Japonisme is a widely acknowledged term, generally associated with the creation  in the West as the Japanese influence on art and design from the 19th century onwards. Surprisingly, one field has so far been overlooked when it comes to the study of Japonisme: architecture. In his book, the archaeologist and architect Jean-Sébastien Cluzel, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, examines the rise of Japonisme in France through the lens of architecture, highlighting unique realisations such as the pavilions at the Paris Universal Exhibitions (1867-1900), the first Japanese house completed in France in 1886, and commissions for the financier Albert Kahn’s from 1897 at his residence in Boulogne-Billancourt. 

A passionate advocate for the preservation and restoration of endangered buildings, Jean-Sébastien Cluzel demonstrates these buildings unique impact, not just in the context of Japonisme in France, but also more globally in Japan’s history of architecture.
Here, he discusses his book Japonisme and Architecture in France: 1550-1930, in the interview below.

Asian Art Newspaper: Why has it taken so long for architecture to be incorporated into Japonisme creating the term ‘architectural Japonisme’? 

Jean-Sébastien Cluzel: In my opinion, it is mainly a matter of competence or interest. Up until now, research conducted by scholars at the university or museum level primarily concentrated on sculpture and painting. Architecture historians represented a completely separate entity and there was very little communication between the art and architecture departments.

As a result, certain topics peculiar to painting, sculpture, or illustration rarely appeared within literature addressing the history of architecture. In the past, there have been very few articles bringing both worlds together and I can think of only two people who have been interested in the topic and can be considered pioneers in the field: Geneviève Lacambre with her thesis presented at the Ecole du Louvre in the 1960s and Clay Lancaster, an American architect who was writing on this topics as early as the 1950s.

It is astonishing to observe that architecture historians are only now beginning to be interested in what art historians have said about painting, leading to more connections between the different fields. Perhaps it is not that obvious in Europe where architecture history and art history are being taught at the same university. Therefore, there have always been exchanges and communication between both specialities. In Japan, however, the situation is different, as the history of architecture is not taught with art history. They are seen as two very distinct entities with no communication between disciplines and, therefore, their topics do not overlap. Within my own curriculum, I experienced this at first-hand – as after obtaining my degree in architecture in France, I went to Japan to study the history of architecture, and personally experienced this separation between art and architecture. This is how I came to make it my priority to have these two worlds meet. Today, everything I publish, for example, whether it is about Japonisme or Hokusai, is an attempt to connect the history of architecture and the history of art. And this is what makes the book truly innovative. 

AAN: Was there one event in particular that triggered this project?

JSC: The triggering event was the restoration of the Japanese pavilions in the garden of the banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn (1860-1940) in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris. I was appointed to be head of restoration and the overall project took almost 10 years to complete. I began being involved in 2006 and we started working on the actual project in 2014. It was finally reopened to the public in April 2022. The preliminary stages were long, as for such an undertaking a budget had to be secured, politicians had to agree, a strategy had to be defined and unanimously supported by all parties.

Once the project started, we realised how extraordinary and exceptional this Japanese heritage was, not just in France, but at a European level, which encouraged the creation of the book. Although it was tempting to highlight the Albert Kahn project as a gem, it seemed more interesting to take a broader approach, looking at the infatuation with the architecture from Japan that had started in the 19th century and to observe this phenomenon through the lens of similar objects from that period. Discussing these different ideas in relation to the architecture from Japan led to the conclusion in the book, that the Albert Kahn garden is one of the only gems of that kind we have left, a gem that was part of an era, an era we should neither forget nor minimise. 

AAN: The book focuses on France while also addressing the influences in the rest of Europe. It seems that France was  an important anchorage point. Would you say the same applies to other countries in Europe, or is France truly
a unique case ?

JSC: I believe France is a unique case, perhaps because things that have been appreciated in France are not necessarily those that have been appreciated elsewhere. This contrast in the appreciation of the Japanese works of art has generated a French Japonisme that, in itself, is completely different from anything else; the subjects chosen by the French are not those selected by the British or Americans. With this in mind, French Japonisme is unique, encouraging the creation of unusual works. Interestingly among the historians, critics, and amateurs of Japanese art at the time, the British would be looking for classical pieces, giving a lot of importance to the key defining periods of art history in Japan. This was the prominent approach in the UK, slightly less so in the US, but in France people were much more interested in folk art. Logically, the difference of how Japan was understood, as the ‘other’, varies, leading to different influences coming to the fore in different countries.

AAN: The definition of what Japonisme actually means varies according to the country. Today, is there a more global consensus that includes architecture that most historians agree upon?

JSC: All too often, there is a tendency to oversimplify and show Japonisme as the influence of Japan on Western creativity. Yet, it is much more complex than that. Japonisme is not an exclusive term, as there are also many other things that can be identified in this sense, like Orientalism to name just that one example. Highlighting all these areas in depth would have made the book utterly complicated. We wanted to tell a story that was clear and straightforward. In my opinion, Japonisme is an attempt to oppose and reshape the prevailing academic thought before the so-called influence of Japan. Although not a direct influence, it served as a pretext to make profound changes within our society, prompting a burst of creation around the world.  

AAN: Would you say that Japonisme is still relevant today?

JSC: I believe it continues to exist for two different reasons: one is that the French are still very much attached to Japanese art, which is a legacy from the 19th century. This leads to the underlying question: why this attraction to Japan, and not China, for example? There are ongoing close ties between France and Japan that are not based on any rational explanation, this allows Japonisme to continue to exist. The other reason, which is perhaps less obvious, is that such an aesthetic, or artistic expression, is generally firmly anchored in a culture and it takes a long time to change it.

Let us take the example of architectural photography and compare this to that existing in Japan and in the US today: all great photographers from the US (whether from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s), systematically looked at the buildings in perspective, enhancing these perspectives for the camera view. However, architectural photographers in Japan look at Japanese architecture with an oblique projection, basically in a sequence of shots similar to that used for prints. This cultural and aesthetic basis that is unique to each country (in this case the US and Japan), is an ongoing pattern that was still visible throughout the 1960-1970s, despite the fact that many exchanges took place between the countries at this time.

When it comes to the creative process, a different eye and training produce a different result. Today, Japanese photographers are almost more famous than all American architectural photographers, leaving a visual imprint and an influence that is far more important than their American counterparts. In this sense, Japonisme is ongoing and so is Japan’s cultural influence. Today, even if cosmopolitan photographers claim to be working in a global world, there may be less of a nationalistic imprint in the creative process, but the cultural aspects cannot be ignored. 

AAN: Japanese architects, as well as photographers, are in demand across the world. Why is this so?

JSC: It seems to me that the discourse coming out of Japan is somehow built around the perceptions we Westerners have about Japan and its culture. Taking the example of Kengo Kuma (b 1954), who worked on the Albert Kahn Museum restoration, his architectural language is a traditional one, relying on the engawa system (a strip of flooring, usually made of hardwood surrounding the house that represents a filter between the inside and the outside), as it is known in Japanese architecture, including a garden that comes close to a Zen garden. His entire vocabulary, be this in his discourse or within his architecture, is already known and familiar to Westerners, allowing for an immediate recognition. It basically already exists within our culture. On the contrary, the Chinese have to go through an entire process in order to make sure their works are properly understood to a wider audience. The Japanese know exactly how to proceed, but it is more difficult with the Chinese concept, where the interpretation and the reception of their message is more complicated. Indeed, the Chinese show works that are new and innovative, but often without referring to the vocabulary we expect or are familiar with. Today, perhaps the Koreans are more straightforward than the Chinese when it comes to commercially selling their new inventions and creations.

AAN: Over the past few decades, Japanese architects seem to have influenced an entire generation of other architects, showing a certain fluidity and clarity in their projects.

Would you agree?

JSC: It is true that in the West there is a great appreciation of minimalistic architecture, which by its nature is very pure, etc. However, in my opinion, the most successful projects continue to be found in Japan, for reasons we rarely acknowledge, which have to do with the quality of finish of the project. In France, when referring to something very pure, the architect will encounter great difficulties identifying artisans with the ability to fully execute what he has designed, with all being perfect.

In Japan however, a high level of craftsmanship is something normal. Following contemporary architectural walk-throughs in Japan, you can clearly see that the details are pushed to the limits and extremely well executed. This is something we do not find in Europe, perhaps for reasons depending on the artisans’ qualifications. For example, it is a known fact that the architect Tadao Ando (b 1941) has a terrible reputation, especially among masons, because if the aesthetics of a wall in concrete does not match his expectations, he has it torn down and built again. This is unimaginable in France, or anywhere else, I think. It thus comes as no surprise that the execution and the quality of the details, as well as the technical care, are much more successful in Japan. There is a different kind of detail-oriented culture that also surpasses those found in other Asian cultures. 

AAN: People outside the architectural world do not necessarily see the subtly of Japanese construction and the complexities of producing something that looks stunningly simple out of concrete.

JSC: This is absolutely true. We are wrong to keep thinking that putting together concrete walls is extremely easy and can be done by anyone. In my case, I was quite struck when I visited the first buildings completed by Tadao Ando in Japan 25 years ago. I came to the conclusion that they had nothing to do with the concrete found in Europe, even if it came from the finest European artisans like Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) in Italy, for example. This is all the more surprising as originally, masonry is not Japanese, but Italian. Therefore, how is it possible that the Japanese craftsmen came to master, with such excellence, a field that was not known in their own country?
I remember being quite struck by this at that time.

AAN: You are currently involved with the restoration of the cinema La Pagode, built in 1896, and situated in rue Babylone in Paris. It is an extraordinary building. How did such a jewel fall into disrepair?

JSC: Initially, there was a conflict between the previous owner and her tenant, who was in the film theatre business, but never had any work done to preserve the building. Planning to make a functioning film theatre out of it, the owner wanted the tenant to leave. At the time, and for safety reasons, the city of Paris refused to enlarge the theatre in the basement as the digging may have affected the structure of the building. Finally, after 20 years, an almost identical project has been selected with the theatre indeed being enlarged in the basement and in the garden. This required a wonderful tree to be removed which caused quite a stir.

Presently, works are in progress as the building has been sold to Charles Cohen, an American producer, who collects historic movie theatres and who is ready to finance its restoration. He is determined to have the movie theatre operate again, with an additional theatre in the basement. La Pagode is a landmark building and as such, there is no obligation to renovate, which is a process entirely left up to the owner. Charles Cohen is financing a restoration that so far nobody wanted to take on, simply because it is tremendously expensive. My role is the one of a historian and as a specialist of Japonisme in architecture. The building has been closed for the past five years, but its reopening is scheduled within one or two years. The glasses, lamps, paintings, carpentry, everything is being restored by very skilled craftsmen. The whole process is quite long because until the 1930s, film theatres also allowed smoking which makes the cleaning of the interior quite laborious. The entire restoration process needs to be completed with a great deal of precautions. 

I believe it is going to be wonderful when it reopens as a film theatre. Initially, we were not sure if we could pull this off, since La Pagode is located in a very upmarket neighbourhood, where the square footage is tremendously expensive and the project, per se, entails a considerable budget. I even began to consider whether it would not be best to let the building fall apart and recuperate the pieces that could somehow be saved. Ultimately, the project, as it is moving forward now, is a good compromise. It is almost a utopian project, and we should salute this American businessman who decided to invest his money and save this iconic building.

AAN: Coming back to the book, is it the result of your personal vision, or was it an approach that was starting to be widely shared, gaining some ground among scholars?

JSC: I am one of the first to highlight a different time-frame with regards to Japonisme, which as indicated in the title of the book, starts in the 16th century and not as previously acknowledged in 1868 – with the reopening of Japan to foreigners. My position underlines the fact that this passion and movement towards Japan is not new: it grows considerably in the 19th century, but it had existed for a long time before that. If it picked up so quickly abroad, it was because there was already a background to the culture in existence. 

For the book, I realised that, all too often, experts on Japan hardly talked to the specialists on Western art. Moving forward, it became clear that we were in between both fields and would need the knowledge from various scholars, regardless whether they were specialists of Japan or not. It became a matter of convincing these scholars to collaborate with me as, so far, specialists on Western architecture would not venture into speaking about Japan since they were not experts in the field. I suggested that I would bring the Japan side, with its history and culture, and they would bring their insight on the archives in France.

The same goes for architecture: I decided to get in touch with art historians, who did not necessarily have all the knowledge in architecture, but could rely on my expertise in the field and we could build on that. It seemed logical to collaborate, since reaching the expertise of my colleagues in their respective fields would have taken me at least 10 years. Fortunately, my colleagues were all very enthusiastic about the project. Most of all, I wanted to avoid the various experts who had committed to collaborate on the book to each work separately, making the book a mere sequence of research papers. I decided on another approach, organising a seminar that would be continue over two years and I would invite one of the contributors for each of the panels. The book is truly the result of a collective and collaborative undertaking.

AAN: The book is the winner of the Society for the Study of Japonisme Award. Has it made an impact?

JSC: Absolutely. The book follows a different approach to architecture, relying on the principle that in the absence of written archives, one can work on the architecture itself, provided the architecture exists. This is what we did with La Pagode, with the Albert Kahn garden, and with the Stork Chamber set, trying to get these spaces and works to speak for themselves. This is something new, with archaeology coming to the rescue of art history on a scientific level.

The book also served as a trigger for the restoration of additional projects. Just before its publication, we gave a number of talks about the necessity and obligation to restore a heritage building that is falling apart. This is actually how I became involved La Pagode in the first place, because it became known in the field that I was campaigning for this type of restoration. For the Stork Chamber, for example, an part of an operatic set salvaged by the industrialist and collector Emile Etienne Guimet (1836-1918) in 1911 – I openly complained in the book that it had not been restored and that nothing was being done to get the project to move forward.

We are presently trying to raise money for this project and I strongly believe that the book, perhaps somehow shocking or provoking, has also motivated various institutions into action. I never expected it to have that much of an impact, but it has unquestionably allowed institutions to become aware of the importance of the Japanese architecture and heritage we have
in France.

Overall, I have one mission: making sure that many more buildings in France, which stand as a testimonial to these types of cultural exchanges, can be saved and renovated.


The book has been translated from French to English by John Adamson, for more information go to johnadamsonbooks.com/japonisme