Learning by doing in Japan

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    Plywood dreams

    will galloway
    May 28, '19 11:28 PM EST

    The (plywood) Veneer house project began after the Tohoku disaster in northern Japan in March 2011, which is already receding into the distance, even though it left some 120,000 homes destroyed and killed around 16,000 people.

    I've shown some of the projects here from that time already. Since then, Hiroto Kobayashi and his students have continued to develop the method of assembly and taken it all over the world, often in response to a disaster, sometimes as a pure research project. There is always in the background of every built work the intent to prepare for disaster. That is why some of the projects are cut by hand and some by CNC. Either way the parts can be assembled by anyone, without any special skills, and in the more recent versions that can make use of the precision of the CNC cutter, without any nails or screws.

    There are quote a few more projects built now. I'm showing a few images from three of them here.  You can find more projects and detailed information at this website, including a better summary of the history and ideas behind the works than I have laid out in the few sentences above.

    From my perspective, looking mostly from the sidelines at these built works, I'm impressed by how much the construction is improving over the years, and how lessons are being embedded in the projects as they develop. This is a kind of education that can only happen when the curriculum is project-based, where  students are building every year in a concentrated way. The effect is a slow version of rapid-prototyping, where ideas are tested in the field each year, often in very trying and difficult circumstances, so mistakes are caught out remorselessly. Almost Miesian in its concentration on technique, the continuous push to improve makes a big difference.

    It is worth underlining the Japanese way this is taking place.

    The projects are done as a group and led by Hiroto along with the senior graduate students in his lab. Everyone is contributing and learning, however the genius is in the collective. The vision admittedly comes mostly from Hiroto, who pushes the projects along, as he is in the end the only constant over the years. Students come and go all too quickly. This is the same way that Shigeru Ban runs his work at Keio,a nd it makes a lot of sense. As architecture goes, the outcome is slightly less provocative and more matter of fact than other project-based schools out there. However there is a kind of continuity that is important. Learning adds to learning, for everyone, not just individual students.

    The opposite example is clearest in the projects that Aaron Betsky outlines at his Taliesen school. They come from a place of self-reliance and individual expression that more or less celebrates the lone genius at work.I love the output that Betsky shows off, especially when it is as good as this recent project by Richard Quittenton. This is a challenging project about architecture expression, and it could very well lead to amazing output later on that changes the aesthetics of architecture. The work at Keio I feel goes down a different road, building on a commitment to social interaction. A harder thing to do well, and a task that many architects I feel would prefer to not engage with. It's messy and the skills are entirely outside of what we normally see as important in Western design culture. The pure design content is transformed in particular ways in the process that make it harder to talk about in that old 90's way, where architecture was supposed to be judged all on its own.

    I'm not making an argument for or against either one of these learn-by-building schools of thought.  As an architect I love the building as artwork kind of project. As an academic the impossible task I'm working on is how to scale ideas/solutions, so architects can have a serious impact on the world's problems (as opposed to putting up lots and lots of super cool pavilions). With that goal dancing elusively in front of me I find myself especially attracted to the work of Hiroto's lab, because it is in the end so concrete. Yet, I'm pretty sure neither approach will truly change the world without some serious luck and/or attention. 

    My working theory is we still need to pick up some more tools as architects and designers. Right now I imagine what could happen when students build their own designs for real people and at the same time reach audiences like Kanye or Virgil Abloh. When that happens, architecture school is going to be something entirely different.

    In the meantime, the work in Hiroto's lab is worth a first and second look.


    • midlander

      these are beautiful. learning how to innovate in a constrained situation really is the essence of architectural practice; this is excellent guidance. also a good lesson on the richness of expression possible just by subtle tweaks to functional components.

      May 31, 19 10:06 am  · 

      on your Miesian comment, they are very similar to the former second year undergraduate annual group project at IIT, where a team worked to document and build a wooden pavilion. But those ones always copied the same model, none of this effort to innovate any aspect of the construction.

      May 31, 19 10:10 am  · 

      thanks midlander. I swear I responded to your comments, but my phone must have hiccuped. I agree about the Miesian approach. Mies is a great architect, worth copying. More educational to copy his method of deep-diving into construction and seeing what can come from it.

      CNC plywood and this kind of wiki-house like work is still in its infancy. I expect to see a lot more coming from the effort in the next few years.

      Jun 6, 19 7:34 am  · 

      interesting.:) I would love to learn more about plywood.

      May 4, 20 10:19 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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