Born in 1941, Hayao Miyazaki’s consciousness was shaped by his childhood in post-war Japan. As the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, his impressive soft world-building abilities with its childlike depiction of casual magic offer the viewers a real sense of awe and wonder. The storytelling is rooted in the core concepts of oneness with nature, pacifism, and purity of mutual supportive human connection. From studio Ghibli’s very first feature film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and subsequent Laputa: Castle in the Sky, we see the length and breadth of Miyazaki’s creative prowess.
Both were released in the 80s during a time of rapid economic growth in Japan, against the backdrop of a postwar architectural movement called Metabolism; notable examples include the now dismantled Osaka Expo and the Nagakin Expo Tower, to name a few. The philosophy behind this school viewed the building as a sum of parts working in harmony, like an ecosystem or a natural organism which could evolve and grow. The state of impermanence and adaptability was the answer to the Japanese city’s attempts to rebuild itself from the carnage of war. Modular prefabrication utilising inexpensive industrial materials like steel and concrete through intensive use of technology was championed by the group’s architects: Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, Masato Ohtaka, Fumihiko Maki, and the critic Noboru Kawazoe.
In Nausicaä of the Valley of the wind, we see the subsequent destruction wrought by human warfare in the form of a toxic jungle with mutant creatures. While the windmill represents the Taoist concept of Wu Wei as it harnesses technology in a balanced manner, You Wei is the opposite and refers to modern warfare. From the horrors of the nuclear bombing, which impacted the collective psyche of Japanese people, to their inherent roots in the concept of satoyama, a traditional form of agricultural environment where Sato (village/people) and Yama (mountain/nature) coexist side by side in harmony. In many ways, we see the almost contradictory reverence of industrialisation in the steampunk references in Laputa: Castle in the Sky and the wild nature in Nausicaä’s Garden Lab.
While Kikutake’s Marine City (1958-1963) envisaged floating extensions of the urban space in the form of oval platforms that connect to form an ever-expanding landscape, the Castle in the sky harnessed the power of the wind to further man’s quest for leaving behind the ground limitations. The eventual destruction of these castles was a critique of Japanese society’s single-minded pursuit of technological advancement. The economic bubble of growth eventually burst in the 90s, taming the grand utopian visions for the modern metropolis.
The avant-garde juxtaposition of forms in the metabolism movement of Japan or in the Soviet era building of Russia prioritised functionalism, mass production, and prefabrication, something one feels Miyazaki is appreciative off. However, in his films like Princess Mononoke and My neighbour Totoro, we also see images of pristine and ancient nature. The whimsy of world-building in Howls Moving Castle, with its European architecture and steampunk industrial castle, is countered by the quiet charm of the Whisper of the Heart. In the latter, we see Miyazaki instil interest in the most mundane setting, offering moments of casual magic in the bustling urban. In the winding alleyways of Japanese cities, there are moments of quiet wonder which provide a welcome respite from the grind of daily life.
In many ways, Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright captures this balance between the mundane settings of a straight-edged residence caught in the majestic setting of a waterfall that flows through it. Man’s artistic pursuit glorifies nature; this peaceful coexistence is most apparent in Vincent Callebaut’s work. The Belgian pavilion at the Dubai expo utilises cross-laminated timber to create a hyperbolic curve built in age-old bridge-making techniques. Biomimicry in architecture would also be a running theme in Miyazaki’s built projects, coupled with the use of natural materials. Perhaps the forms will be simple but never boring as ancient techniques of reciprocal framing will be employed to create superstructures, as in the case of modern Japanese architects like Kengo Kuma.
The architectural language of Antonio Gaudi also fits in with many themes of Miyazaki’s work. The use of natural stone, organic lines contrasting rigid geometry, the dazzling spectacle of light, and neo-gothic motifs are all inspired by the wonders of nature. Perhaps the whimsy and magical surrealism would be contrasted with projects of quiet strength and pristine presence. The simplicity of Glenn Howell’s tree top walk fits in well with Miyazaki’s architectural language. Its lightweight steel balustrade has little impact on the existing ecology of the site and sits in complete harmony with the treetops. Technology allows man to walk amongst the canopies while remaining rooted to the ground.
Miyazaki‘s architecture will offer spaces that allow for both feelings of awe and quiet contemplation. It won’t be restricted to a singular style but will overlay a multitude whilst staying true to the core concepts of natural harmony. The play of scale, textures, and organic and straight lines might carry the eyes upwards, but the projects will still feel entirely grounded in their context.
Wang, A.T. (2022) A brief history of metabolism in architecture, Journal. Available at: https://architizer.com/blog/inspiration/stories/history-of-metabolism/ (Accessed: December 25, 2022).
Obradovic, P. (2021) The metabolism movement – the promised Tokyo, sabukaru. sabukaru. Available at: https://sabukaru.online/articles/the-promised-tokyo (Accessed: December 25, 2022).
Remington, J (2020), Hayao Miyazaki’s Vision: The Architecture of Studio Ghibli in the Pursuit of Contemporary Utopia.