Kenzo Tange

The Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (born 1913), a student of Le Corbusier, was one of the first modern architects in Japan and played an important design role in postwar rebuilding of Japanese cities.

Kenzo Tange was born in 1913 in the town of Imabari on Shikoku, the smallest of the four principal islands in the Japanese archipelago. He received his degree in architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1938 and returned to the university to do graduate studies in urban planning and design between 1942 and 1945. The four intervening years were spent in the Tokyo architectural firm of Kunio Maekawa, who had worked in the Paris office of the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier and who was one of a small number of modern architects in Japan at the time. Thus, at the end of World War II Tange was equipped to play a major design role in the reconstruction of Japan's war-ravaged cities.

In 1949, after participating in planning studies to aid the rebuilding of numerous towns and cities, Tange won a national competition to design a Peace Park in central Hiroshima, the area that had been directly hit by the atomic bomb dropped from an American plane on August 6, 1945. The complex, comprising a memorial, a museum, a community center, and an auditorium-hotel building, was completed in 1956. The free-standing memorial monument, a dramatic saddle-like arch made of reinforced concrete, is a 20th-century statement that recalls a building type in which the tombs of prehistoric Japanese rulers were placed. The museum, a long, horizontal structure of glass and concrete raised above ground on concrete columns (called pilotis), is reminiscent of buildings by Le Corbusier and also of ancient Japanese prototypes (specifically, the Shosoin in Nara, a building that housed the Imperial Treasury and dates back more than 1, 000 years). This theme of synthesizing modern architecture with traditional symbolism characterized the first phase of Tange's career.

Throughout the 1950s Tange was engaged in designing a variety of civic projects—town halls, libraries, auditoriums, sports centers. One of the more notable of these was the town hall complex he designed for his home town, Imabari, which was completed in 1959. These buildings, including an auditorium, an office center, and the town hall proper, show Tange's increasing skill at manipulating the expressive possibilities of exposed concrete. The auditorium, with just a few projecting square windows on a high concrete wall shadowed by a dramatically projecting roof, is especially powerful. These strong structures were arranged compactly around a public plaza, a spatial form not to be found in traditional Japanese cities. Tange's interest in such communal spaces dates back to his university studies of the Greek agora—the place, as Tange wrote, where the "citizen moved from the private realm to establish connections with society."

In 1960 Tange published his monumental "Plan for Tokyo, " a stimulating—and widely publicized— theoretical exercise which foresaw a need to restructure the 20th-century city. Based in part upon an analogy with nature—"the various architectural works will form the leaves, and the transportation and communications facilities the trunk of a great tree, " Tange wrote—the plan envisioned a vast radial overlay of buildings and roadways above and beyond traditional Tokyo. Although somewhat terrifying in scale, the buildings, structures of concrete, shown in photographs and models were physically impressive, even beautiful. None was ever built, although Tange's stupendous Yamanashi Press and Broadcasting Building (1966) in Kofu, a medium-size city in central Japan, inherits something of the plan's monumental vision. The building comprises an array of horizontal units plugged into, and supported by, 16 huge concrete columns whose hollow cores contain the needed support services (stairwells, elevators, air-conditioning plant, and rest rooms). A feature of the building, as of the Tokyo plan, is its ability to be added to without change to the fundamental structural system (this in fact was done in 1975).

Tange's best-known buildings are the two national gymnasiums erected in Tokyo for the 1964 Olympic Games (the first to be held in Asia). The roofs of these two circular buildings indelibly recall the massive forms of traditional Japanese temples, but they are, also, altogether contemporary in form and technique. These roofs, suspended by cable from massive concrete pillars (a single pillar for the smaller structure, a pair for the larger), consist of prestressed steel nets onto which are attached welded steel plates. The drama of these forms continues in the interiors—bold, elegant, welcoming open spaces illuminated by a combination of artificial with natural light.

From the mid-1960s onward Tange received widespread international attention and commissions. His firm, called the Urbanists and Architects Team (URTEC), provided the master plan (1965) for the reconstruction of Skopje, Yugoslavia, after its devastation by an earthquake and did important planning studies for cities and regions in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe as well as in Japan. Among Tange's more important later architectural works is the Akasaka Hotel (1982) in central Tokyo, a bi-winged structure whose gleaming skin of aluminum and glass demonstrated a decisive turn away from the aesthetic of exposed concrete.

In 1986 Tange again won a competition to design the New Tokyo City Hall Complex, as he had done in 1952. As all of his best work, the new design presents an impressive image: twin skyscraper towers, adorned at the top with a panoply of communications equipment, rising cathedral-like over the Shinjuku district in western Tokyo. He also began work on the Otsu Prince Hotel, the United Nations University in Tokyo, and the Place d'Italie in Paris, France (completed 1991). An American example of his work is the American Medical Association Headquarters Building in Chicago, Illinois, completed in 1990.

Tange has received numerous awards, including the Medal of Honour, Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Grand Prix, Architectural Institute of Japan (1986); the Pritzker Architecture Prize (1987); and in 1993, he received the prestigious Japanese Praemium Imperiale award for lifetime achievement in the arts.


Further Reading on Kenzo Tange

The first decades of Tange's work are fully treated in Kenzo Tange, 1946-1969, edited by Udo Kultermann (1970). His architecture and ideas also are dealt with in books by Robin Boyd, New Directions in Japanese Architecture (1968), and Botond Bognar, Contemporary Japanese Architecture: Its Development and Challenge (1985). He wrote a short autobiographical work, Kenzo Tange, published in Switzerland (1987). Articles about him and his work also appear in special issues of Space Design (January 1980, September 1983, 1987 and 1991).