Tange Kenzo — the bridge connecting traditional and contemporary architecture

How Tange Kenzo fused the East and the West

Lon Y Law
9 min readNov 24, 2018

Due to the difference in cultures and political structures, east of the world had always been a mystery. Where contemporary architecture evolved in the west, contemporary architecture intruded the east. Over the years architects from east-Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and many more strive to merge the two cultures together, creating a new modernism that foster both the local and western culture. Japan is one of the few countries being praised for its architecture. Although it went through the WWII nuclear attacks, the asset price bubble and many more that devastated Japan, traces could still be found in contemporary architecture leading back to its traditional culture.

Tange Kenzo, 1913–2005, was one of the most important post-war architect in Japan, and the impact that he brought upon the world is huge. He held a great mission to fill in the gap between traditional Japanese architecture and the modernism he learnt in the west and succeeded by designing some of the now renowned architectures in Japan.

The present essay presents a selection of three of his most famous works, Tange Residence (1953), Hiroshima Memorial Museum and Park (1952, 1955) and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (1964) which well represented how Japanese traditional culture is present in modern contemporary architecture.

The Tange Residence (丹下健三自邸) , 1953

Fig01: Tange Residence Front Façade

The Tange Residence, or known as the Tange House, completed in 1953[1], was one of the more traditional looking architecture that he designed. From the front façade to the materials used in construction, it was a true Japanese house.

Fig02: Villa Savoye front façade, Fig03: Tange Residence ground floor view

However, the house actually was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, thus explaining the revealing pillars extruding from the first floor to the ground floor. Also, the use of space that incorporates the idea of automobile was also inspired from Le Corbusier. Rather than just empty space, the ground floor was considered a shaded and fluid space. The two façades were too similar as if Tange was paying respect to Le Corbusier.

Fig04: Tange Residence Staircase

Although the design was inspired by western architecture, it is still a very traditional looking Japanese house. The elevated interior, the use of wood, the two-tier roof, the engawa[2], and the use of fusuma[3] and tatami, they are all characteristics of traditional Japanese architecture.

When approaching the house, the first thing noticed will be the central staircase (Fig04), which is the only way to enter the house. The idea “central” and “one” widely appear in traditional Asian architecture as they all strive to create symmetry and unity. The use of fusuma[3] and paper windows are another traditional feature of Japanese architecture, where paper diffracts light and illuminate the whole room equally. Though the house was elevated to one storey high, which was inspired by the Villa Savoye, the elevation of houses is yet another traditional feature that raise the indoor floor level, separating the outside world, which is unclean, and the indoor area, which is clean, with the engawa (Fig05, next page) acting as a middle platform where one would sit to put on shoes and walk to access other rooms. However, as the house was elevated a storey high, the engawa loses its original function, which in this house became the balcony that overlooks the outside world. With the combination of floor tatami and simple Japanese furniture, it completed a traditional Japanese house. (Fig06)

As one of the earlier works of Tange, a more conservative building styles is still visible, still adopting a lot of traditional Japanese architectural characteristics. But in later years, his style slowly transforms and became a truly unique architect.

Fig05: Tange Residence Engawa, Fig06: Tange Residence interior view

Hiroshima Memorial Museum (広島平和会館本館) (1952) and Memorial Park (広島平和記念公園) (1955)

6th August, 1945 was the date that the first ever nuclear bomb dropped in human history, resulting 150,000 deaths by the end of that year. Tange was commissioned to reconstruct Hiroshima. Similar to the Tange Residence, the museum was inevitably influenced by Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture, specially in the use of pillars, therefore having a similar façade with Tange’s house.

“The building stands on pillars, its structure is a concrete frame. The entire complex has a monumental quality. There are two outbuildings, one on each side, consisting of a hall, a hotel, exhibition gallery, a library, offices and a conference center in the west; and an auditorium with capacity for 2,500 people in eastern… Together they form a kind of screen to the Plaza de la Paz, which extends north, where up to 50,000 people may gather around the Peace Monument.” — Tange Kenzo.[4]

Again in this architectural masterpiece, traces that came from traditional Japanese architecture could be seen. The two outbuildings and the main museum created a symmetrical plan that extends with the memorial park and ends at the remains of the atom bomb dome (Fig 08, next page). It used the same method as how Asian imperial architecture is built, with a long walkway extending to the end with the palace being the center focus of all, enhancing the monumental quality and raising the importance of the whole area. Through the saddle structure, from the Kofun period, one would see the saddle and the remains perfectly aligned, acting as a symbol of disaster and a monument for remembering the dead. Also, looking from a bird’s-eye-view (Fig09, next page), the whole plan resembles in a shape of traditional tomb of ancient rulers of Japan also from the Kofun period. It endows the meaning of paying respects to the dead and the commitment towards peace.

Fig08: View of Atom Bomb Dome from hole in Haniwa saddle, Fig09: Hiroshima Memorial Plaza Bird’s-eye-view

Tange combined the five points of architecture and traditional Japanese architectural language perfectly in this architecture, merging Le Corbusier’s free façade with the Japanese tradition of using natural light as the main source of light, showing the strength of human in overcoming disasters by using the elevated interior in traditional Japanese architecture.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium (国立代々木競技場), 1964

Fig10: Yoyogi National Gymnasium

“The Olympiads are a global event followed by millions all over the World. In terms of an audience, nothing compares.” (Cresciani, 2008)[5] As the one and only chance to show the world the best of Japan, Tange designed this architecture that challenged the technology available then. With cables as the central supporting structures, it created the effortless draping curves, becoming one of the most iconic architectural profiles in the world.

Fig11: Yoyogi National Gymnasium suspended side concrete

Together with the suspended concrete structures on the side (Fig 11), the roof covered the whole whole building naturally, as if it was fabric. When the 1964 Tokyo Olympic started, the building caught the attention of people around the globe, truly showing what Japan is capable, its development after the war, showing the world Japan is once again strong.

Fig12: Yoyogi National Gymnasium main building floor plan

In plan, the gymnasium resembles the shape of a leaf, which is another Japanese traditional building method that goes with the flow of nature and merging with the landscape around it. Also, the nearly symmetrical plan of the building is yet another traditional Japanese architecture characteristic. With the low profile of the building and the draping and sweeping sides, it almost resembles traditional Japanese palace architecture, with stripes of wood hanging down.

Fig13: Yoyogi National Gymnasium close up view, Fig14: Ise Shrine

As if Tange was paying respects to the old Japanese Ise Shrine, there is a small structure extruding the main column that hold the cables up. The small extruding slab of concrete origins from the old building method of shrines in Japan, which suspend wood from a main spine on top of the house. It appeared in the gymnasium as a respect to the Ise shrine, celebrating its 20th year since reconstruction.

Shown in the three examples above, architecture designed by Tange Kenzo have provided a bridging ground in connecting traditional Japanese architecture and modern contemporary architecture. Although the reference and link towards traditional Japanese architecture in the design process varies in different projects, it is sufficient to prove that the two can co-exist with Tange as the bridge to ensure the transition is gradual.

The above examples are specially chosen as it marks the gradual changing process of Tange’s design year-by-year, which is very crucial as it is the start of the rebuilding and reconstructing process of Japan in post-war era. It also showed the foundation that Tange laid, which impacted on later Japanese design, both architectural and graphical, leading the country towards a mere hybrid yet compiling with the new aesthetics standards — function before aesthetics.

Because of Tange’s achievements, Japan became one of the most praised architectural country in the world, with two cultures fostering in one structure.

Disclaimer: I do not own any photographs nor taken them

FIG01: Tange Residence Front Façade
FIG02: Villa Savoye Front Façade
FIG03: Tange Residence Ground Floor View
FIG04: Tange Residence Staircase
FIG05: Tange Residence Engawa
FIG06: Tange Residence interior view
FIG07: Hiroshima Memorial Museum
FIG08: View of Atom Bomb Dome from hole in Haniwa saddle
FIG09: Hiroshima Memorial Plaza Bird’s-eye-view
FIG10: Yoyogi National Gymnasium
FIG11: Yoyogi National Gymnasium suspended side concrete
Fig12: Yoyogi National Gymnasium main building floor plan
Fig13: Yoyogi National Gymnasium close up view
Fig14: Ise Shrine

[1] Tange, Kenzo, and Udo Kultermann. Kenzo Tange Architektura I Gradostroitel’stvo 1949–1969. Moskva: Strojizdat, 1978. 28–30. Print.
[2] a veranda that separates the outdoor and indoor
[3] traditional Japanese sliding doors made of paper
[4] Kultermann, Udo. “Works and Projects.” Kenzo Tange Architektura I Gradostroitel’stvo 1949–1969. Moskva: Strojizdat, 1978. N. pag. Print.
[5] Cresciani, Manuel. “The Olympic Buildings as a New Typology for Architects and Engineers.” 1. Web.


Tange, Kenzo, and Udo Kultermann. Kenzo Tange Architektura, Gradostroitel’stvo 1949–1969. Moskva: Strojizdat, 1978. Print.

Tange, Kenzo. In Search of a New Architecture. Japan: Japan Quarterly, 1984. Print.

Tange, Kenzō. “Creation in Present Day Architecture and the Japanese Tradition”. In Robin Boyd. Kenzō Tange. New York: George Braziller, 1962.


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Shirai, Yoko Hsueh. “Haniwa Warrior.” Khan Academy. N.p., n.d.

RUSSELL, STANLEY. “An Architecture Tradition/A Craftsman’s Tradition: The Craftsman’s Role in Japanese Architecture.” University of South Florida, n.d.

Thanks for reading. I am a third year student studying architecture in Northumbria university. Feel free to get in touch or check out my website.