Japan is no stranger to natural disasters. The country is earthquake-prone and is often hit by tsunamis, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and floods.
If you can’t fight nature, then what next? Run with it?
It is hardly surprising that much of Japan’s buildings, civil-engineering and landscape projects reflect this philosophy.
Eighty of these examples can be viewed in Built Environment: An Alternative Guide To Japan, a travelling exhibition organised by The Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur, together with the Embassy of Japan in Malaysia, the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) and REXKL.
It is part of the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival (KLAF) 2019, organised by PAM.
“There are many beautiful buildings in Japan, but to understand the depth of Japanese society, it is not enough to look at its beauty. As Japan frequently falls victim to natural disasters, we are obliged to consider how we overcome them and sometimes how to coexist with them. For this reason, Japanese architecture looks beyond design; it also takes into consideration its harmony with disasters or the natural environment,” says Tsuyoshi Kurihara, The Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur deputy director and head of cultural affairs department.
The exhibit, featuring photographs, text and videos of architectural wonders from the late 19th century to present day, will run at the REXKL arts space in Kuala Lumpur till July 14. At least one site from each of the country’s 47 prefectures is included in this exhibition.
“The emphasis Japan puts on the concept of building in harmony with disasters, or the natural environment, can be seen in some old buildings in the exhibition, including the Mitsui O.S.K Lines building in Kobe city that was built in 1922 and remained largely unharmed after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake,” shares Kurihara.
He also highlights the Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, with their distinctive steeply-sloped thatched roofs, in Gokayama and Shirakawa-go, which were built in response to the natural environment and site-specific circumstances, for instance, the cultivation of mulberry trees and silkworm rearing.
In the past, access to these remote villages was difficult and heavy snow in the winter meant these steeply-pitched roofs were necessary to prevent snow from piling up and collapsing under the weight.
The structural space within would be divided into a few levels as a workspace. These villages have been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Built Environment: An Alternative Guide To Japan has toured South Korea, Indonesia and India, before this Malaysian stop. It will next travel to China.
Kurihara notes that he believes Japan’s architecture will continue to be approached with adaptation to natural disasters, seasonal changes and the environment.
Another important factor to take into account now would be the country’s ageing population.
“I hope the exhibition will help visitors deepen their knowledge of Japan and see some of the efforts of our predecessors, who constructed their buildings to adapt to their surroundings,” he says.
In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a talk at REXKL on June 23 (3pm) on Reviving Architecture: Community And Placemaking, and a lecture at Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus in Subang Jaya on June 24 (2pm) by Japanese guest speaker Ippei Takahashi on Explorations in Contemporary Japanese Architecture.
The exhibit will travel to the Tun Razak Library in Ipoh, Perak, where it will be on show between July 22 and Aug 13.
Built Environment: An Alternative Guide to Japan at REXKL, 80, Jalan Sultan in Kuala Lumpur runs till July 14. Opening hours: 10am-8pm daily. Free admission. More info: www.jfkl.org.my or call 03-2284 6228.