Kenzo Tange and
Drawings made by hand for the main building of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, held in the archives of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), beautifully display the lines of the iconic suspension roof, then state of the art. More than half a century later, the drawings are showing signs of age, but have now been scanned after undergoing preservation on campus.
The Architect “Speaks to Us” Directly
1964. Over half a century has passed since Japan emerged from postwar reconstruction and entered a period of soaring economic development. The Tokyo Olympics, held the same year, sent a vivid message to the world of Japan’s swift progress and potential, ushering in the East Asian Economic Miracle. In particular, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, an arena for swimming and diving, not only demonstrated to the world the architectural excellence of Japan, sending shockwaves through the architectural status quo, it also assured the reputation of its architect, Kenzo Tange, as an international maestro of design.
What marveled contemporary audiences the most was the enormous “suspension roof,” which gives the structure its characteristic similarity to a suspension bridge. The tensile strength of the wire cables allows for the creation of a huge interior space free from obstructive pillars that can hold over ten-thousand people. The beautiful catenary form, while evocative of traditional Japanese structures, immediately earned its place in the history of modern architecture.
Born in 1913 and living to see the twenty-first century, Kenzo Tange was inarguably one of the greatest figures of postwar Japanese architecture. The creator of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, built ten years after World War II in a gesture of hope for world peace, as well as such iconic works as St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo, Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, the Master Plan for Expo ‘70, Akasaka Prince Hotel, and the old and new Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, his ambitious and iconically Japanese projects were too numerous to count. In the late 1960s, Tange broadened the scope of his activities to the world stage, creating works in over thirty different countries. Meanwhile, he nurtured the careers of illustrious architects like Fumihiko Maki, Arata Isozaki, Kisho Kurokawa, and Yoshio Taniguchi and taught at institutions all over the world, such as MIT, Harvard University, and the University of Tokyo.
Active until the last few years of his life, which ended in 2005 at the age of ninety- one, Tange produced a formidable amount of work over the course of his long career, and now his drawings and models have been collected and conserved by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But why did the collection of one of Japan’s preeminent architects wind up in America?
“Throughout his life, my father, Kenzo Tange, was always moving forward, eyes on the future, never looking back. Once a building was complete, he didn’t seem very attached to the drawings, the way you never look at the instructions once you’re done building a plastic model. He didn’t seem to ascribe much cultural value to the materials he left behind.”
Tange’s son, Paul Noritaka Tange, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an architect and now serves as Chairman of Tange Associates, smiled as he told the story.
“When my father passed away, he left behind a huge volume of material waiting to be organized, much of which was beginning to deteriorate. Pages tearing, cellophane tape cracking and corroding. It was obviously going to take a lot of time and energy to restore everything, not to mention cost a great deal. When we looked into institutions who could take this on, and most importantly ensure that the collection would be preserved for posterity, we determined the GSD at Harvard to be the best choice.”
Thus the collection wound up in the auspices of Harvard, but as Paul said, preserving and accessioning everything was not easy. To find out why the GSD accepted this massive undertaking, we spoke with Dean Sarah Whiting.
“Kenzo Tange paved the way for the modernization of architecture in postwar Japan. This collection is not only a record of his architecture, but of the leaps and bounds made by Japanese architecture in his lifetime. These materials offer a glimpse into the culture of postwar Japan, as its people came together, working toward a single vision. At present, the archive holds about twenty- thousand drawings and five architectural models made by Tange for major projects in Japan and abroad, as well as many print materials and clippings from all over the world. The primary source documents speak directly to practical concerns like Tange’s methods of expression and architectural technique, promoting a rich understanding of his architecture and helping us to grasp its underlying philosophy. This archive is without parallel as an educational asset to the students and faculty of GSD, and is a source of inspiration.”
Ines Zalduendo, Special Collections Archivist & Reference Librarian at GSD, explained exactly how these twenty-thousand drawings have been organized and examined since the first donations arrived in 2013.
“We work together with a team of six students, including students from Japan, creating a record for each item in both Japanese and English for the database. After that, we scan the drawings at the Weissman Preservation Center, but since we’ll be exposing them to light, we need to consider the condition of the paper. Are there stains which might be impossible to remove? If the paper is crumpled or torn, should we attempt a restoration, or preserve as is? After thoroughly considering the state of the item, we begin the imaging process. On average this imaging work takes about four hours per item, but drawings in poor condition can require several days. While the steps are similar for models, the archivist in charge will spend about a year conducting their examination, beginning with identifying what kind of materials were used and how the model will be stored.”
Preserved by the hands of expert archivists through this elaborate process, most of the materials are available for anyone to use, as digitized materials have been made available to the public through an online archive.
“Materials are mainly used by current students, students from other schools, faculty, and researchers. Of course, they’re also used in classes. Through this collection, the late Kenzo Tange is now able to ‘speak to us’ directly.”
Zalduendo adds that the collection “might outlast most of the actual buildings, living on through the generations.” It’s unavoidable that the built environment we call architecture will degrade over time, and the question of how to preserve these spaces has become a major topic of debate around the world. If Tange was alive, what would he think about this problem, so unique to architecture? Speaking on his behalf, Paul offered an answer.
“My father never wanted his buildings to get special treatment. He believed that ‘a building is a living thing, and once it ceases to function, it has no reason to exist.’ He said that ‘architecture isn’t sculpture, and derives its beauty from the people who inhabit it.’ My dad was a self-proclaimed urbanist, which meant not thinking of a design as a product, like a piece of hardware, but imagining an ideal version of the city, and searching for an architecture that would fit the context. And on top of that, determining how to incorporate traditional and innovative elements in response to emerging lifestyles. Not trying to be an architect for the people, as such, but perpetually asking the question: ‘What can I do, as an architect, for society today?’ I think this forms the backbone of Kenzo Tange’s contribution as an architect.”
Photography by Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Campus of Harvard University, where a trove of materials related to Kenzo Tange have been preserved and archived. The Weissman Preservation Center oversees document preservation and other tasks related to the maintenance of the collection. Documents must be handled carefully using tweezers, a time consuming process, with some drawings from the Yoyogi National Gymnasium taking over twelve hours per sheet. The Kenzo Tange Archive can be searched and viewed via the Harvard Library website.
In 2005, UNIQLO established a scholarship program for supporting students from Japan entering the Harvard Business School or Harvard University Graduate School of Design, in an effort to foster a new generation of talent. Since then, the scholarship has been awarded every year to one student at each graduate institution.