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American architecture in Japan and our love of travelling with work


Hotel Mielmonte Nikko Kirifuri, Japan (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[RV] Another funny story just to indicate, kind of, sense of agreeable relationships. We had a wonderful – happened to be female – translator who would do the translating for us during most of our time there, on all these trips. And one time we were having a conversation, she and I, in a taxi going through Tokyo and she was talking about her mother who was an unusual person. And I told her about my mother who was an unusual person, who was a pacifist. And I mentioned the story that my mother, right after the bombing of the first atom bomb that she went through the neighbourhood with a petition for people to sign their names for the government not to… to drop another atom bomb. And I noticed for several days after that I was being treated with extra courtesy by all of the Japanese I would meet at different meetings and things like that. She obviously told that story – it was, kind of, funny. But we had a very understanding relationship, we would… it was really funny, you know, we knew their language not at all and in French, I’m not very good at it but I, kind of know the language, when we work in France. And in Britain I really don’t know the language very well but we somehow got along pretty well. But in the… in Japan I just found that we would… once via translation we would all be laughing at the joke just at the right moment, there was just absolute understanding on all… at all levels.

[DSB] In fact, our translator told us, another funny story, she was wonderful. Noticing this and when I first got to Japan, I thought, here I can relax because in Europe I have to try really hard and I’ll probably understand some French, some Italian, some German, some related languages, a little Danish through Afrikaans and all of that. So, I have to work really hard in Europe. In Japan, I’ll never understand, so just relax. And then, as we went there more often I began to spot that there were words that were actually English, if you keep your eyes… your ears open.

[RV] A lot of English words.

[DSB] Like hotel is hotero, and these masks that they wear on their faces when they have colds is masku. And so, if you listen you’ll hear those, and then if you listen really hard you’ll hear the German words from the influence before ours. They have the word arbeiter which is used in Japan. And she said, ‘Yes this is true and we Japanese know that when we are doing a deal with an American company, the nearer we get to the deal, the more we must take out those words because the Americans will spot where we’re going’. And she said, ‘We begin to sound archaic even to ourselves’.

And I have just one other funny translation story. Mr Akio Izutsu believed in… you must… each side must have their own translator and there’s the Italian phrase ‘traditore, traduttore’, which means traitor translator. You can have traitor… traitor-hood in how you are translated. So, when I was at the opening of… it was actually the ground breaking for the building and there was this Shinto ground breaking ceremony. And a great white tent and a beautiful white fabric moveable altar on wooden frames and these monks in their robes. And we had be to part of the ceremony, we had to say, ‘Hey, hey, hey’, as we hit a stick and moved some earth and things like that. And so all of that was there.  And there were two women at this thing – the translator and me – but there were women in construction on the outside. Maybe 2000 people constructing on that site and – very un-American and not even very French – but… and you’d see them in their silk workman’s jackets and their construction helmets but also Japanese bonnets under the helmets. So, we saw the women on the site but there were no other women there and over 200 black clad men, very picturesque. So, we each had to make a speech. And in my speech I said, I had noticed that there were no other women present except on the site and there were women there, but I knew that there were women in architecture schools in Japan. And maybe by the time the building opens there will be some women at the opening. And the man from Bechtel afterwards said to me, ‘It was a very interesting speech’, but he was the only one. And no Japanese apparently heard what I said and when I talked with the translator and I talked with Mr Izutsu and all of the others, I said, ‘Well now, what did people make of what I said?’ They would, sort of, very politely change the subject. So, I presume my speech was not translated in that respect.

[RV] It was censored.

[DSB] Yes.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 5 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010