each room going out into the garden and the whole thing very simple and natural”. It was torn down in the 80’s to make room for a large multi-storey housing complex for the US Embassy; only the 100 year-old Ginkgo tree was spared.

Many have not heard of Raymond and his partner Noémi, a husband-and-wife design-duo not unlike the Eames, who shared a passion for design that encompassed furniture, textiles, lighting and craft construction. This is not entirely surprising as their forty-plus-year practice was focused almost exclusively on their adopted home in Tokyo and their summer residence in Karuizawa, apart from a brief stint in New Hope, Pa, residing with furniture master George Nakashima during the war. We forgive history for the frequent loss of reference to the Raymond’s and their work – much less for the destruction of some of their most noted buildings over the last decades - yet two monographs and a recent exhibition in Philadelphia (“Crafting a Modern World, The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Rayomd), attempt to set this right.

For me, I can clearly picture the Kawasaki House, and I use the memory of its floor-plan – an “H” shape around a central interior courtyard open to the sky, divided into western and Japanese parts – as a visual memory tool. The house, though destroyed, continues to live quite a real second-life in my own mind: I can feel the coolness of the concrete columns, hold the steel railings overlooking the pool as on a transatlantic ship, with the same vividness, as trying to recall the surfaces of our office elevator, which I just left several hours ago. That is the great quality of memory - and the necessary anxiety it creates – where it plays on in our lives, keeping collective eye over us and at times influencing our design work.

The merging in Raymond’s work, of modernist tectonics, with an understanding of Japanese traditional and craft construction, apparent in his later work in the 50-60ies, is so widely emulated today that it is hard to imagine how innovative his work was at the time. This synthesis, which we continue to explore in some of our residential projects, is still, 75 years later, considered variously and critically as mannerist, minimalist, or too modern. Raymond is still waiting for recognition, belatedly so.

The Kawasaki house, one of only three houses he executed in the purest of form of early modernism, is where I decided to become an architect – at the time I believe I used the word draftsperson – at age 14. I did not know at the time, that this was already an historic structure, an utopian vision that had laid the ground work for the architecture of postwar Japan – by Maekawa, Yoshimura, Tange and others, all students of Antonin Raymond - but I was in love with it, for its openness, the free-form plan, the circular stair, that only a child could really appreciate.

Notes: Raymond, “Turning point in My Career” 1959 quoted in JA 33, 1997, forward by Ken Oshima
“Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond”, an exhibition organized by University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, 2006, “Belated Recognition” a forward by Kenneth Frampton
Photographs and rendering: from University of Pennsylvania edition above.