Meet the Oldest and Newest Design and Architecture Works in the M+ Collections
How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our own spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: pick the oldest and newest objects in the M+ Collections (out of those available on the M+ Collections Beta), and narrate a story that connects them.
Two curators from M+’s Design and Architecture team took on this challenge in an online programme. Lead curator Ikko Yokoyama explored the potential relationship between two design objects, and curator Shirley Surya examined the connection between two architectural works. Below, we share their results.
- Ikko Yokoyama, Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+
- Shirley Surya, Curator, Design and Architecture, M+
The oldest design object: Kimono (man), by an unknown maker from circa 1895
Ikko: This is a so-called ‘propaganda’ kimono for men from around 1895—the oldest object we have in the M+ Collections. This type of kimono is known as Sensogara (war-time patterns), a subgenre of Omoshirogara (novelty or interesting patterns). They were not recognised as propaganda tools at the time, but were produced and distributed by commercial drapers as part of a fashion trend. They were popular from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War.
This kimono depicts several important scenes from the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). For example, it portrays the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki as well as a naval battle probably taking place in Weihaiwei on the Northeast Coast of China, which became a leased coastal territory for the UK from 1898 to 1930.
Motifs on propaganda kimonos were often taken from nishiki-e, a type of colourful woodblock print that was particularly popular during this period. Nishiki-e prints were widely used to illustrate the stories of newspaper headlines for everyday consumption, touching on compelling topics like fashion, technology, and war. The popularity and impactful visuals of nishiki-e is probably why the drapers wanted to apply a similar approach to this kimono. Nishiki-e prints were also typically intricate and detailed— adapting them into kimono patterns provided an opportunity to emphasise high standards of craftsmanship.
The kimono is made out of chirimen silk, a soft crepe silk fabric. The imagery was applied using Yūzen—a traditional hand-painted dyeing technique suitable for depicting very detailed patterns, and used by craftsmen who were often regarded as highly skilled artists or illustrators.
The newest design object: Alvaro Catalán de Ocón’s ongoing PET Lamp Project (2012 onwards)
Ikko: These PET Lamps are part of an ongoing project conceived by Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón and his team. The lampshades are made out of recycled PET bottles using basket weaving techniques from different parts of the world. The project started in 2012 when de Ocón participated in a workshop investigating plastic waste issues in Colombia’s Amazonas region. During the trip, he encountered a group of basket weavers from the Cauca region who used to live on the coast, but had been displaced to the other side of the Andes Mountains due to the guerrilla war. He decided to combine the two issues to work on the project.
To design the base structure for the lampshade, de Ocón was inspired by the structure of a chasen, a Japanese tea whisk made out of a single piece of bamboo. The PET bottle’s screw neck is used as the anchor point for holding the lighting components. The heel of the bottle is chopped off and the body is shredded. The shredded strands are transformed into a vertical frame, used as a warp that will be threaded through with the natural fibers of the weft. The artisans can form the shape of the lampshade using a wooden mold.
The success of this project rests on the designer’s ability to maintain the unique quality of the product while effectively standardising the lamps for global distribution, and securing steady income for the artisans. Artisans can apply their own patterns and colours, reflecting their cultures. For example, the artisans from the Cauca region weaved motifs of fish or waves to commemorate their lost home.
Alvaro’s team has completed almost one project per year in different countries where PET bottle waste has been a serious environmental concern, and there is a longstanding tradition of basket weaving. Plastic waste is a global problem and basket-weaving is a relatively widespread craft around the world. So far, they have completed projects in Colombia, Chile, Ethiopia, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and Ghana.
How are these objects connected?
Technically, there are 127 years in between these two projects, and you wouldn’t often see them together in a gallery. However, they are connected in several ways. For example, they are both commercial products that require the talents of highly skilled artisans, and they are both woven objects.
Perhaps the most interesting connection is the journalistic aspect of these two projects. Each PET lamp tells a global story but it also tells a very specific, local, almost anthropological one, too. When we look at the kimono, we can not only learn about what was happening in the world, but we can also learn about the culture production during wartime Japan. These kinds of visual cues are loaded in both works. Decoding them reveals their inherent potential to become important records of the cultural and geopolitical forces of their times.
The oldest architectural work: Frank Lloyd Wright’s design drawings for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, circa 1918
Shirley: This is a sectional drawing of a stone stairway by famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was acquired together with five other drawings, which are all various fragments of a larger project—the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. These drawings are in the M+ Collections because of the importance of the project itself, representing the multi-directional transfers in knowledge between Wright’s practice and Japan.
Designed by Wright, the second Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which was later demolished in 1968, was an instant landmark when it opened in 1923. Its grand scale and design reflected Japan’s ambition of modernisation and internationalisation. Commissioning an American architect like Frank Lloyd Wright spoke to its cosmopolitan ambition. The hotel’s design process is a story of transnational architectural production before the jet-set era, revealing the challenges and opportunities of a practice not based in Asia, but working in Asia.
Before the commission, Wright had already visited Japan and took a keen interest in the country’s arts and culture. As a collector of Japanese woodblock prints, he organised the very first exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige’s works in the United States in 1906. Interestingly, there has been a lot of conjecture on how Wright’s designs were influenced by the aesthetic and composition of these prints. The Imperial Hotel, therefore, was a highly important project for Wright—it not only influenced the development of architecture in Japan, but also changed the trajectory of Wright’s career.
Wright was known to have produced an initial set of drawings in Chicago. However, he had to re-draw them after arriving in Japan, when he realised the kind of materials, craftsmanship, and construction methods he would be working with. The drawings—particularly the stairwell drawing with a poem in kanji in the right corner—reveal the collaboration between Wright, local architects, and craftsmen.
Another key way in which the locality informed Wright’s design was the material that he chose to use for the hotel: oya stone, a mixture of lava and ash found in a quarry outside Utsunomiya city. He convinced the hotel to buy the quarry in order to extract the blocks for the building. This porous stone was not only easy to carve, achieving Wright’s highly intricate design, but was also fire resistant and able to absorb pressure. Wright chose it based on his research into how buildings in Tokyo were prone to seismic damage. His seemingly ornamental drawings of eaves and cornices were part of the building’s wider earthquake-resistant structural system. The below photo shows that the Hotel was the only building that withstood the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
The newest architectural work: Bas Princen’s Hinterland—Straits (Tekong Reclamation), 2015
Shirley: This work might complicate the conventional category of ‘architecture’ and ‘architectural photography’. One of our newest architectural works in the M+ Collections is a photo that captures the beginnings of a land reclamation project in Pulau Tekong—an island used for military exercises in Singapore. It's shot by Bas Princen, a Dutch photographer with a background in industrial design and architecture.
Princen uses photography to depict ‘non-places’—forms of architecture in a liminal state between appearance and disappearance, and what is seemingly natural and man-made. Hinterland—Straits (Tekong Reclamation) is one of his visually enigmatic documentations of a landscape that subtly reveals the forces shaping the built environment. They constitute a different kind of architectural photography. Another work by Princen in the M+ Collections, for example, is the above photo of an apartment building in Jing’an—a high-end residential neighborhood in Shanghai. It presents an almost indistinguishable line between the artificially-constructed grottos and the newly-built structure. It reflects the extent of human effort in integrating ‘natural’ rock formations into a high-rise development.
Another photograph shows the beautifully-captured mounds of sand near the Beijing Olympic grounds, for the construction of megastructures on site. Again, the work is part of Princen’s interest in revealing the resources used to construct our environments.
The photograph of Pulau Tekong is part of a series called Hinterland. The title hints at the remote origins and extraction of resources used to sustain the expanding economy of the island-state of Singapore. The above photograph from the same series, for example, shows a man-made oil cavern—in the Jurong Rock Caverns—built to store crude oil deep underground. It shows how Singapore, in light of land scarcity, is able to monetise its subterranean areas.
The Pulau Tekong photograph shows how the empoldering method was used at the beginning of land reclamation to expand the island’s existing military exercise zone. The project was suspended halfway through due to a border dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Amid concerns about how the reclamation encroached upon Malaysia’s territories and affected the waterway of the Johor Straits, the project was brought to the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea. The negotiation resulted in the ‘corrective surgery’ of a piece of reclaimed land, leading to the existing landform looking, as described by Princen, a bit like a nose. Princen’s set of works thus alludes to the city-state’s strategies for survival, which are based on a technologically and economically oriented urban model that defies physical limits.
How are they connected?
Placed side by side, Wright’s drawings of the Imperial Hotel from circa 1918 and Princen’s photograph of Pulau Tekong from 2015 show how our interest in architecture as a discipline has expanded. It has broadened beyond the design of buildings to encompass the investigation of how our physical landscapes and infrastructure have come to be.
The connection here is in the ‘construction’ of our built environment—on the level of the more tangible material, as well as the immaterial and invisible socio-economic forces that shaped it. Both are also similar in documenting different means of resource extraction methods that were used in those countries: the oya stone in building the hotel in Japan and the sand imported for land reclamation in Singapore.