A View to No Windows Excerpts from MuSou by Seiichi Shirai

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3/4/2010 9:46:02 AM
McGill University
A View to ‘‘No Windows’’
Excerpts from MuSou by Sei’ichi Shirai
To Whom Does Architecture Belong?
Going south from Toranomon, where one runs into
the main road, is the Noa building, completed the
summer of the year before last.1 A year and half
later, it was already a landmark of Azabudai and
known affectionately by people as ‘‘Noa Jizou.’’2.
Then suddenly one day a large hole was opened
beside the great arch of the main façade’s entrance.
In the middle of Noa Jizou’s face, [an act of]
destruction so cruel it could only be an accident, as
if a modern day Noah’s flood, beyond anyone’s
control or judgment.3
When I heard the news, I went to see it and
immediately had to meet the contractor. Whatever
the reason or circumstances, any changes to the
exterior of the building without my permission
would be egregious.
The head of the construction company,
recognizing that I would not accept the excuse that
it was unavoidable because the owner had ordered
it, made an apology for his negligence and promised
to return things to the original condition. What has
priority over any other reason is the profession
which cannot be shaken because it concerns order
and trust.
That a single building invested in by an owner
belongs to the owner is a simple notion. But this
is not the place to discuss the concept of
possession. Nevertheless concretely forming the
pieces structuring a city is a guarantee that a
possession is protected in the meaning and extent
of its wealth. This is to say the obligation of
self-consciousness strictly accompanies the fact of
being shown.
Although it was to be a tenanted building, Noa
was also designed following an intention I had that
it should become a face, a monument, for the city
of Tokyo.4 The client and the investors, of one
mind, had me create it. However, what is the
meaning when those who had the courage at the
very least to set out in the direction of city-creation,
still violate the creation’s authority and the very
1. Noa Building, Tokyo, 1974.
2. Jizou: Lit. earth repository. A Bodhisattva charged with taking care of
humans before the advent of the next Buddha. Often associated with
the care of children but also all humans on their journey to salvation.
3. A window was inserted in the façade alongside the large arch of the
4. The word here is kao or ‘‘face’’ but in this case also means ‘‘symbol.’’
1, 2, 3. Noa Building, North Elevation. Shirai Sei’ichi, Tokyo, 1974.
Photo courtesy of Yoshio Kouse. Published in Shirai Sei’ichi: Kenchiku to
sono sekai (Tokyo: Sekaibunkasha, 1978).
Journal of Architectural Education,
pp. 86–91 ª 2010 ACSA
Translations | Transactions
logic of the city? From their respective positions,
the building must be the wealth of the owners as
well as the tenants.5
In any event it follows from the principles of
the structure, not only a creation’s authority but
accordingly as what is not then legally encoded is
already in the possession of any number of
citizens.6 Nonetheless, if there is no effort to
understand this, then an accident like this has a
Well now it is my turn to receive protests from
owners and tenants. However, I will not face these
relying on copyright law. It has occurred to me that
this legislation should not end up a ‘‘child
protection’’ law in the world of architects. I believe
the significance of architecture copyright is,
properly speaking, with no exception, a realization
of the obligation which accompanies the privileges
architecture as a body holds for itself and what it
This claim to autonomy is no person’s. Nor is
it from an abstract proposition. It is the principle
within a category that physically exists. What is
the purpose of architecture and to whom does
architecture belong? For want of an
understanding of this ground, even highly
advanced production and technology would not
amount to anything. The stupor of the civilized
city only steadily gets deeper.
Takada Hiroatsu1
Being and idealism are probably antinomies but
they are not opposite.2 Regardless, history is the
conflict between existence and idealism, and this
pattern will never change. In the West, this idea
has always played the main character in tragedies
where history has the opportunity to develop. Yet,
here [in Japan] idealism seldom awakened and
did not develop so that it should be a cause to
divide eras.3 This is a part of Japanese culture.
And now that the decay of culture is lamented,
5. The sense of the word ‘‘position’’ here is how we commonly use
‘‘perspective’’: namely the position from which one understands
something. Also given the context of the preceding sentence one might
surmise the ‘‘owners’’ are the citizens of the city and the tenants who
‘‘use’’ the building for immediate ends (investment or otherwise).
6. "Structure" refers equally to the city.
1. Translated by Torben Berns and Takako Yoshikuni.
2. Shirai begins the essay on Takada, a tragic actor, by seeking to
qualify any assumptions regarding a progressive
dialectic—perfectibility—in the human condition. History is a conflict
between the ‘‘is’’ and the ‘‘could be ⁄ should be,’’ but as he points out in
the first line, the relation of the two is not a necessary duality (‘‘being
and idealism are probably antinomies but they are not opposite’’).
3. In the West, dramatic tragedy lends appearance to that in the
human condition for which there is no reconciliation. Opposed,
comedy finitely resolves, and we live beyond the resolution rather
idealism has become a faded term on the surface
of history.4
The prime reason I respect Mr. Hiroatsu
Takada is that he was always immersed in tragedy
and guarded the position [of tragic actor] as a
standard-bearer of idealism.5 Furthermore, despite
the injunctions present in post-Japanesque
creative ethics, there is no rare and obscure
shadow of an idea in either Takada’s abstraction
or symbolism.6 The wisdom gained through
long-term struggle perhaps allows Takada to have
the capacity and moderation to deal with secular
From an early point, Takada was resolutely free
of the cocksure idea in which one distinguishes
oneself from others and goes against the universal.
This is because he knew that individuality was a
limited thing.
Nevertheless, the creative goal of his idealistic
personality has yet to be closely viewed. Beyond the
pleasant and refreshing Western seduction which
creates the skeleton of his work beginning with the
Greek—let us say the prologue to his creative
drama—I desire to meet the proof of Takada having
put his whole heart and soul into the drama, as if
akin to Egyptian anima.8 If a cruel anticipation were
allowed, I would desire to meet that which has been
in the depths of his soul. In other words, Hiroatsu
Takada’s actual perspective through my eyes. Is it
only me who has already felt the pulse of the
suggestion with this work?
than being thwarted by it. Shirai notes that the topic of the
‘‘irreconcilable’’ tragedy is developed through particular tragedies to
the point that overcoming that irreconcilability becomes the very
substance and understanding of Western history, i.e., historical
dialectic. He notes this understanding of history never gained
enough credence in Japan to the point that one could identify
‘‘cultural time’’ as progressive periods of historical eras. There was
no equivalent of the French Revolution where Japan passed from a
sequence of individual men acting upon the stage of history to a
totality of those actions understood as mankind.
4. Ironically, Shirai says now that Japan’s transition into modernity has
taken hold, idealism is at once devalued as a standard for judgment by
the very sequential nature of the process itself. Idealism merely
necessitates then some other overcoming. Or, as Shirai noted (after
Hegel), long before intellectuals in the West espoused postmodernity,
modernity by definition already includes the hapless moments of
postmodernity; ‘‘idealism [becomes] a faded term on the surface of
5. Shirai’s interest in Takada is the willingness to explore Idealism. The
question is whether that must necessitate the same result seen in the
West with the assumption that tragedy must be overcome. Moreover,
the overcoming occurs at the level of the individual subject, with an
individual’s fiercely guarded autonomy recognizable as a universal.
6. Shirai notes that although the operative cultural mores surrounding
Takada demanded that Japanese arts be Westernized and they abandon
the ‘‘inauthenticity’’ of ‘‘appearing’’ Japanese, we should not mistake
the presentation of tragedy in Japan—even Greek tragedy—as anything
remotely resembling Western historical dialectics.
7. Shirai makes the assertion that ‘‘there is no rare and obscure shadow
of an idea in either Takada’s abstraction or symbol.’’ Nor should we
assume it to be an empty form perfectly echoing the Western original.
The question is then, what is it if not form, substance or the dialectic of
the two? Shirai says only that the long-term struggle gives Takada the
capacity and discipline to deal with secular wisdom, i.e., the insight to
not mistake a possible relationship with an a priori one.
8. Shirai agrees that we have yet to say what Takada has achieved other
than his steadfastness. What Shirai does suggest is that the subject of
tragedy is not the dialectic of individual versus universal, as raised by
modernity’s efforts to reconcile the ‘‘autonomous subject,’’ but rather a
‘‘subject’’ that perhaps is less autonomous but no less particular.
4, 5, 6. KyoHaku-an: Garden detail. Shirai Sei’ichi, Noa Building, Tokyo,
1974. Photo courtesy of Yoshio Kouse. Published in Shirai Sei’ichi:
Kenchiku to sono sekai (Tokyo: Sekaibunkasha, 1978).
Translations | Transactions
MuSou, or ‘‘No Windows,’’ is a collection of
writings—with no pictures or drawings—by one
of the most influential architects of a generation
within Japan, Sei’ichi Shirai (1905–1983). As a
former student of Karl Jaspers, a confidante of
André Malraux, and an architect integral in the
derivation of a modern Japanese masonry
‘‘tradition,’’ he was uniquely positioned to
understand the transformation of Japanese culture
in the 20th century.1 Still, from the West’s
perspective he remains lost within a vague
syncretism as ‘‘postmodern,’’ and even from
within Japan, despite his influence, his thoughts
and writing remain largely opaque to Japanese
and Western scholars alike.2
As distinct from the more internationally
attuned and easily understood figure of Kenzo
Tange, Shirai was interested in a truly ‘‘Japanese’’
discussion of architecture. This is not to say he
was not interested in architecture outside Japan.
It is to say, architecture for Shirai was culturally
specific, culture defined as rooted in language,
and therefore not directly amenable to a larger
discussion. Shirai’s principal disagreements with
Tange involved notions of cultural authenticity
and the idea of universal history—whether
‘‘good’’ design was self-evident to all or at all.
Where Tange would cast ‘‘traditional’’ Japanese
wood details in concrete, Shirai would evolve
forms out of ironic concepts and find ways to
sew them back into the recognizable as if they
naturally belonged there.3 Japan’s lack of a
masonry tradition compelled it to adopt one in its
entirety upon modernization.4 Shirai’s use of
masonry was acutely sensitive to this history and
hence at odds with Tange’s facile transformation
of old forms to new materials. Where Shirai
understood the relation of the brick to history
(itself a Western concept), Tange was content to
claim Japanese ‘‘authenticity’’ and produce what
Tzonis and Lefaivre would term a critically
regionalist approach.5 Shirai dismissed this as
1. Japanese architects were acutely aware of the fact that Japan had no
masonry tradition beyond castle foundation building. As architecture
was perceived as being of stone, this was a major point of collective
anxiety. All masonry in Japan by definition was Western.
2. See Kenchika Bunka’s retrospective, 30 People Who Moved
Modernism: The Japanese Perspective, Kenchiku Bunka Special Edition,
Vol. 55 (January 2000).
3. ‘‘Tange and Shirai, the two ‘maitres’ of post-war architectural
development, led Japanese architecture in opposite directions. On one
hand, Tange established the Orthodox myth of the ‘tradition of the new’
while on the other Shirai proposed a heretical antithesis to this
tradition.’’ H. Yatsuka, "Architecture in the Urban Desert," Oppositions
23 (Winter 1981).
4. Japan opened its doors to the world in 1868 after having effectively
closed them for 300 years. Following the fall of the Shogunate it
embarked upon an aggressive policy of modernization that included
implementation of a parliamentary democracy as well as all aspects of
technical development. In effect Japan came face to face with the
Western concept of history.
5. Tzonis and Lefaivre, ‘‘Why Critical Regionalism Today?’’ A+U, 1990.
Largely the West judged Shirai’s work as that of
a second-rate postmodern, a consequence of the
West’s inability to both recognize anything more
than itself in the ‘Other’ and to recognize history as
anything but universal.6 Though his writings often
seem impenetrable, upon close inspection they
reveal critical intellectual contributions on the
unevenness of the concept of history and modernity
between cultures. Unrecognized in both the West
and in Japan, the real importance of Shirai’s
contribution to contemporary architectural discourse
is his mode of acting that is qualitatively other than
the modern ⁄ postmodern circularity of selfvalidating concepts. In the increasingly globalizing
world since his death in 1983, this has become all
the more important.
Shirai’s position on history is clearly evident
in the two pieces translated here. To understand
that position it is useful to consider that history
is lived rather than externally guaranteed or
presented. This is to say that every generation
learns and remakes—through language, custom
and environment—its authentic ground of
appearance. Furthermore, appearance itself is
revealed by virtue of that common ground. Any
notion of an individual or individual creativity is
by virtue of that ground. The ground is
legitimated and (re)created by the (creative)
actions of the members of that community. The
creative authority that Shirai constantly refers to
may be understood as the relation of authoring
to authority: the work created by the individual,
in so far as it is received and resonates with an
inarticulate sensus communis is appropriated by
the community as such, and in effect, becomes
severed from the artist to the same degree that
the artist has articulated concretely that very
sensus communis.7 This two-way hinge of the
author and the authority concretized in the
accepted work is crucial to his understanding.
Shirai’s understanding of the made and its
relation to the political realm of appearance
transcends all cultural specificity by virtue of its
6. See H. Yatsuka, ‘‘Internationalism vs Regionalism,’’ in At the End of
the Century (Los Angeles: MOCA, 2000).
7. It is interesting to compare Shirai’s understanding of ‘‘common’’ with
that of Giambattista Vico. ‘‘Common sense is judgment without
reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation,
or the entire human race.‘‘ Giambattista Vico, The New Science of
Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968, translator’s introduction,
7, 8. Shinwa Ginko Honten exterior garden detail (Sasebo, 1973).
Photo courtesy of Yoshio Kouse. Published in Shirai Sei’ichi: Kenchiku to
sono sekai (Tokyo: Sekaibunkasha, 1978).
Translations | Transactions
understanding of ‘‘common.’’ ‘‘Common’’ for
Shirai is ‘‘inarticulate’’ or ‘‘pre-linguistic’’ in the
sense that it does not belong to a particular
person or point of view. This does not make it
universal in the Western dialectical sense of
history. On the contrary, each culture acts
according to its own sense of appearance, a sense
that is created through reabsorbing the new into
the recognized, literally ‘‘forgetting’’ its
particularity in the process. What is
‘‘remembered’’ is a sensibility particular to a
community—any community—at that time.
While Shirai wrote exclusively for his
‘‘community’’ and the community of his ‘‘time,’’
we should not miss the importance of his
contribution for all of us for whom action is
always for us in our time.
p. xxv D3, D4. and p.142. The translators note: ‘‘‘Common’ does not, at
least in the first instance, mean public, at large, joint, reciprocal,
mutually agreed upon. It does not presuppose consideration,
deliberation, communication, mutual influence, transaction, convention
or agreement’’ (D4).
9. Shinwa Ginko Annex (Sasebo, 1975). Photo courtesy of Yoshio
Kouse. Published in Shirai Sei’ichi: Kenchiku to sono sekai (Tokyo:
Sekaibunkasha, 1978).
10. Zensho-ji_hondo, Tokyo, 1958 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)
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