Genesis of Architecture in Meiji

“Genesis of Architecture in Meiji”
Yatsuka Hajime (Shibaura Institute of Technology)

The Meiji Restoration re-coded nearly all the institutions of the pre-modern Edo society. Many fundamental Japanese words and concepts, without which we could hardly communicate today, were invented in the Meiji Period. The concept of Architecture was one of them.

While the Japanese had a long tradition of producing prominent structures, those structures cannot be considered “Architectural” since they were designed by people who had no notion of “Architecture” as such.

The Meiji Period was characterized by an eclectic mix of Western architectural styles with their Japanese traditional counterparts. In the first half of the period, buildings called giyōfū (pseudo Western syle) were built by carpenters. Lacking integral knowledge of Western buildings, they combined fragments of both Western and Japanese styles, which sometimes produced unexpectedly interesting results, but which were not architectural pieces, because of the absence of the notion of it.

Therefore, before those works could be considered Architecture, an architectural history covering both the West and Japan needed to be invented. Itō Chūta, one of the first architectural historians in Japan, was strongly opposed to Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (1895), which excluded non-Western structures from his category. Fletcher’s exclusion had its own reasoning, but Itō’s nationalism made him refuse to admit it.

Throughout the Meiji Period, a long debate persisted over how to transcribe “architecture” into new Japanese words. The terms zōka and kenchiku were at the center of the debate, with Itō as the main advocate for the latter. That controversy developed into another one over the possible national architectural style at the end of Meiji. Itō was never a modernist, but his conceptualization of kenchiku paved the way to an integration of Western and Japanese architecture through the works of later modernist architects like Horiguchi Sutemi and Tange Kenzō.

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