In the same way that we tend not to think of novels as archives of words, even if philologists can study them in such a way, it seems odd to describe photobooks as archives of images, even if that’s what they are on a fundamental level. Aglaia Konrad’s book Japan Works (2021) includes colour and monochromatic images of buildings (houses, schools, hotels, temples, high rises), public infrastructure (streets, parks, bridges, plazas, train stations) and interiors (living rooms, stairwells, foyers, classrooms), with some objects thrown in the mix (furniture, kitchenware, vases, sculptures). The small colour images are printed on lustre paper, twelve to a page, in a manner that resembles a photo editing application or a contact sheet, each one bearing a seven-digit number. The date and location of the colour pictures appear on the top right corner, effectively dividing the book into chapters that trace Konrad’s journey through Japan. The gridded pages in colour interrupt the primarily greyscale imagery of the book, printed almost full bleed on matte stock, always vertically, regardless of their original orientation. This organisational structure at first hides that the monochromatic pictures are selected from the colour thumbnails, albeit appearing in a different order.
With 496 pages and hundreds of pictures, Konrad’s book strives towards the epic, encouraging viewers to fully lose themselves in her collection of buildings and places.
With 496 pages and hundreds of pictures, Konrad’s book strives towards the epic, encouraging viewers to fully lose themselves in her collection of buildings and places. Navigating through so much information takes its time, but the book’s hyperbolic aim puts Konrad in the privileged position to extract the typological value of these sites. She’s particularly drawn to buildings that propose utopian ways of living or represent risky architectural statements. Many of these have non-conventional shapes, making them particularly attractive for the camera. A subset of these buildings have comical design elements, such as Kengo Kuma’s M2 Building (1991) with its oversized Ionic column, or Kazumasa Yamashita’s Face House (1974), whose anthropomorphised doors and windows make the dwelling look like a smiling emoji.
Most of the images in the book feel like the visual diary of an architectural aficionado walking around, which is not too distant from the way Konrad operates. Japan Works was shot over a month in the fall of 2019 while Konrad was traversing the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. The tourist gaze is not without advantages. In the best cases, it is someone paying attention with all their senses to a new environment and taking account of differences that feel significant to him or her. Tourists can show a generosity of spirit in their willingness to learn and tend to move fluidly across urban spaces that appear unconnected to the locals. This fluidity is present in the book, where it’s sometimes hard to know when one area or building ends and the next one begins, especially since Konrad is very good at paying attention to in-between spaces such as alleys, entrances, and sidewalks.
… it’s sometimes hard to know when one area or building ends and the next one begins, especially since Konrad is very good at paying attention to in-between spaces such as alleys, entrances, and sidewalks.
The thirty-four texts by the architectural critic Julian Worrall, located before or after each section of colour thumbnails, inform us on the history of the structures depicted, or on the practices of the architects that designed them. In a few instances, Worrall’s personal commentaries also help us connect with the environment they occupy, such as when he compares the demolition and the consequent erection of a new edifice as an “urban chrysalis” because it happens behind the veil of construction hoarding that distances passersby from the process behind it. Many of these buildings were envisioned by a loosely defined group called the Metabolists, who drew “on both ancient Eastern philosophies of change and impermanence and the new discoveries in the biology of genetics and metabolism” to develop a theory of urbanism.
Worrall’s writings are cross-referenced with the photographs to aid in our exploration and sustain our attention. In this sense, Japan Works requires time and patience to process its wealth of information, but its pleasures begin to unfold once we take advantage of the cross-reference system to connect texts and images. It is the readers’ attention that completes these historical and architectural associations by going back and forth between the book’s pages, helping them form an idea of the Asian country based on the buildings on display.
Konrad usually disrupts her photographs by cropping them, splintering them, or placing them across the gutter to hinder their passive consumption, techniques that compel us to consider how images accrue meaning in relation to other images.
Most of Konrad’s pictures can be labeled as utilitarian, fulfilling the predetermined function of recording what is in front of the lens while prioritising quantity over quality (many pictures are keystoned or even blurry). Konrad’s compositional casualness can hinder an immediate fascination for individual pictures, but the book persuades us that its overarching concept is what’s of value. In fact, a defining element of Konrad’s practice is building image archives of cities that avoid the fetishising tendencies of architectural photographers towards materials and design, or their propagandistic application for social policies and commercial lifestyles. As such, the artist usually disrupts her photographs by cropping them, splintering them, or placing them across the gutter to hinder their passive consumption, techniques that compel us to consider how images accrue meaning in relation to other images.
A project like Japan Works is close in spirit to an encyclopedia or a dictionary in that we can linger on the detailed description of an entry and learn much from it, but the length of the volume will at some point overwhelm us. This tension between the general and the particular makes up for a generative, if challenging, viewing experience. As with any sizeable archive, we can access it a random point and enjoy its pleasures as they come, or we can yield to the system devised by Konrad and Worrall to navigate their vision of Japan. Whichever path we take, the book offers myriad things to discover. For me, one of its main propositions is that cultures build cities that suit their laws, aesthetics, and beliefs, only for these very same structures to forge particular ways of living that we describe with the same word, ‘culture,’ in a cycle with no clear beginning or end. In this way, Konrad’s book makes us reflect on how architectural representations profoundly affect how we think about a place, whether we are familiar with it or not.