Arriving from Japan ... via Disneyland

Japanese architects have been shunned in Britain. But all that may be about to change. John Welsh assesses the work of Arata Isozaki

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The Independent Culture

Cars, televisions. motorcycles (Ducati, the finest of all motorbikes, excepted), and now space rockets ... We have come to accept that the Japanese not only do it better, but also export it to us in droves. How is it, then, that Japan'sarchitects have not done quite so well in Britain, especially when, alongside Scotch whisky and Burberry macs, British architects have done so well in Japan? An exhibition of the work of Arata Isozaki, Japan's most celebrated architect, has just opened at the Royal Institute of British Architects. Isozaki has built galleries and office buildings across the United States, Europe and Australia, but Britain remains Isozaki- free.

It is not just Isozaki who is excluded. Japan boasts a range of talented architects, differentiated by age, rarely by style and never by gender. Not one has built here, although one or two have been invited to enter competitions.

British architects, meanwhile, have been making block bookings on the overnight flight to Tokyo for years, taking with them designs for buildings that range from the frankly outrageous (the Tokyo Silo by Branson Coates Architecture) to the genuinely eccentric (a neo-Georgian restaurant designed by Julian Bicknell, serving roast beef and all the trimmings). Why then this architectural trade imbalance? The clues lie in Isozaki's curriculum vitae.

Arata Isozaki was born in 1931 in Oita City. Like many Japanese of his generation, his early life was clouded by the devastation of Japanese cities in 1945. After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1954, he went to work for Kenzo Tange, a pupil of Le Corbusier and one of the most successful Japanese architects.

The job offered great opportunity, for, unlike older British architects who jealously guard contacts and clients from younger generations, Japanese architects hand down work and recognition from one generation to the next. So Tange and his peers helped Isozaki and his contemporaries, Fumihiko Maki and Kisho Kurokawa, who in turn have aided the rising stars of Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, perhaps the best of the latest generation.

With Tange, Isozaki helped to rebuild parts of Tokyo and to plan a megalopolis designed to fill Tokyo Bay and stretch as far as Osaka. Such scale; such magnitude. What Isozaki planned was something quite different from what local authorities expected. At the time, while public buildings were of high quality, Japanese families were to have been accommodated in glorified wooden shacks, lacking proper insulation and sanitation. Searching for a solution, Isozaki, like many of his contemporaries, looked abroad for inspiration. Britain appeared to provide the right answers. Isozaki discovered not the mass-produced housing blocks of postwar Britain, but Archigram, a group of radical architects including Peter Cook and Ron Herron, who believed that a flexible modern technology could solve the future growth and address the aspirations of a changing society. Archigram designed (but never built) huge structures - plug-in, clip-on, right-on cities - that resembled the circuit boards of Sixties computers. HG Wells would have been proud of them; Aldous Huxley would have recognised the buildings of Brave New World.

Japanese architects influenced by Archigram called themselves Metabolists. Isoazaki set himself apart from the movement, yet his design for a City in the Air (1962) - vast interconnected blocks of flats straddling rivers, roads and railways - was clearly influenced by the young British fantasists. Individual lives would be sacrificed to the rhythm of an elevation. Whereas Archigram architects looked on the megastructure as a bit of prognostic fun, the Metabolists were in earnest.

However, it was not housing, but a giant exhibition in 1970 that allowed Isozaki to build on a giant scale. Expo'70 was to the Japanese what the Great Exhibition of 1851 was to the British, a chance to show off a dominant technology. Isozaki built the main festival plaza, a Metabolist work of great power that, ironically, symbolised the end of that style which had fallen from grace by the end of the Sixties. From then on, Isozaki turned to a more humane architecture; nowadays, if you asked anyone on the bullet train what they thought of his work, they would mention the colourfulness and decorativeness of his buildings.

The more Japanese industry expanded, the more it drew on inspiration from the West, and the more architecture in Japan quoted western references in eastern guise. By the late Seventies, Post-Modernism was endemic in rich and powerful Japan.

Isozaki lapped up the new style, building, for example, Tsukuba Centre, Ibaraki, whose materials, broken pediments and a certain picturesque quality summed up the Post-Modern style. Isozaki was good at this bad style, exploiting and pushing the limits of ghastly pseudo-American forms to embrace the ambitious scale of corporate Japan. Sometimes he even managed to deflate some of its innate pomposity. Sometimes not.

Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (1986) in Los Angeles. Here, you enter a building across a forecourt, under a portico and so into a gallery that might be in any charming European city, save for the shadows of oppressive office towers looming all around. Isozaki has taken American ideas of the European, recycled in Japan, back west - a complex conceit.

He took this conceit a facade too far in the Team Disney Building, Orlando (1990). Again Isozaki was re-exporting American ideas to the States, but here representation is taken to extremes, for example in the recurring architectural interpretation of Mickey Mouse's ears. While a similar process has introduced the efficiency andquality of the Japanese car to the US, this building exposes Post-Modern extravagance at its most absurd.

Isozaki abandoned Post-Modernism in the Nineties, just as he had abandoned heroic Modernism in the Seventies. By this time he had won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, a British award and still the world's most prestigious. Now he is preoccupied with a purer, more abstract architecture: the Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art (1994) demonstrates this new concern with its geometric shapes and elemental sculpture garden

This year, Isozaki has built a curious house in Spain called Domus: La Casa del Hombre in La Coruna. It is a strange building, one side facing the city with a razor-sharp zigzag form, while the curved back, clad in tiles, confronts the sea like a beached whale. This is organic architecture at its best, its forms shaped more by nature than the logic of the T-square. And yet such formal complexity is possible only through the use of sophisticated computer technology - a dream of Metabolists 30 years ago.

Isozaki's architecture is characterised by perpetual change. "I consider every work of mine to be a special solution," he says. "I feel a joy in finding a new solution, a new form, a new material every time." In Britain, such attitudes do not go down well. Architects are supposed to stick to their chosen aesthetic whatever the prevailing fashion and no matter what clients actually want. Yet this British suspicion is not why Isozaki (or any other Japanese architect) has never built in Britain.

The past 10 years have been difficult ones for most British architects. But, unlike the motor industry, they have been saved, to date, from having to compete with their energetic Japanese counterparts. Excessive fashion- led architecture has seemed an extravagance in the mean and cautious Britain of the Thatcher-Major years (except in the design of theme parks and superstores, where anything goes); the Japanese have been hoist by their own petards. But now that Japanese architects of the calibre of Isozaki are paring back and downsizing their work, they look likely, at long last, to be a threat to the balance of British trade and culture.

John Welsh is editor of the RIBA Journal. 'The Work of Arata Isozaki' is at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 (0171 580 5533) until 12 August.