• john barr

Do|Co|Mo|Mo|Japan|12 : Gunma Music Centre : Antonin Raymond


Do|Co|Mo|Mo is an international organisation dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement. The Japanese branch has selected 100 works as representative of the development of the Modern Movement in Japan.


In a series of short posts I will feature some of the selected works that I have had the chance to visit and photograph. This post features the Gunma Music Centre in Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, designed by Antonin Raymond and built in 1961...






Background

Raymond was a Czech architect who emigrated to the USA, where he worked for three years for Cass Gilbert before joining Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio at Taliesin in 1916. After serving in the U.S Army during WWI he re-joined Wright’s office and moved to Japan to work on the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, eventually parting company with Wright and establishing his own office in Japan in 1921. He had a successful practice in Tokyo prior to WWII but returned to the USA during the war years. On his return to Japan after the war he was commissioned my Mrs DeWitt Wallace to design the Reader’s Digest building in Tokyo, the first ‘permanent’ new building to be constructed in Tokyo after the war.[i]


In my post on MOMA Kamakura (2 February 2018) I describe the Japanese tradition of ‘cheap and thin’ or, as David Stewart has more elegantly described it in reference to Raymond’s Reader’s Digest building, simplicity, economy of material and lightness.[ii] Stewart argues that, in the design of the Reader’s Digest building, Raymond was attempting to take the essence of traditional Japanese architecture and combine it with the best of modern American technology to create a modern Japanese architecture that was not based on historical stylistic references. He cites Raymond’s radio interview by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange where the former is appalled by the latter’s suggestion that Japanese architects should be seeking to develop a ‘new tradition’, which Raymond takes to mean a distinctively Japanese neo-vernacular.


In fact, Tange’s meaning is all too clear when we consider his own work or, at least, his own descriptions of his own work. In my earlier post on the Hiroshima Peace Centre (21 November 2018) I have described Tange’s insistence that his clearly modernist design based on Corbusian principles is actually based on historical Japanese models (of which he was later to cite both Katsura Imperial Villa and Ise Shrine at different times). Interestingly, and in contrast to Tange’s own explanation, Raymond was to describe the Hiroshima Peace Centre as a superficial imitation of his own Reader’s Digest building, and foremost among a number of such imitations by Japanese architects who he said were “attracted by the exterior only”.[iii]


Raymond was to further criticise Japanese architects, both for their historicism and for continuing to follow Corbusier into his post-war mannerism, as exemplified by his church at Ronchamp and his work at Chandigarh. He described the tendency to follow Corbusier as having produced ‘brutalities’ in post-war Japanese architecture.[iv] Raymond sought a strictly contemporary architecture, based on internationalism, modern technology and principles taken from the Japanese traditions of simplicity, lightness and economy of material, not one based on stylistic references.


When they returned to the USA on the outbreak of WWII in 1939 Raymond and his wife Noémi bought and converted a farm to create a studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Noémi Raymond was an accomplished designer in her own right, contributing to many of Raymond’s projects as well as completing many of her own, which included textile design, furniture design, interior design, architecture and, in the case of St. Anselm’s Church in Tokyo, sculpture. She spoke Japanese, and Japanese colleagues and staff have stated that her understanding of Japan and its traditions was deeper than that of her husband.[v]


In what was to become known as the New Hope Experiment the Raymonds sought to create a physical and intellectual environment that mirrored and supported their approach to modern design - one that synthesised International Style developments with lessons learned from Japan's craft tradition.[vi] They developed a prospectus at their New Hope studio and had up to twenty students living and studying there and, later, working on live commissions for house designs in the New York and Connecticut area.[vii]


Raymond himself stated that he sought honesty, simplicity and directness as opposed to sophistication but Christine Vendredi-Auzanneau argues that, with the exception of a few inter-war structures, only works completed after he returned to Japan in 1951 truly fit that description.[viii] The first, and arguably the best, of these is the Reader’s Digest building, completed in 1951 but designed over the preceding two years in the New York office that Raymond had established with the American Slovak architect Ladislav Rado at the end of WWII.


Prior to that, as WWII approached and Raymond moved from Japan back to the USA, he had established a partnership with Arthur Tuttle, Elwyn Seelye and Clyde Place – a civil engineer, a structural engineer and a mechanical engineer respectively.[ix] Raymond had always been interested in engineering and particularly in the possibilities of reinforced concrete, of which he had learned during his time with Cass Gilbert and, to some extent, with Wright.


It could be argued that all of these aspirations and influences were brought together in the design of the Gunma Music Centre, although other interpretations are also possible…


Design

The Gunma Music Centre is located in Takasaki city, which, although relatively small, is home to the Gunma Prefectural Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest and most respected orchestras in Japan. The site had previously been occupied by a feudal castle and the project was publicly funded through a combination of local government funds and public donations.


The budget was limited and, in recognition of its reliance on public contributions, Raymond undertook to meet three primary objectives: to be economical and to make best use of citizens’ donations by providing a building that would have a long life; to design a unified and ‘democratic’ space that provided equally good sightlines and acoustics for every seat; and to respect the sensitive history and location of the site by maintaining a low overall profile for the building.


In response to the first requirement, Raymond utilised a structural design based on folded concrete plates for the walls and roof that are only 120mm thick and capable of spanning 60m whilst providing seismic resistance through the inherent stiffness of their folded profile. Whether or not this was the cheapest possible design is a moot point, but it is structurally efficient and has stood the test of time.


Gunma Music Centre, Takasaki City. Antonin Raymond. (1961)

Folded concrete plates run continuously up walls and across roof and provide seismic resistance.


In response to the second point, the fan-shaped plan of the auditorium combined with the column-free structure provides equally good sightlines for all seats. I have been unable to find information on acoustic performance and it is unclear whether the profile of the folded plates, which is exposed on the inside of the auditorium, is an advantage or a disadvantage in this respect.

In response to the third point, the building maintains a low profile in terms of height, but creates a high profile in terms of architectural form. It provides a striking image to represent the city of Takasaki – a kind of ‘Bilbao Effect’ more than thirty years before Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum provided an instantly recognisable symbol for that city, although, given Raymond’s views about architecture, the comparison is perhaps not one that he would have welcomed.




Gunma Music Centre, Takasaki City. Antonin Raymond. (1961)

The building maintains a low profile in terms of height but a high profile in terms of architectural form.


Significance

The Gunma Music Centre is perhaps the best known of Raymond’s many buildings in Japan, partly due to its function as a major public building but also due to its architectural form. The latter immediately raises the, probably unanswerable, question as to whether the building’s form derives purely from Raymond’s desire to pursue a modern architecture based on lightness and the efficient use of material, or whether he also had begun to succumb to the siren call of more sculptural, expressive and mannerist architecture.



Gunma Music Centre, Takasaki City. Antonin Raymond. (1961)

Form driven by rational response to lightness and efficient use of material or by architectural expressionism?


What we can say with certainty is that it was not the first time that Raymond had used this structural technique. He had already used it seven years earlier, in his 1954 design for St. Anselm’s Church in Meguro, Tokyo. It may be argued that the programme for the church design raised the same issues as that for the concert hall: cost, efficiency, consistency of sightlines and acoustics, but we have no evidence that these were specifically stated objectives for the former design. At the same time, there is little doubt that the structural form imparts a cathedral like, vaulted quality to the church, and so it is possible that on this occasion Raymond was, at least in part, driven by formal considerations.


St. Anselm's Church, Meguro Ward, Tokyo. Antonin Raymond. (1954)

Prior use of folded concrete plates for walls and roof.



St. Anselm's Church, Meguro Ward, Tokyo. Antonin Raymond. (1954)

The structure creates a cathedral-like, vaulted space.


St. Anselm's Church, Meguro Ward, Tokyo. Antonin Raymond. (1954)

A sequence of sculptures, representing the stations of the cross, by Noémi Raymond.


His next major project after Gunma, his largest and one of his last, doesn’t entirely settle the issue. Nanzan University in Nagoya* was completed in 1964 and Raymond again employed concrete for his structures. All of the many buildings on the campus except one are constructed in a rational, post and beam form, some with thin-shell, barrel-vaulted, concrete roofs. The exception is the Chapel to the Divine World Seminary, which uses heavy, sculptural, load-bearing concrete in a manner reminiscent of Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp. This raises the question as to whether Raymond was beginning to move away from his earlier principles towards the end of his career. There isn’t sufficient evidence or a sufficient number of later projects to reach such a conclusion or discern such a trend. What we can say is that the Gunma Music Centre is a significant modernist building that demonstrated the possibilities of using concrete to create a relatively thin, lightweight and efficient structure, capable of achieving large spans and seismic resistance.


Other examples that employed similar techniques include two buildings designed by Kunio Maekawa’s office that sit chronologically between Raymond’s St. Anselm’s Church of 1954 and Gunma Music centre of 1961. The first is the Fukushima Education centre of 1956, which employs folded concrete plates for the walls and an undulating, waveform, thin shell concrete roof. The second is the auditorium of the Setagaya Citizens’ Hall of 1959, which employs folded concrete plates for both walls and roof, although not in the continuous sculptural form seen at Gunma.


Setagaya Citizens' Hall, Auditorium, Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. Kunio Maekawa. (1959)

Folded plates form the walls and roof, but not in the continuous sculptural form used by Raymond in the Gunma Music Centre.


Nonetheless, as with the possibilities of a lighter, thinner architecture outlined in my earlier post on MOMA Kamakura, these ideas were not widely taken up or further pursued by other Japanese architects nor, it seems, by Raymond himself.



* Nanzan University is also listed in the DoCoMoMo Japan 100 selection and will be the subject of a future post.






[i] Stewart. David B. The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture : 1868 to the Present.

Kodansha International (1987) pg.165.

[ii] Ibid. pg.165.

[iii] Ibid. pg.168.

[iv] Ibid. pg.169.

[v] Helfrich, Kurt G.F. with Nakahara, Mari Sakamoto. Rediscovering Antonin and Noémi

Raymond. Published in Crafting a Modern World : The Architecture of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, Edited by Helfrich, Kurt G.F and Whitaker, William. Princeton Architectural Press (2006). Pg.20.

[vi] Helfrich, Kurt G.F. Antonin Raymond in America, 1938-49. Published in Crafting a Modern World : The Architecture of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, Edited by Helfrich, Kurt G.F and Whitaker, William. Princeton Architectural Press (2006). Pg.48.

[vii] Ibid. pg.51.

[viii] Vendredi-Auzanneau, Christine. Antonin Raymond and The Modern Movement : A Czech

Perspective. Published in Crafting a Modern World : The Architecture of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, Edited by Helfrich, Kurt G.F and Whitaker, William. Princeton Architectural Press (2006). Pg.39.

[ix] Helfrich, Kurt G.F. Antonin Raymond in America, 1938-49. Published in Crafting a Modern World : The Architecture of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, Edited by Helfrich, Kurt G.F and Whitaker, William. Princeton Architectural Press (2006). Pg.53.


© 2017 by john barr ARCHITECTS

Want to receive notification of new Blog Posts on Japanese architecture and culture?