Learning by doing in Japan

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    The Secret School; or A different way to train architects (maybe)

    will galloway
    Jun 26, '11 8:52 PM EST

    Keio University was founded 150 years ago by a fellow named Yukichi Fukuzawa.  Everyone knows him.  He changed the culture of the country and is even on the 10,000 (about $100) yen note.  Which is cool.

    But nobody knows about the architecture school.  We are somehow flying just under the radar.  Which is kind of a mystery to me.  We should not be able to hide so well.  Really we shouldn’t.  As far as I can tell the sheer name power in the faculty should be drawing in people from all over the world. After all it’s an English program, and for the last decade Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma were both on the faculty. They both moved on recently, but right now we have Fumihiko Maki and Kazuyo Sejima in the ranks.  Two Pritzker winners in a room theoretically should be enough of a spark that the school would be in the news somewhere. 

    And yet there is no way to find us on the internets.  Google will get you nowhere.

    It would be nice to pretend it’s because we are so cool that only the cognoscenti can find us, but that doesn’t ring true.  The program is actually very cool, just not for the star factor (more on that below).  The thing that seems to make us hard to find is that we are set up in a bit of a different way than most schools of architecture.  The biggest point being that there is no department of architecture at all.

    For Japan it is not all that strange.  Most architecture programs here are set up as a sub-set of an engineering school or possibly within a faculty of fine arts.  For us the faculty of choice is one devoted to the study of the environment.  Classmates study climate science, environmental entrepreneurship, the creation of low-carbon society.  So we are an accredited architecture program housed within two faculties - The Faculty of Media and Governance, and the Faculty of Science and Technology

    There is one other thing that makes a difference, at least in graduate school. In the Japanese way of doing things students don’t sign up for a program, they join the “lab” of a professor.  Which means it is kind of necessary to know the teacher and then pick his/her school and work very hard to get into it.  The application process is much more personal than most in the West might be accustomed to.

    Since I went to school mostly in Canada (only my PhD was at University of Tokyo) I still find it a bit alien, but the result of the approach can be quite powerful since the professors at graduate school are able to set up agendas and follow them through.  Usually that means everyone is going in their own direction, but at Keio for whatever reason many of the professors are all working on a single big problem, namely dealing with climate change and other large environmental issues.

    On top of that Keio encourages ALL students to engage in fieldwork, so much so that it seems to be that the idea of fieldwork is the real point of the school.  Coursework is for support and to give the tools to deal with the real world, but the real reason for it all is to be out in the field DOING something. 

    It is a perfect atmosphere for people like Shigeru Ban to create a studio devoted to disaster architecture. And for students and professors to join together to take on projects in Tohoku when the disaster is close to home.  In a way it is a perfect atmosphere for creating a new kind of teaching method even. 

    I am not certain yet how far we are going in that direction but right now it is quite positive. Even a few years ago Shigeru ban was able to build this space on the campus with and for his students

    which later on became the pompidou office in paris

    (both images from his book, Volunteer Architects Network)

    Now, with the effects of such an enormous disaster right before us the amount of projects that students and professors are taking on is growing and impressive.  I'll try to showcase some of those efforts as well as the studio projects we are doing now with professor maki. One of the fascinating things is that the professors are really working together across fields so that architects and planners and climate sciences have all gone to the Tohoku are together, and students from all kinds of disciplines are joining in on the fieldwork projects.  There is something in that openness that I find both challenging and at the same time an enormous potential for thinking about the training of an architect. 

    Most of the students here will do internships as part of their coursework.  But they will also join in projects in the field where the work is almost like triage and the efforts are community based.  There is something really powerful in an education that teaches students to work on their feet with communities and not just how to work in an office or how to do a design project divorced from reality.  I would say it is still a bit early to know what kind of impact the education will have on the architecture culture in Japan, but it is possible that it will be quite large, at least as a model.

    I am sure I will speculate more about this later on so will leave you for now with a few images of the graduate school of architecture buildings, designed by my colleague Yasushi Ikeda.  He designed four buildings from wood as a test project looking at making sustainable housing that can be easily erected and dismantled.  The graduate school of architecture is currently occupying two of the four buildings.  Like the program they contain they are slightly informal but immensely comfortable.





    • Interesting read, jump.  I suppose a part of me think it's high time architecture school curriculums were radically revamped, and this seems like one viable option to explore.

      Jun 30, 11 11:35 pm  · 

      its definitely different donna.  I am very curious where it is going myself.  like most programs it probably depends on the quality and ambition of the professors. 

      now we have this crisis before us it feels like even japanese society could change, if we are lucky

      certainly the students seem to be engaged in things going on in a way i would say is not all that common here.  maybe it will be a good time to be young in japan again (like it was back in the 60's and japan was working on becoming a rival to the usa economic juggernaut).  probably will find out in a year or two...

      Jul 1, 11 5:44 am  · 

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About this Blog

keio university's architecture program is probably the best kept secret in the country. Hidden away on a campus an hour from tokyo the curriculum is wide open and connected to a campus-wide project aimed at community-driven innovation. students of economics can take courses in architecture and vice versa but we all are expected to take part in real projects somewhere in the world. there are a few starchitects on the faculty but mostly we are hoping to make a difference.

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