Sight Unseen: Mohsen Mostafavi on Manfredo Tafuri’s ‘Modern Architecture in Japan’

Manfredo Tafuri’s guide to modern architecture in Japan was published in 1964, when he was twenty-nine years old. He wrote the book during a period of transition, from being a young architect and writer in Rome to becoming a historian of architecture in Venice, where he would eventually assume the chair of architectural history at IUAV, the university’s institute for architecture. Tafuri’s guidebook—written when he had not yet traveled to Japan—predates the first major articulation of his ideas on architectural history, Teorie e storia dell’architettura (Theories and History of Architecture), from 1968. That book introduces topics such as “modern architecture and the eclipse of history” and “architecture as metalanguage.” Most famously, it takes aim at “operative criticism,” which Tafuri sees as eliminating the necessary divide between the writing of history and the contemporary practice of architecture. He argues that “operative criticism plans past history by projecting it towards the future. Its verifiability does not require abstractions of principle, it measures itself each time against the results obtained, while its theoretical horizon is the pragmatist and instrumental tradition.”

The same weariness with the instrumental use of history as an aid in design practice is already evident in Modern Architecture in Japan. Presumably this was something Tafuri was witnessing first-hand in the work of his contemporaries. In other ways, however, the book is not exactly aligned with his later position—or style. Although a dose of polemics is unavoidable with Tafuri, the book is distinctly less polemical than what was to follow. It is written more in the form of an essay, a continuous text that allows for argument and counterargument. Compared to his later work, the language is also more direct and accessible.

Years after the publication of the guidebook, Tafuri finally went to Japan. The purpose of the trip, during the heyday of postmodernism, was for him to talk about Italian architecture. Still, Tafuri’s response to the direct experience of Tokyo and its buildings appears to have been somewhat disinterested; he was not inspired to return to the topic of Japanese architecture. Perhaps the idea and the image of the architecture—sight unseen—appealed to him more than the actual physical arti- fact. Or perhaps it was more that the style of this small book represented a form of architectural writing that he had turned against. “There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history,” he would later say in an interview. “What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians.”

Modern Architecture in Japan is, in fact, as much about criticism as it is about history, and despite its reliance on secondary sources and its occasional inaccuracies, it remains a major contribution to a topic on which there is a lack of significant scholarship, even now. Even at this early stage of his career, Tafuri managed not only to present a clear and coherent formulation of his appreciation of modern Japanese architecture, but also to place it within a broader international context. Equally impressive is his capacity to assemble and configure an incredibly diverse range of references, architects, and buildings, and to discuss the architecture in such detail and with so much conviction. Tafuri does not hold back his opinions or his capacity for description. 

Excerpt from Mohsen Mostafavi’s essay ‘Sight Unseen: Manfredo Tafuri and Modern Architecture in Japan’, from Modern Architecture in Japan by Manfredo Tafuri (2022)

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