Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 68

A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 34)
Antarctic Architecture and Everyday/Extraordinary Pole Reversal

Core buildings of Showa Station. Photo courtesy National Institute of Polar Research.︎

I was passing the LIXIL building on my way to Kyobashi Station to catch the subway after stopping by an exhibition in Ginza when I noticed that an exhibition called “Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016” was being held in the gallery on the second floor. What a great title. I was in a bit of a hurry, but feeling I shouldn’t miss it, I made my way to the venue. Sure enough, it was an extremely impressive exhibition. My schedule was completely thrown off as a result, but what I got out of the exhibition more than made up for it.

But why “Antarctica” now? Even after reading the exhibition overview I was none the wiser. The exhibition dealt with Japanese architecture in Antarctica from 1957 to 2016, which means that 2017, the year that I saw it, marks exactly 60 years since the establishment of Japan’s first Antarctic research station, Showa Station. I have no idea if this fact is related or not, but in late 2016 when this exhibition opened in Osaka (where it showed before travelling to Tokyo), LIXIL’s publishing arm put out a book titled Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016, so there seems to have been some kind of series of events.

Installation view of the Tokyo staging of “Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016.” Photo Chieko Shiraishi, courtesy LIXIL Gallery.︎

The venue was by no means spacious. On the contrary, it was as narrow as a corridor. At first glance, it seemed unfitting for an exhibition concerning complex technology found nowhere else in the world. It was as if a part of one floor of a corporate office building had been partitioned off with temporary walls and set aside as exhibition space. In the case of this exhibition of Antarctic architecture, however, this actually worked. It goes without saying that Antarctica is one of the harshest, most extreme living environments on earth (a world record low temperature of minus 89.2° C was recorded at the Russian Vostok Research Station in 1983, after which NASA recorded a new low of minus 93.2° C near Dome Fuji in East Antarctica in 2010). (1) In such environments, the space in which survival can be guaranteed is limited to begin with. It all comes down to the effectiveness with which these spaces can be used. One could say that Antarctic architecture represents the crystallization of this knowledge. In which case, in putting together an exhibition on this subject, the keys would be how to divide up the limited space available and the extent to which one could show effectively within that space how Antarctic architecture has “evolved,” and the conditions under which people survive and live there, rather than presenting material comfortably in abundant space such as that of a museum. In this respect, too, it would seem that if anything the unfavorable conditions surrounding the venue for this exhibition were actively maximized.

The extreme nature of Antarctica is not, however, simply a matter of cramped conditions. According to a panel at the exhibition, in building the first structure at Showa Station, the design criteria required to ensure the building’s safety were:

1. Minimum temperature of minus 60°C
2. Continuous wind speed of 80 m/s
3. Maximum snow cover of 2 meters on roof surface
4. Seismic force of zero
5. Humidity of 40 percent (relative)
6. Indoor temperature of plus 20°C (temperature difference of 80°C)

People do not die due to cramped conditions alone, but under these conditions inhabitants face the risk of death in an instant. Failure is not an option. Particularly frightening is the wind speed. The snow cover is not surprising compared to heavy snowfall areas in Japan. However, the raging blizzards with wind speeds as high as 80 m/s that are unique to the polar regions are beyond our imagination. And it is not only the wind speed. The snowdrifts created by these blizzards can completely bury entire buildings within a few years. If nothing is done, the buildings will be frozen in ice with the people inside them. But because it is impossible even to go outside, this problem cannot be rectified by human power alone.

Today, there are around 70 buildings at Showa Station. To date, more than 3000 people have lived there to undertake research, construction work and other duties, but it would be fair to say that the evolution of Antarctic architecture has been determined by the struggle to prevent these snowdrifts created by blizzards. For this reason, throughout this period efforts have been made to improve down to the finest details the durability and fundamental performance of the buildings. These efforts have been enabled by the gradual enlargement of the icebreaker, now in its fourth generation, used to carry required materials and daily necessities.

Above: Snowdrifts at Asuka Station (1987).
Below:Shirase making its way through fast ice (1984; 25th expedition).
Photos courtesy the National Institute of Polar Research.︎

This and other aspects of Showa Station were presented in sections covering five time periods created by effectively dividing up the narrow space. Materials including photographs selected from the archives of the National Institute of Polar Research, video of blizzards, panoramic images offering a virtual experience of polar conditions, scenes of wind tunnel testing, various design drawings and actual equipment were displayed, in addition to which 16 examples of different types of Antarctic architecture built by different countries were also introduced. In general, traditional architecture is influenced to a large extent by the climate of the country concerned. The opposite of this is probably the international style peculiar to modernism that aimed at a universal architecture regardless of climatic conditions. However, despite being underpinned by modernism and being provided with the same Antarctic conditions, Antarctic architecture has not converged into a uniform style. It is interesting to consider this as an example of existing modernism metamorphosing and diversifying under extreme conditions.

To digress slightly from the exhibition, in this respect Antarctica itself is for humankind an extremely interesting object of research and practice. As a landmass, Antarctica was once like other landmasses the object of a competition for occupation. The fierce race to the South Pole over a century ago between Norway’s Roald Amundsen and England’s Robert Falcon Scott raised the profile of Antarctica around the world. (Among Japanese explorers, Nobu Shirase, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who had explored the Kuril Islands, put himself forward as a contender around the same time and headed for the South Pole.)

At the same time, the environment in Antarctica makes it fundamentally unsuitable as a colony. Its underground resources are unknown, and due to current restrictions among other factors, it would be no easy task to unearth them. Ultimately, the decision by the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1957 to designate the remainder of that year and the following year, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) played a big part in bringing about rapid advances in scientific research concerning Antarctica. Japan, which had only recently returned to international society following its defeat in World War II and its subsequent occupation, was the only participating country from Asia, and taking advantage of this opportunity it launched a full-scale project with the backing of the entire nation from its base in East Ongul Island, which it had been allocated as the site for its research station. However, this was nothing like the imperialistic and fierce scramble formerly undertaken by explorers with national prestige at stake. The participating countries had a common understanding of the importance of the natural environment in Antarctica and together accepted the principle that “Antarctica is the common heritage of humankind.” They all agreed to the prohibition of its use for military purposes, a freeze on territorial sovereignty claims and the prohibition of nuclear testing and the disposal of radioactive waste. It is more than a little ironic that the universal ideals of humankind have been realized due to a harsh environment. Of course, things were not necessarily equal down to the level of the allocation of station locations, and even accepting that it is only natural that the advantages or disadvantages of future Antarctic research will be determined by those conditions, one can only say that the fact that territorial sovereignty claims, which could be called the very definition of the nation state, were “frozen” is a reflection of the severity of the Antarctic environment.

Blueprint of Japan’s first prefabricated architecture, from the “Antarctic Area Observatory Building Manual” (October 21, 1957, Antarctic Building Committee Design Subcommittee [Takenaka Corporation Antarctic Room]). Collection of Toshio Hannuki, Professor Emeritus, Nihon University.

However, the reason I have included this column as part of “A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero'” is not simply because I have a strong interest in Antarctica as it relates to this kind of history. It is because in the section of the exhibition titled “The First Period: Japan’s First Prefabricated Architecture/The Soya Era,” the name of Takashi Asada, one of the “architects” I dealt with in my book World Wars and World Fairs and a founding member of Metabolism, one of the most important groups of avant-garde urban planners in Japan in the 1960s, appears. I was already aware that before the formation of Metabolism, Asada had been involved in the construction of Showa Station in Antarctica, but this was the first time I had seen the actual design concept and plans as well as the details of the prefabricated construction method he employed. A more detailed account can be found in World Wars and World Fairs, but let me take a moment here to clarify the connection between “The Art of Ground Zero” and Asada.

Asada had been a member of Kenzo Tange’s Tange Laboratory at the University of Tokyo, but despite serving as Tange’s right-hand man for many years he preferred throughout his lifetime to remain an “architect who doesn’t build” rather than becoming a “proper” architect. Behind this was memories of the ruins of a city annihilated by a nuclear weapon that he witnessed upon travelling to ground zero in Hiroshima to help out directly after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Of course, Asada himself was probably exposed to radiation upon entering the city, but of greater significance was the shock he felt at the realization that humankind had entered an age in which the cities and buildings that should have been the quintessence of modernity could be razed in an instant in an atomic blast. In fact, this is an experience Asada would continue to express throughout his lifetime. Moreover, the post-war era when Asada became most actively involved in this activity coincided with the Cold War era when the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, confronted each other armed with the most advanced nuclear weapons.

Today, there are still people who say nuclear deterrence is actually a guarantee for maintaining peace. However, during both the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis, the possibility of nuclear war actually existed. In other words, a nuclear war could have broken out at any time. In such a world, how is it possible to calmly build a single piece of architecture? Surely what is necessary instead is urban design that can respond to the kind of situation in which one could at any moment and in any place find oneself recovering from total destruction, and furthermore the design of “environments” that enable people to connect their lives as much as possible in an extreme yet entirely possible future in which we have to anticipate the destruction of cities by nuclear weapons. It was his awareness of this looming crisis that turned Asada into an “architect that doesn’t build.” It is not difficult to imagine how naïve architects who never even dreamed of such things and continued to build one thing after another must have appeared in Asada’s eyes. Given this, it would be no surprise if Asada had regarded as more down to earth his own testing of the possibilities of traditional architecture in such a “bad place” as Antarctica under conditions so extreme as to be unimaginable under normal circumstances.

Showa Station, a raised-floor-style observatory (1967, 8th expedition). Photos courtesy the National Institute of Polar Research.︎

And so in 1957, as most architects balked at the idea, it was Asada who, employing prefabricated construction methods for the first time in Japan, took on the task of designing Antarctic architecture (for details, see the essay by Katsu Sasahara in the aforementioned book Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016). (2) In approaching this task, what Asada emphasized even more than the essential components of architectural design such as surfaces and columns was the detailed demarcation of the relationship among the joints connecting these parts and the rigorous modulation of the various parts to facilitate this. In this regard, Asada relied heavily on a series of seminars held in Japan by Konrad Wachsmann, whom Asada himself invited to the country in 1955, as a means of stimulating his own thinking on the architecture of the future. It was two years later, when he was just 34 years old, that Asada took on the job of the prefabricated construction of Showa Station based on these ideas. The design stood up perfectly to the rigorous natural conditions of Antarctica, and as an extension of this, the idea behind Metabolism that structures should constantly metabolize and adapt to unpredictable changes in the environment not as individual units but like a living thing was also born. And the occasion when the fruits of this thinking were put into practice to the maximum degree was none other than Osaka Expo ’70. One could say that the pavilions designed by the Metabolist architects at Expo ’70 were spin-offs of Antarctic architecture designed to respond to the unknown critical environment that is the future.

However, it could perhaps be said that the realization of the prefabricated construction method of Antarctic architecture in its intended usage in extreme conditions actually came later, not in the dwellings produced by housing manufacturers where modularization rapidly replaced carpentry, but in the provision of temporary shelters in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck suddenly in 1995 directly beneath a modern city. Of course, the after-effects of this have continued to cast a dark shadow over Japan even after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Perhaps this is in a sense an inevitable result of the prefabricated construction method for the purposes of survival that is Antarctic architecture.

Speaking of Antarctica, this year is also memorable in that it hosted a biennale for the very first time. (3) At the same time, it is also a year packed with so-called art festivals that extend beyond the traditional protected exhibition environment of the art museum, with major overseas events including Documenta and Sculpture Projekt Münster in addition to the Venice Biennale and domestic events including the Yokohama Triennale, the Sapporo International Art Festival, the Japan Alps Art Festival and the Oku-Noto Triennale. However, today, when most of us are eager in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami to do everything we can to temporarily construct the everyday in the midst of the extraordinary, just how much reality can we really endure in these art festivals that seek to pursue the extraordinary in the midst of the everyday. Rather, is it not the extraordinariness of Antarctic architecture that is gradually finding its way into the everyday? Looking at this Antarctic architecture exhibition, more than anything I could not help sensing this kind of “pole reversal” concerning the essence of the relationship between our everyday and art.

“Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016” was held at LIXIL Gallery Osaka from December 9, 2016, to February 21, 2017, and at LIXIL Gallery 1, Tokyo, from March 30 to May 27, 2017.


“The Coldest Place in the World,”


    1. NASA Science Beta, December 10, 2013.


    1. Katsu Sasahara, “The Architect who designed Showa Station: Takashi Asada,” in

Antarctic Architecture 1957-2016

    1. (Tokyo: LIXIL Publishing, 2016).

Antarctic Biennale



Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 1-6

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