Arata Isozaki, Re-Ruined Hiroshima, Photomontage, 1968

Arata Isozaki, Re-reuined Hiroshima, 1963, ink and gouache with cut-and-pasted gelatin silver print on gelatin silver print, 14 x 37 inches [© 2023 Arata Isozaki; courtesy of Arata Isozaki & Associates, Art Resource, and Museum of Modern Art, NY]

Repeated throughout his career and intoned almost like a dirge, the potent phrase “The city of the future lies in ruins” opens Arata Isozaki’s essay in Architectural Apocalypse, Ryūji Miyamoto’s 1988 photobook.1 Contemplating the state of Japan in the twilight of the Shōwa Era (which would end with the Emperor’s death in 1989) and the economic triumphs of the last three decades, Isozaki’s caustic and ironic proclamation seemed, on the surface, to be deeply out of step with contemporary Japan and its dreams for the future. Such doomsaying draws on a work from 20 years earlier, through the constructed image of the future Isozaki developed as part of his installation at the 1968 Milan Triennale, Electric Labyrinth.2 Originally installed as a 5 x 13–meter screen that covered an entire wall of the installation, Isozaki’s photomontage Re-Ruined Hiroshima (titled The City of the Future is the Ruin in the 1968 exhibition) incorporated a photographic backdrop panorama of the ruined Hiroshima landscape, overlaid with two enigmatic megastructures in the middle distance. The breadth of scorched earth served as a screen for projected images of architectural constructs in 1968. The projection rotated through a series of images depicting what could—but would never—be. Exhibited in New York in the 1980s, the original montage had a lukewarm reception, as Isozaki notes in a 2008 interview: “Perhaps the ruins are considered unlucky, so people … don’t accept them so easily.”3

Discomfort hounds the image, especially when re-presented as a state of re-ruination resulting from one of history’s most notorious acts of willful destruction. The legacy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki casts a long shadow in Japan, especially in their relationship to environmental policy and postwar urbanization,4 though perhaps more forcefully in architecture through its effects on memorialization and memory. Melding his direct experience of the post-war landscape with a highly theoretical approach to spatial analysis during the 1960s, Isozaki began to see that “time is a process, and space is all physical senses …. From this point of view, we must seek something different from abstract theories of time and space.”5 As an interpretation of the times, his approach is an effort to reconceptualize “environment” as a kind of reactive co-production between self and surroundings. The temporal overlays within the image compound history and future, but form the most simplistic reading of the image through a reliance upon shock and irony to jolt attention. As Isozaki comments in the same 2008 interview, “Irony isn’t really communication.”6 What, then, does this image communicate?

In the elements of the montage’s construction are subtle shifts that shed light on what Isozaki might be getting at, most notably in his manipulation of the base image, the one “real” element of the montage. Isozaki restitches the panoramic images from a series of 20 documentary photographs taken by Japanese army photographer Shigeo Hayashi in October 1945. The photos were taken to form a 360-degree image of Hiroshima’s destruction, compiled from the roof deck of the Chugoku Shimbun building in Hiroshima, from a slightly arching angle. Here, Isozaki straightens the images into a horizon, one that shifts the comprehensive view of the city from a single point inside to a vista seen from a point outside.7 By straightening and rectifying the horizon view, Isozaki also shifts it downward, thus de-emphasizing the ground to create a blank and expansive space for a sky that caps and envelops the final image. Installed in 1968, that expansive flatness provided an easy space on which to screen imagined megastructures. In the smaller working image, that “blue sky” offers a contemplative setting to mitigate the post-war anxieties of reconstruction. Commenting on the “semantic contradictions” of post-war Japanese architecture, Isozaki remarks upon how “the simple effect of placing plain, massive ruins at the center of tomorrow’s world was to destroy that rose-tinted future that I never really believed in anyway. Psychologically, that transparent, wide blue sky (aozora) was the perfect setting, indeed the very stimulus for this irrational disjunction.”8

Such “irrational disjunction” permeated Japan’s immediate post-war society, even as competing tendencies toward kyodatsu (despondency) and shinsei (rebirth) complicated the process of reconstructing not just the environment but also society.9 For the field of architecture, the dichotomy was particularly fraught: Never before had the profession faced such opportunity, yet at a harrowing cost. Originally, the 1968 installation presented an urban cipher—the work effectively transformed Hiroshima into a generalizable representation of Japan’s burnt-out ruins. Although the atomic attacks were unique in their destructive capacities, other urban centers in Japan suffered immense destruction apart from those two landmark events. The US Army Air Corps and United States Strategic Bombing Survey recognized 66 target cities in their reports on Japan, but scores of other cities and coastlines sustained damage under the yearlong assault on Japan’s home islands, with the First Demobilization Ministry tracking damage and producing maps of 153 separate sites (another book-length study of Tokyo itself tracked the 110 individual firebombing raids on that city)10. Although the nature of Hiroshima’s destruction was unique, the type of landscape produced in the bomb’s wake was recognizable across the archipelago. The xeroxed ambiguity in the “blue sky” of the montage itself appears flat and beige, the sky reading as an empty blue of possibility or a covered smog of expansive ruination. The megaliths on display may draw the clearest attention to an environment in process, but in which direction that process is headed—toward renewal or despair—remains unanswerable.

The longevity of the montage’s appeal is perhaps the clearest sign that Isozaki’s vision for the future remains prescient, though perhaps less as a city “in ruins” than as a city on ruins. Such sites as Yumenoshima, in Tokyo Bay—a reclamation site for construction, reconstruction, and consumption waste materials—began as heaps of refuse but now host habitation and parkland. Translated literally as “Island of Dreams,” Yumenoshima—like Re-Ruined Hiroshima—reclaims the events of history and the city itself to provide a new environment atop the desiccated wastes of the old. For better? Or for worse?

Re-ruined Hiroshima, project, Hiroshima, Japan, Perspective. Ink and gouache with cut-and-pasted gelatin silver print on gelatin silver print, 13 7/8 x 36 7/8″ (35.2 x 93.7 cm). Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation.

Nicholas Risteen is an architectural historian and theorist whose research encompasses the intersection of architecture, media studies, literature, history of science, and critical theory as it pertains to ruins and theories of ruination. His book project After the Disaster: Architecture and Ruination in Twentieth Century Japan explores the relationship between architectural experimentation, large-scale urban destruction, and trauma studies between 1923 and the end of the Shōwa Period in 1989. A second research project explores the expansion of architectural criticism in postwar Japanese print culture through the work of Nishiyama Uzō, Taki Kōji, Isozaki Arata, and others.


1 Arata Isozaki, “Haikyo-Ron (On Ruins),” in Kenchiku No Mokushiroku / Architectural Apocalypse, Ryūji Miyamoto (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1988), 11.
2 The installation for the 1968 Milan Triennale was originally conceived as a collaboration between Isozaki and graphic artist Kōhei Sugiura, photographer Shōmei Tōmatsu, and composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. For more detail on the history leading up to the exhibition, see Yasufumi Nakamori, “Imagining A City: Visions Of Avant-Garde Architects and Artists From 1953 to 1970 Japan” (Cornell University, 2011), 40.
3 Yoshihiro Yokote, “Isozaki Arata Intabyū: Haikyo to Yakeato—Nishiyō to Nihon No Kenchiku Kūkan,” D/SIGN Special Issue: Haikyo to Kenchiku (Ruins and Architecture) no. 16 (2008), 20. Author’s translation.
4 Norie Huddle, Island of Dreams: Environmental Crisis in Japan (Rochester, NY: Schenkman Books, 1987). See especially chapter 7, “Urban Explosion.”
5 Arata Isozaki and Naohiko Hino, “Turning Point, From Space to Environment: Isozaki Arata + Hino Naohiko,” 10+1 48 (September 30, 2007): 193–205. Author’s translation.
6 Yokote, “Isozaki Arata Intabyū: Haikyo to Yakeato—Nishiyō to Nihon No Kenchiku Kūkan,” 20.
7  Shigeo Hayashi, Panorama of Hiroshima, 1945, collection of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, photographs A723–A742.
8 Isozaki, “Haikyo-Ron (On Ruins),” 13.
9 For more on the history of kyodatsu and shinsei, see Owen Griffiths, “The Reconstruction of Self and Society in Early Postwar Japan 1945-1949” (Ph.D Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2000), 48–77.
10 Tōkyō-to henshū, ed., Tōkyō-to sensaishi (Tōkyō: Meigensha, 2005). Prior to November 1945, the First Demobilization Ministry (FDM) was the Imperial Army of Japan. At the behest of the US Occupation (GHQ), the FDM was tasked with helping the repatriation of over 4.5-million Japanese colonials from overseas. The maps produced by the FDM—and their extensive, nation-wide coverage—were intended to inform repatriating citizens of the ‘state’ of their hometowns. See Nicholas Risteen, “After the Disaster: Architecture and Ruination in Twentieth Century Japan” (Ph.D Dissertation, Princeton University, 2022), ch.2.