BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 05 JUN 24
Featured in
Issue 244

Why Do We Obsess Over Unpopulated Architecture?

Minoru Nomatas paintings of fictional structures lament the buildings that embodied political movements striving for greater equality

BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 05 JUN 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 244, Built Environment

At first glance, Japanese artist Minoru Nomata’s paintings look like photographs, so realistic are his portrayals of concrete and steel structures. The backgrounds betray them first: unnaturally dramatic clouds covering densely coloured skies that complement their imposing architectural foregrounds a little too perfectly. Strangely timeless and yet clearly modernist, Nomata’s uncanny buildings are not the utopian fantasies of Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia or Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. While they are reminiscent of the international style, they are not typical of it: they would not have integrated readily within the architecture of the Soviet bloc, nor of North America at the height of the World’s Fairs, nor of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazil. Nor do they quite evoke Nomata’s homeland, although the Japanese have a specific name – haikyo – for the type of abandoned infrastructure the artist so eerily depicts. Apocryphal if not impossible, Nomata’s buildings raise an important, harrowing question: where are the people?

Minoru Nomata, Forthcoming Places-5, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 162 × 97 cm. Courtesy: © Minoru Nomata and White Cube

Tourists flock to ghost towns – whether the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan, built by a civilization entirely lost to history, or the city of Pripyat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where the (surprisingly rapid) process of nature reclaiming the streets and collapsing structures represents not just the tragedy of the explosion and radioactive fallout, but the end of the Soviet Union. The places Nomata depicts, however, give the sense of only recently having been deserted and closed to tourists. The uncanniness of such cityscapes is heightened not just by the artist’s style, but also by how hard it is to guess the likely use of the structures he depicts. This is one of the ways Nomata comments on the failure of modernism, with his buildings confounding its main principle that form follows function: the purpose of the concrete megastructure of Skyglow V9 (2008) is not instantly obvious, while the crescent-shaped arc of Points of View-10 (2004) has certain visual signifiers of a radar device like the notorious Duga-1 near Chernobyl, with its metal scaffolding and wires. It looks too big to be public art and its utility is as inscrutable as that of the structure in Land-Escape 8 (1992), with its stairs leading, seemingly pointlessly, to the top.

Their abandonment feels like an admission of the failure of brutalism, which, by the time Nomata graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1979, had been widely criticized for creating apparently inhuman environments for everyday life. Crucially, Nomata’s works do not comment on how the utopian dreams of brutalist architects, who wanted to construct new types of communities in mass schemes designed for the working classes, were unfeasible – or undermined. In the UK at least, many such structures were left to decline and, ultimately, demolished as the right-wing assault on the gains of postwar social democracy gathered pace. The surviving buildings, popular with younger audiences for the audacity of their designs, were renovated as part of their gentrification – with the cost of living in them consequently rising far beyond the reach of the tenants for which they were originally planned. More oblique than most modernist housing developments, Nomata’s imaginary buildings would appear to be instruments of observation, or perhaps of energy industries, but the material synonymity between brutalism and concrete means they can easily be understood as a reaction to the passing of the style.

Minoru Nomata, Skyglow-V9, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 91 × 61 cm. Courtesy: © Minoru Nomata and White Cube

I read Nomata’s work as a lament for infrastructure that symbolized– and formalized – political movements that strove for greater socio-economic equality and used architecture as one of its primary means. Most significant contemporary buildings are either made largely of glass – a material and style associated with neoliberalism, corporate power and surveillance – or harken back to imperial periods that predate the 20th century, at the behest of far-right conservatives. Works such as Forthcoming Places-5 (1996), with its trees growing inside a huge steel cage atop a sphere, highlight not just the emptiness of specific buildings but the evacuation of both ideas and the sense of possibility that gave us the dreams of Sant’Elia and Tatlin. Nomata’s lifelong work calls for humanity to find ways to restore them.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘Where Is Everyone?’

Minoru Nomata’s ‘Continuum’ will be on view at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London from 10 July until 24 August

Main image: Minoru Nomata, Land-Escape 8 (detail), 1992, acrylic on canvas, 80 × 100 cm. Courtesy: © Minoru Nomata and White Cube

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.