On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Japan Society’s landmark building, the institution is pleased to present the new exhibition, When Practice Becomes Form: Carpentry Tools from Japan. The exhibition celebrates the spirit of architecture and craftsmanship through Japanese woodworking tools as well as architectural patterns and various models. The site-specific installation, conceived by the esteemed contemporary architect Sou Fujimoto in collaboration with Brooklyn-based Popular Architecture, reinterprets major themes from the exhibition and is in dialogue with the gallery’s spaces, highlighting an enduring connection between traditional Japanese wooden construction and modern architecture.
Featuring hand tools and joinery techniques that have been used for hundreds of years to build Japan’s wooden architectural masterpieces (from temples and shrines to teahouses and bridges), the exhibition unpacks how the intangible qualities of craftsmanship, such as consummate experience, knowledge, and the honed skills of master carpenters, have been transformed into significant forms of architecture. A diverse array of tools—planes, chisels, saws—have played an important role in the development of architecture in Japan’s history, and this philosophy extends to Japan’s cultural heritage today. Integral to the process of making by master carpenters (tōryo) is their extensive knowledge of the local environment and of wood as a material. Using natural resources and learning from their predecessors’ practices, they construct buildings using a refined methodology. Their philosophy of sustainability—for example, joinery can be restored or repaired as needed by future craftspeople—has been handed down over generations.
Themes emerging from the exhibition have been interpreted by the internationally acclaimed architect Sou Fujimoto. His firm, Sou Fujimoto Architects, is based in Paris and Tokyo, and has been selected as site design producer for the 2025 World Exposition in Osaka, Japan. Fujimoto has designed the Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London (2013) among other internationally recognized projects. For this exhibition, Fujimoto has worked with Popular Architecture to explore the coexistence of nature and architecture.
“Japan Society has been a home of cultural exchange, and a meeting place of past and present. In this exhibition, traditional Japanese craftsmanship is revealed in a new light by the design of contemporary architect Sou Fujimoto, and it becomes a precious educational opportunity to learn from this history,” says Yukie Kamiya, Japan Society Gallery Director.
The building of Japan Society’s headquarters, designed by the architect Junzo Yoshimura (1908–1997), a major figure in 20th century Japanese architecture, opened to the public in 1971, becoming New York City’s first permanent structure designed by a Japanese citizen. It will commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2021. The building resides on land donated by John D. Rockefeller 3rd (1906–1978), former President and Chairman of Japan Society, who sought to revitalize the organization’s activities after World War II. Rockefeller 3rd and Yoshimura first met in Japan in 1951, and their friendship for over two decades resulted in Japan Society’s current building in Manhattan. Since its opening, the building has continued to serve as the central platform for the interexchange of ideas, knowledge, and innovation between the U.S. and Japan within a global context. In 2011, the building was designated landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
When Practice Becomes Form: Carpentry Tools from Japan explores the connections between techniques, tools, and forms from traditional practices in Japanese carpentry and contemporary design perspectives. Paying homage to Japan Society’s building, where the arts and cultures of Japan and the United States intersect, this exhibition delves into the artistry and craftsmanship of architectural practice. Complementing the exhibition is a series of related public programs, including lectures, a hands-on workshop, and gallery tours. A digital publication illustrated and designed by Nathan Antolik further expands upon the exhibition.
This exhibition is organized by Japan Society in collaboration with Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, Japan. The exhibition design is by Sou Fujimoto, in collaboration with Popular Architecture as local architect.