Some of the best writings on Japanese architecture have characteristically come from Western authors whose time in Japan was short-lived. Upon Bruno Taut’s arrival in Japan, he immediately drew comparisons between Modernism and Japanese simplicity in historical buildings, while Frank Lloyd Wright instantly fell in love with Japanese woodblock prints. Their point of view is distinctly that of a foreigner, observing Japan from outside looking inwards, with a gaze of impenetrable fascination to the point of obsession. Naomi Pollock on the other hand, writes extensively about Japan from the perspective of a foreigner who lived many years in this Land of the Rising Sun.
Naomi Pollock is an American architect and writer for Architectural Record as a Special International Correspondent. She has become a name within the Japanese architecture community and abroad with her books such as Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook. As she has lived more than 30 years in Japan, she is uniquely positioned to describe the Japanese experience from a personal level. Karen Nelson, the dean of Boston Architectural College, spoke highly about Pollock’s writing at a lecture, exclaiming “[Naomi Pollock] writes as both a careful observer, and as an engaged interlocutor about design in Japan…she presents insights and ideas with a refreshing straightforwardness.” In 2018, Pollock’s contributions to the architecture community were recognized with the prestigious award of FAIA, College of Fellows.
Naomi Pollock began her career with a Classics Major at Dartmouth, focusing on archeology and writing her thesis on the evolution of traditional dome structures. After writing about architectural forms in undergrad, she was inspired to pursue the path of architecture. She then attended Harvard University Graduate School of Design and received her Master’s in Architecture degree in 1985. After working a couple of years in New York City at large architectural firms, she received her New York State Architecture License in 1989. During Pollock’s time in New York, her husband received a compelling job offer in Tokyo, which led them to move to Japan.
The 1980s was a time of great economic growth in Japan. Japan was becoming an economic equal to much of the West by the late 1980s, receiving attention on a global scale. Japan therefore experienced an unprecedented wave of building development and was a huge attraction for architects to unleash their artistic creativity and form-finding explorations, working with wealthy clients and speculative developers.
While Pollock considered working for a Japanese architectural firm in Tokyo, she received an educational scholarship with the Japanese Government Ministry and ultimately decided to get a second Master’s in Architecture degree at Tokyo University. This education opened Pollock up to the world of Japanese architecture. When her academic advisor, Hiroshi Hara, asked Pollock what she wanted to study, she replied she wanted to know “why Japanese buildings look so weird”. Professor Hara advised Pollock that to understand current Japanese buildings, she has to study traditional ones. Pollock therefore applied her academic research into Japan’s architectural roots in rural Minka farmhouses. She was immediately drawn to their use of materials, with rich natural textures and the use of local resources. Pollock also took every opportunity to attend “open houses”, which in Japan are events where architects allow public viewing of newly constructed houses before it is turned over to owners. At the time, Pollock observed connections between Minka architecture and contemporary houses and how local culture is deeply embedded in Japanese house design. For example, Japanese homes provide a “genkan” space where people normally take off their shoes before entering the house. This entry room, seen in both Minka and contemporary homes, is normally one step lower than the rest of the house.
One of Pollock’s friends working at a design magazine company in New York asked Pollock to write an article about the open houses she visited. Through this opportunity, Pollock realized that writing was her passion. She began to write during her time at Tokyo University and began working at Architectural Record soon after graduating. Pollock’s first book published in 2003, The Modern Japanese House, is built upon her work as a graduate student and reflects her initial interests in contemporary Japanese architecture.
While Pollock began her writing career on the subject of Japanese contemporary houses, her writing for the last 30+ years has extended to other topics such as historical buildings, product design, urban design, and profiles of architecture designers. A consistent theme throughout her work is contemporary Japanese design. Pollock became a Tokyo correspondent for the US publication Architectural Record in the early 1990s and also worked with other publishers such as A+U, Dwell, Jutakutokushu, Kinfolk, and Wallpaper*.
While Pollock’s publications such as “The Modern Japanese House” and “Hitoshi Abe” are written with architects in mind, she also writes on subjects more accessible to the Western public. Pollock noticed on her trips outside Japan that many Japanese products were gaining popularity in the West. She observed a proliferation of Japanese objects in museum gift shops. Pollock was determined to write about Japanese product design to communicate that many of these well-designed products that appeared to be museum quality were in fact meant for everyday use. In her book “Made in Japan: 100 New Products”, she describes how these functional works of art are a reflection of the way people in Japan live and how they value exceptional craftsmanship and industrial perfection.
Pollock’s most recent book, “Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook,” is her most ambitious work, covering the most important design innovations from post-war Japan to present day. The book provides a complete overview of Japanese design to date, with over 70 designers and features hundreds of objects. Leading curators and critics’ essays are also dispersed throughout the book, making it a prominent piece of literature.
As Pollock writes in English, her audience is predominately the West. Through her extensive knowledge of Japanese culture, tradition, and design aesthetics, her unique perspective often bridges the boundary between Japan and the rest of the world. Her writings offer a deep perspective into the mindset of Japanese people and describe her great veneration for everything Japanese. Her writing is filled with stories of interactions she has with architects. In Pollock’s article in Kinfolk titled “Kengo Kuma”, she humorously describes the architect as an individual with a “one-track mind” who constantly thinks about architecture, even “while soaking in the bath at his favorite hot spring”. She brings color and life into her subjects and is a captivating storyteller. Recently, Pollock and her family moved outside Japan presumably to Sydney, Australia. Regardless of her physical location, she continues to write for Architectural Record as a Special International Correspondent.
Design Me a House/Katie Hutchinson. (2021). Inspirations: The Japanese Aesthetic. [podcast] 25/04/2021. Available at: https://www.designmeahouse.com/home/inspirations-the-japanese-aesthetic-with-naomi-pollock-season-2-episode-1 [Accessed 20 January 2024]
BAC Communications. (2015) NAOMI POLLOCK: JAPANESE DESIGN: BUILDINGS TO BENTO BOXES.. Available at: https://vimeo.com/126268667 [Accessed 20 January 2024]
UCLA Architecture and Urban Design. (2014) Naomi Pollock, Writer, Author Made in Japan: 100 New Products. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWQ3q_Lu3D0 [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Nichibei Connect (2022). Featuring: David Sneider, Accomplished Lawyer, Artist. 7 July 2022. Available at: www.nichibeiconnect.com/featuring-david-sneider-accomplished-lawyer-artist/. [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Welton, Mike. The Japanese House since 1945, by Naomi Pollock. Architects + Artisans, 20 Nov. 2023. Available at:architectsandartisans.com/blog/the-japanese-house-since-1945-by-naomi-pollock/. [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Pollock, Naomi . Naomi Pollock’s Favorite Things. Japonica.info, 24 Apr. 2023. Available at: japonica.info/naomi-pollocks-favorite-things-2/. [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Pollock, Naomi. “About.” Naomi Pollock, FAIA, 16 Dec. 2016, Available at: naomipollock.net/about/. [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Adam Nathaniel Furman. Japanese Postmodernism: Ghosts of a Future Past. ICON Magazine, 18 Dec. 2017. Available at: www.iconeye.com/architecture/japanese-postmodernism-ghosts-of-a-future-past. [Accessed 20 January 2024]
Jegsen, Cecilie. Kengo Kuma. Kinfolk, 7 May 2019. Available at: www.kinfolk.com/kengo-kuma/. [Accessed 20 January 2024]