Archetypes, Hybrids, and Novelties

“Archetypes, Hybrids, and Novelties: Exhibition Architecture in the Meiji Period”
Alice Tseng (Boston University)

As a medium of national expression, the architecture of international expositions, despite their planned obsolescence, guided lasting impressions of the world’s peoples and places. In the late nineteenth century, fair attendees accepted the Japanese buildings and gardens produced for major European and American fairs as authentic artifacts, not least for being created by materials and carpenters sent directly from the native land. Yet as scholars have argued, producing explicitly “Japanese” architecture overseas proved challenging for the government commissions; their choices of building types and styles were neither predictable nor conventional. Furthermore, large-scale exhibitions of the same period that were held in the major Japanese cities featured substantially different building designs, purposely eschewing the vernacular and historical replicas showcased abroad.

This paper takes into consideration the simultaneity of overseas and domestic exhibition architecture to investigate a range of approaches to architectural nationalism in the Meiji period. Mitchell Schwarzer defines architectural nationalism as “the design of a building according to considerations of how it represents or advances ideas of a nation.” I argue that the rising Meiji nation-state, while striving to establish an identifiable political unity, consciously lacked a unified strategy for architectural expression. This paper explores fluctuating performances of “ideas of a nation” in the exhibition architecture of the Meiji period. It is possible to classify the national buildings into three general types: archetypal reproductions, historical hybrids, and modern innovations. The variety, rather than coherence, of architectural representation demonstrates the plurality of sources and means for defining Japanese unity during these four decades.

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