JAPANESE EXPERIENCES 1 ibon salaberria   Vicente Diaz Faixat: His years of formation at the Madrid School of Architecture were marked by his discovery of the work of Kenzo Tange and the Japanese Metabolists in vogue at the time. This led to his interest in the cultural origins that made them possible. As a consequence of his first work experience in the architect Norihiko Dan’s studio in Tokyo, there were further professional contacts, conferences, exhibitions, collaborations and exchanges as a professor invited over to Japan by the University of Kyoto. The Balde: A Japanese city like Tokyo is often defined to us, people outside Japan, as the paradigm of chaos. What is it really like when you get there for the first time?
Vicente Díez Faixat: Yes, the city really does swallow you up when arrive. There doesn’t seem to have been any type of urban development planning. You see all the streets negligently crisscrossed by electric cable everywhere. Nothing about that heterogeneous mix surprises you. I mean, you can find a wooden temple flanked by huge glass and steel skyscrapers. All the same, the city is closely tied to an enormous cultural respect for one and another's privacy. You don’t see what you don’t look at. It’s a huge chaotic gathering of mutually respecting individuals. One everyday example is the near impossibility of finding an exact address. It’s a game to the Japanese. The streets don’t have a name. The doors don’t have consecutive numbers. Everything works around references and urban landmarks; next to, behind...

Do you think that one of the main differences between our cities and Japanese ones is the relationship between "the new" and "the old" ? There seems to be no dilemma in Japanese cities when it comes to the co-existence of a monument with a ruin or a contemporary building...
Japanese society is built around its respect for the elderly and its cult of infancy. There hardly seems to be any space left over for the generations in between... and there’s no problem whatsoever in accepting the existence of the oldest with the newest. As far as architecture is concerned, well, there was never this idea of permanency that dominates in the West. They don’t have our concept of a "historical" monument either. Time is lived out in cycles. It’s something that is permanently carried out through ritual repetition of gestures. The singular most ancient "monument" in Japan, the Shinto Sanctuary in Ise that dates from the VII Century, is totally rebuilt every twenty years using traditional construction methods.

You wrote in a newspaper in Gijon a few years ago that: "The way of wabi-sabi is slow, difficult, demanding and intense". How does such a hectic society like the Japanese one deal with the notable contradictions between traditional interpretation and the accelerated pace of life in the 21st Century?
I think one of the biggest differences between the western way of thinking and the oriental way lies in what we denominate "the contradiction of opposites". We view things as "they are or they aren’t" and there is no middle ground. It’s black or it’s white. For the Japanese everything "is and isn’t" at the same time. A bit ambiguous if you like, but they’ve got this "unlimited range of greys". Therefore, contradictions as we understand them don’t exist in Japan: you have the contemporary and the traditional, the most stressful rhythm of life exists hand in hand with its opposite laid-back form, no problem at all. The business executive with the most hectic of diaries gets home at night, takes their shoes off on the doorstep, leaves them there along with the hair-raising pace of the day behind them and gets lost in the pleasures of contemplating a moss-covered stone or a carp in a fish-tank.

Japanese traditions are based on abstract concepts like "engawa", "ma" or "wabi-sabi" that are difficult to understand in a "word" based culture like ours. But, they are responsible for the type of aesthetics we recognise as Japanese architecture...
The truth is they are concepts that are fairly unknown to the last few generations of Japanese who prefer to look towards the West and the American way of life. However, they still form part of a cultural substratum that these generations are perhaps unaware of and that architects like Norihiko Dan, Shigeru Ban, Kazuyo Sejima and so many others are trying to rescue and integrate with what they have learned from the West. The idealised notion we have of the current Japan is not quite the real thing either, that image of everything totally over the top, illuminated by neon lights and plagued with mirrors, the kitsch of the pachinko centres... Western minimalism seems to want to send us back to Zen and renunciation, an austere form of design that has plenty to do with the Romanic design of mediaeval monasteries. The difference is that the Japanese have delved deeply into the aesthetics that revolve around sensations.

Your studio has collaborated with several Japanese architects like Takayuki Miyoshi (currently collaborating with Toyo Ito) o Norihiko Dan. What are these exchanges of ideas with a culture like the Japanese one like?
It all forms part of a process of permanent dialogue based on a profound friendship and how well we tune into each other. Sometimes people ask how you can notice the Japanese or European touch in the work we do together... and I honestly think there’s a hybrid there, and it’s us who try to introduce fickleness and Japanese-ness and it’s them who try to introduce solid and sometimes Baroque references into the work we do. I think the enrichment is mutual... although I’d go as far as to say that we get more out of it than they do. We consider the different collaborations as a privilege to be referred to. Norihiko Dan comes up with an elegance that I have never seen in any other architect; Takayuki Miyoshi lives light and transparencies with a sensitiveness that no Westerner can come close to.