Unmaking Peace


100 • Cycles

Volume 10, Issue 01
February 23, 2024

At the height of the Asia-Pacific War, Tange Kenzō, then a graduate student in urban planning, won first place in an architectural competition held by the journal Kenchiku Zasshi. The prompt called for a memorial complex to commemorate those who had died while fighting for the realization of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEACPS), the Japanese empire’s ideology for pan-Asian expansion and colonial conquest.

Sited on the foothills of Mount Fuji, the central monument was envisioned as a 60-meter tall concrete structure with a gabled roof strongly reminiscent of Ise Shrine, the most sacred site in the Shintō faith. The nine decorative katsuogi logs that run perpendicular to the ridge of the shrine’s roof were substituted with nine skylights. The building was bounded within one trapezoidal half of a raised, hourglass-shaped plaza bisected by a wide road. The path was intended to meld into a direct highway connection linking the site to Tokyo, situating the memorial at the nexus of the symbolic and infrastructural networks of imperial power that sprawled across the metropole. “We must begin with a firm conviction in the tradition and future of the Japanese race,” Tange wrote in a survey on proposed architectural styles for the GEACPS. “The new Japanese style will be the product of the architectural freedom that works in service of the supreme and inevitable project of constructing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”1 , _Kenchiku zassh_i 建築雑誌 56, no. 690 (September 1942): 744.] Yet material scarcity and disinterest in creating a recognizable language of imperial architecture on the part of military leaders made clear—at least in 1942—that the work would remain in the domain of paper architecture.

Seven years later, Tange secured another competition victory, this time under what appeared to be radically transformed circumstances. His design for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park laid the groundwork for a career-long project of articulating a language of Japanese modernism, and secured his place as a state architect for the postwar milieu of liberal democracy.

The city of Hiroshima embarked on a reconstruction plan to create a “model modern city” that would “become an embodiment of peace such as would befit the world wherein complete victory of human wisdom will have ousted war and destruction from humanity to give place to well-being, good-will and cultural refinement.”2 Peace (heiwa 平和), in all its simplicity and apparent universality, became the mantra of political reinvention for the fallen empire, and modernism its vehicle for executing its goals in public space.

Lifting itself up from irradiated ground on pilotis, the rectilinear Peace Memorial Museum unflinchingly asserted its orientation towards the future when it opened to the public in 1954. To make room for the 30-acre park, the city razed a slum occupied by bombing survivors near the hypocenter. The sanitizing and flattening of the ground made way for the lucid sightline that runs down the central axis of the park, linking the elevated museum with an arched cenotaph and extending across the river to the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved ruins of a former cultural center. By visually enclosing the past within the legs of the arch and museum, Tange’s composition produces a hermetic and legible mnemonic package, whereby the horrors of the past are contained and set within the logic of linear progression.

Yet the museum and the greater Peace Park complex, for all their orientation towards the future, clearly bear the specter of Tange’s wartime vision. Beyond the replication of the hourglass-shaped plot, both memorials toy with the subversion of motifs from premodern Japanese design (the pilotis doing double duty as a nod to Corbu and a wink to the raised-floor structures of azekura-style construction), and the artery to Tokyo became a 100-meter wide “Peace Boulevard” that runs across the city. What is today a busy throughway was built on the foundations of a firebreak created under military rule, wherein 7% of the city’s residential units were demolished to mitigate the damage caused by potential air raids—a move that ironically amplified the destruction inflicted by the atomic bomb.3 The traces of a civil defense policy contingent upon displacement were seamlessly integrated into the organizational logic of the modern and salubrious “peace city”.

“Places,” as Svetlana Boym reminds us, “are contexts for remembrances and debates about the future, not symbols of memory or nostalgia.”4 The treatment of post-atomic Hiroshima as a “factory for peace,” as Tange declared, and as peace itself, makes evident the perils of the municipal project of totalizing the city.5 , Kenchiku zasshi 建築雑誌 no. 756 (October-November 1949): 42.] The invocation of peace conveniently effaced traces of fascism and imperialism in both international and domestic narratives of Japanese history, and often appropriated the same strategies of representation used to legitimize the previous order. In a cruel turn, the A-bombed cities became canvases for managing the ideological burdens of the unruly past, where the grim and lived realities of human devastation were instrumentalized to propel the amnesiac cycle of reinventing the national self-image.

  1. Tange Kenzō “Dai tōa kyōeiken ni okeru kaiin no yōbō” 大東亜共栄圏における会員の要望 [A member’s wish for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere ↩︎
  2. Hamai Shinzō, “A Message from Hiroshima,” in Peace City Hiroshima, (City of Hiroshima, 1956). ↩︎
  3. The US Government Printing Office, “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 30, 1946” (1946), RWU E-Books, 7. ↩︎
  4. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 77. ↩︎
  5. Tange Kenzō, “Hiroshima heiwa kinen kōen oyobi kinenkan kyōgi sekkei tōsen zuan” 広島市平和記念公園及び記念館競技設計当選図案 [The Winning Design of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park Competition ↩︎