Billboard architecture in books

A brief overview of references to ‘billboard architecture’ or signboard architecture in published books:

1. As mentioned earlier, billboard architecture was apparently a partial design inspiration for Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.


2. Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past, by Christoph Brumann

This book rather succinctly describes ‘billboard architecture’ as follows:

“(‘kanban kenchiku‘), that is, the mock facades of the 1960s and 1970s that hide machiya structures”

“When the economic material started in the 1960s, Japan was seized no less by a belief in technological progress and in the modern style of architecture and design…Street fronts were superficially modernized or hidden behind a Western-looking mock facade (Figure 4.9). There are whole streets of this ‘billboard architecture’ (kanban kenchiku) of the 1960s and 1970s, and detecting the insufficiently covered rafter or tile that betrays this artifice can be an entertaining pastime.”

Although this book mentions the 1960s and 1970s, it was earlier that this architectural style was introduced, as noted in the next book…

3. House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930, by Jordan Sand

This book notes that ‘billboard architecture’ was spurred by the need to make Tokyo’s wood buildings more fire-resistant. This source refers to the architectural style as “signboard architecture”, and also makes reference to Fujimori Terunobu 藤森 照信, the architect who coined the phrase.


According to the Aichi Trienalle website, “Fujimori is a leading researcher into modern Japanese architecture and is renowned as the architectural historian who coined the term “billboard architecture” for the flat-façade commercial buildings that sprang up in Tokyo after the destruction of the great 1923 earthquake.

4. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture, by Sandra Buckley

This books uses the adjective “signboard architecture” to describe a pair of buildings designed by Minoru Takeyama 竹山実: ‘Ichi Ban Kan’ 一番館 and ‘Ni Ban Kan’ 二番館.

Below are: 2 BAN KAN (source) and 1 BAN KAN (source):

This can’t be taken literally, as the large structures are built on an entirely different scale from traditional kanban kenchiku structures. However, I suppose there is a thematic allegiance in these buildings, with their prominent flat fronts, similar to signboard architecture.

Today, 1 BAN KAN is known as 三経75  (Sankei 75 Building 三経75ビル). Location: Shinjuku, Kabukicho (map).

See also:

5. From Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

This book also has a nice passage on Genpei Akasegawa 赤瀬川 原平, whom is mentioned again below.

6. From: The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life

The following pages are from a section about the “Street Observation Science Society“, aka the ‘Street Observation Academy’, written in Japanese as 路上観察学会 (“Rojo Kansatsu Gakkai“, or the ROJO Society; it may also be translated in English as the Roadway Observation Society or Road Observation Society. (Also: in 1974, Fujimori also started the ‘Tokyo Architecture Detective Agency’ to look for old Western-style buildings; PDF source)

The passage notes that “Strong landowning rights established at the end of the nineteenth century thwarted attempts at wholesale redevelopment after the city’s destruction by earthquake in 1923 and firebombing in 1945.” And this passage about kanban kenchiku:

“One instance in which regulation did have a significant impact on architecture was in signboard architecture itself, which was the product of a new postearthquake building code that required fireproofing of wood structures. Shop owners and carpenters took the opportunity of fireproofing to put up facades imitating neoclassical, art nouveau, and other styles then fashionable among architects, but in a bricolage manner that Fujimori describes as “fragmentary and haphazard.”

Some other interesting observations from these pages include:

  • The word ‘Tomason’, or ‘Thomassons‘ (or Hyperart Thomassons), is a metaphor for certain types of observable elements in the built environment of a city; Akasegawa described them as “more like art particles, released after the meltdown of Art”. (The term was named after Gary Thomasson, a baseball player in Japan, known for his expensive contract and propensity to strike-out).
  • Types of Thomassons included the “A-bomb type” and the “Abe Sada type”, named for a woman who chopped off the penis of her lover (this type was used to describe the stumps of telephone poles).

An observation from the ROJO Society, “World’s Best Slippy Slide, Tokyo” (source):


Members of the ROJO Society include

More about the ROJO Society, Akasegawa, and Thomassons:

7. MAVO: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905-1931

The following example is a signboard in the literal sense


Mavo are also mentioned in Tokyo A Cultural History, by Stephen Mansfield, which mentions how kanban kenchiku was used as a method of expression in the wake of the destructive 1923 earthquake.


8. Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary …

An art project, which, in part, recreates an old kanban kenchiku street:


See also:


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