Farnsworth House, in Plano, Ill., designed by Mies van der Rohe, 1951
Blaine Brownell Farnsworth House, in Plano, Ill., designed by Mies van der Rohe, 1951

In 1990, Japanese architectural historian and architect Terunobu Fujimori promulgated a simple theoretical model by which to understand contemporary Japanese architecture in an issue of Kenchiku Bunka. He distinguished the works of prominent Japanese architects according to two approaches: the “red school” versus the “white school.” According to Fujimori, the red school signifies earthiness, mass, and an intentional lack of refinement. By contrast, the white school conveys ethereality, lightness, and precision. “The white school seeks abstraction” whereas “the red school is based on a sense of real existence,” he writes in Y’Avant-Garde Architecture (Toto Shuppan, 1998). Architects like Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA, and Osamu Ishiyama are representative of the reds, while Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA, and Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, exemplify the whites.

The duality is memorable and distinctly Japanese, given that red and white are the two essential colors associated with the island nation since prehistoric times (and also the colors of its flag). The two schools also relate to distinct trends throughout Japanese architectural history: the ancient Jōmon earthenware and later miya-daiku temple construction exuding gravitas; versus Yayoi period pieces and sukiya-daiku teahouses radiating lightness and atmosphere. Despite this cultural specificity, however, I would argue that red and white thinking permeates international architecture today. Furthermore, a more conscious deliberation about the contrasting approaches can illuminate design intent in contemporary buildings.

Let’s start with the white school, since it has been the predominant trajectory in modern architecture. Proponents of the International Style advocated a crisp, minimal aesthetic defined by a simple material palette of steel, glass, and concrete—with white paint playing a recurring role. Canonical structures like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House appear to levitate above the ground, the details of their construction minimized and abstracted. Such examples likely influenced Maki, Ito, SANAA, and other Japanese whites as much as any trend specific to their own heritage. We can appreciate the delicacy, exactitude, and airiness these buildings emanate.

Entrance stair, Farnsworth House
Blaine Brownell Entrance stair, Farnsworth House

Dior Omotesando, in Tokyo, designed by SANAA, 2004
Blaine Brownell Dior Omotesando, in Tokyo, designed by SANAA, 2004
Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall in Takamatsu, Japan, designed by Kenzo Tange, 1958
Blaine Brownell Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall in Takamatsu, Japan, designed by Kenzo Tange, 1958

Although the International Style is now considered a historical relic, its legacy has survived in venues like MoMA’s 1995 “Light Construction” exhibit and this summer’s ”A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond”—a compilation that may well have been named “White School Architecture.” Such designs of the sky and mind can seem elitist, aloof, and expensive—the preferred aesthetic of high-end fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Dior. However, white school design can also exhibit positive attributes. From an environmental standpoint, the case for lightness and a minimal material footprint has obvious virtue. In addition, buildings with enhanced physical and visual access, transparency, and light transmission can convey positive impressions of democracy, inclusion, and empowerment.

We can similarly associate red school thinking with architectural trends beyond Japan. Brutalist architecture, which emerged as an outgrowth of béton brut concrete construction in the 1950s, eschewed lightness and abstraction for raw monumentality. Buildings like Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh, India, and Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building exude heft and grit, their thick concrete forms rising like earthen extrusions out of the ground.

Japan experienced its own Brutalist period, as seen in robust buildings like the Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall and Gymnasium by Kenzo Tange. Kunio Maekawa, who once apprenticed for Le Corbusier, also contributed significant structures like the Kyoto Kaikan and Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, both of which bear a resemblance to his mentor’s later works.

Today, other red school approaches can be seen outside Japan. The works of Amateur Architecture Studio, led by Hangzhou-based architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu, reveal a deep affinity for monumentality and gravitas. Projects like the Ningbo Historic Museum, in Ningbo, China, and New Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China, make use of locally salvaged materials and raw, bamboo-formed concrete, conveying an impression that is at once ancient and modern. Representing the earth and the body, red-school edifices can appear ominous, opaque, and unrefined. However, their advantages can include evident resourcefulness—as in the case of Shu and Wenyu’s works that utilize large quantities of repurposed materials—as well as a rediscovery of past building practices. In addition, their enduring presence emanates an assurance that is increasingly valued in today’s uncertain climate.

New Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China, designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, 2007
Blaine Brownell New Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China, designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, 2007

Aomori Museum of Art, in Aomori, Japan, designed by Jun Aoki & Associates, 2006
Blaine Brownell Aomori Museum of Art, in Aomori, Japan, designed by Jun Aoki & Associates, 2006

Not all buildings may be so easily classified as red or white—nor should they be. In Y’Avant-Garde Architecture, Fujimori himself claims that “we cannot clearly divide all architects into red and white. There are red elements in Maki’s work and white is mixed into Isozaki’s work.” For many architects, this mixing of values may be unintentional. For others, the combination presents a design opportunity. In his Aomori Museum of Art, for example, Jun Aoki & Associates employed two contrasting material languages: earthen walls that rise from subterranean excavations, and whitewashed volumes that appear to levitate above them. The visually striking duality pays homage to both the archaeological importance of the site’s Jōmon period settlement and the contemporary curator’s expectations for a white-walled museum. In addition, the red–white dialogue provides a vehicle for the rich exploration of experiential contrasts, and the result is more memorable than either approach would be alone.

Fujimori’s red and white school concept not only elucidates a study of Japanese architecture but also provides a more meaningful way to theorize contemporary design approaches, regardless of location. For example, architects universally discuss the intent to convey heft, lightness, or some combination of the two in their buildings. Yet they often stop short of a deeper exploration of these approaches and the meanings they convey, including abstraction and reality, the mind and the body, and contrasting attitudes toward technology.

The red and white dichotomy is obviously limited in its perspective and should not be applied in a formulaic manner. Furthermore, the theory is open to interpretation, and more work must be done to evaluate the social and ecological ramifications of each strategy. Nevertheless, a red–white approach can clarify design intent, particularly concerning the material programming for an architectural project. It can also enrich the design process: rather than select materials based on convention, architects can explore unexpected material strategies to embody lightness and gravity.