JAPANESE SCHOOL

TEXT AND PHOTOS: MARCIN MOŃKA

YAWATAHAMA 8.5.2016

ARCHITECTURE TRAVEL

The modernist school of the Japanese city of Yawatahama served children for many years until 2004, when a typhoon destroyed it. Rebuilt by the local community with attention to original details, it has won several awards.
The fifties. The school building is erected, inspired by the achievements of modernism. Children learn there for several dozen years until a fatal typhoon hits the school and reduces it to rubble. For two years the fate of the school was uncertain. “Finally the decision to restore was made and a consortium of architects, experts, researchers, representatives of the local community including parents of children has been formed. The reconstruction plan was a collective undertaking,” explains Weronika Rochacka, a historian of art and specialist in design management. Now the Hizuchi Elementary School of Yawatahama is teeming with life again.

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One immediately gets the impression that the building fits the surroundings in a measured and harmonious fashion. “It’s a simple, geometric, wooden structure with a terrace suspended over the water, surrounded by hills and greenery,” says Rochacka. This description would perfectly sum up the beautiful temples of Japan but it turns out that it may also refer to a building with an entirely different purpose.

Without a doubt, credit for this goes to the architecture inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. The famous creator, however, has never designed for or indeed even been to Yawatahama. The man behind the school project was Masatsune Matsumura (1913-1993), a little known local architect. “His name later gained recognition when the architectural gems of Japanese modernism were rediscovered,” admits Rochacka. The school was built between 1956 and 1958. It served the youngest residents of the city for several decades, until the 2004 typhoon struck the village and destroyed the building.

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The building in its original form didn’t meet modern safety standards concerning seismic hazards. The new team of experts addressed these concerns in order to find solutions. The school was renovated between the years 2006 and 2009. Many of the original elements that survived the cataclysm were reused in the process. The original colors returned and the windows and corridors were fitted with safety glass. A new wing was also added to the building in keeping with the original plan.

That’s how the Hizuchi Elementary School became the first wooden modernist construction restored in Japan. Today the school abounds with new life. The youngest can run around, learn, have fun and relax there. Its form is not only appreciated by the kids but also by the experts and lovers of good architecture from all around the world. Last year, the school was awarded by the World Monuments Fund.

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What is remarkable about the building is not only its architectural shape, but the use of natural light. A long corridor and large glass windows in opposite classrooms light up the interior. This unusual implementation of light is striking right from the start when you consider Matsumura’s original assumptions. Bear in mind that post-war Japan rationed electricity. Not surprisingly, the rational architect thought of the most efficient use of sunlight. Although electricity is now widely available, Japanese tradition calls for respect for the original idea. “Ideally, such an approach should be advocated in Poland. Rather than demolish monuments of modernist architecture, we should salvage them and use for new purposes,” Rochacka adds.

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