Junzo Sakakura (坂倉 準三)(b.1901), a Le Corbusier protégé, was credited as being one of the first Japanese architects to blend western modernism with traditional eastern architecture.
Sakakura graduated from the Tokyo Imperial University with a degree in Art History in 1927. After developing an interest in architecture, Sakakura abandoned art history, travelled to France and embarked on a career in architecture. After a two-year course in architectural construction, Sakakura entered Le Corbusier’s prestigious Paris atelier for a 5-year internship. Under Le Corbusier’s tutelage, Sakakura assisted in urban planning and residential designs, as well as competitions, including Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets, the Russian Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Sakakura’s talents were unmistakable and he eventually rose to the position of studio chief, counseling students in Le Corbusier’s absence.
After a brief return to Japan, Sakakura again journeyed to France in 1936 to begin finalizing and supervising the construction of his previously rejected plans for the Japanese Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition. A submission by Kunio Maekawa had been favored by the Exposition Committee, but was ultimately rejected as being too modern and lacking any characteristics of traditional Japanese architecture. This, of course, enraged Maekawa and he accused the Committee of “merely repeating the presentation of an obsolete style of architecture, which may well be an insult to the nation.” Sakakura’s pavilion, built on the Exposition grounds at the base of the Eiffel Tower, was said to be “a delicate balance between modernist design principles and traditional Japanese aesthetics.” Sakakura, having only two years of architectural engineering training, “locked himself away in a Parisian hotel” to finalize the plans for the pavilion, relying at times on the technological expertise of Le Corbusier and his staff. Despite the obstacles architectural engineering sometimes presented, Sakakura’s design won the Diplôme de Grand Prix and brought the young architect world-wide recognition.
In 1939, when Sakakura returned to Japan, the Second Sino-Japanese War had “pushed the Japanese economy and military to the limit,” and Japan’s continued expansionist practices had forced western allies to freeze assets and impose embargoes that further limited resources essential for architectural development. But while projects in Japan were scarce, the occupation of China’s Manchuria region provided opportunities for Sakakura and other young architects. At the request of the Japanese government, Sakakura was asked to plan a new mixed-use suburban settlement on Nanhu (South Lake), China. The South Lake Complex was reflective of Le Corbusier’s plans for Ville Radieuse on the Left Bank of Paris. Deemed “too grandiose,” Sakakura’s plan was rejected and, like Le Corbusier’s plans for Ville Radieuse, went unrealized.
In addition to the South Lake Complex, Sakakura began researching and developing prefabricated housing for the Japanese military.
In December 1941, Japan invaded Thailand, bombed Pearl Harbor, and attacked Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as the US territories of Guam and the Philippines. WWII had begun and in April of 1942, the US began aerial bombing on mainland Japan.
While prefabricated housing had fundamental beginnings as early as the 1920s, Sakakura, following the lead of Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret, perfected a portable and easily assembled prefab structure for the growing Japanese Imperial Army. By 1945, 60,000 meters of the housing had been produced and sent to the frontlines for use as barracks for the military, which had grown from 375,000 active troops to 5 million in four years.
By 1945, Tokyo and other Japanese cities had sustained heavy damage from Allied bombing raids, including the total destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Millions of people became homeless, business and industry was in ruins, and malnutrition and starvation was rampant due to the destruction of rice crops and shipping blockades. Realizing defeat, Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945, and by September, the US began an occupation to establish democracy, and rebuild the economy and infrastructure of the country.
In 1947, Sakakura opened his Tokyo and Osaka offices, so by the 1950s, when Japan’s economy had rebounded and rebuilding had begun, he was ready to be part of the revitalization of Japan. In 1951, due to his ability to design structures using a minimum of materials, Sakakura won his first major commission, the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sakakura designed over 300 projects including hotels, municipal offices, transit stations, recreational facilities, gas stations and department stores, and established himself as a preeminent modernist architect. On September 1, 1969, at the height of his career, Sakakura died of heart failure at the age of 68.
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