Knowlton School of Architecture (2005-2009) (Evan)

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    KSA Japan Day 8: Osaka to Awaji

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 20, '13 8:12 AM EST

    in Osaka, we took a quick look at the Open-Air Farmhouse Museum, another excellent collection off vernacular architecture from around Japan. visiting this museum/park, it's easy to see how the refined minimalism of traditional Japanese arc extrude developed. in one farmhouse, straw mats covered the packed-earth floor, in another later (or richer?) home, these had become tatami mats with a more refined construction. in almost all cases, a sequence of spaces unfolded from the packed-earth floor of the stable or storeroom, to the flat plank boards of the entry ways and exterior perimeter corridors, to the slight rise to internal tatami rooms, just as we've seen in the merchant's house  in Nara, and will see later in the imperial villas in Kyoto. Similarly, in the thatched roofs of the farmhouses, we can find elements that reappearing n more refined form on temple roofs. The columns in the farmhouses rest on flat stones, another similarity to the temple architecture we've seen.

    We were also able to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Yamamura House, a California-Maya style residence on a hill. This was a pleasant surprise, perhaps because it's not well documented or discussed, but should rank with the California homes of the same period in Wrights career.

    Following the farmhouse excursion, our next few stops were all Tadao Ando: the Church of the Light, the Water Temple, and the Awaji Island Conference Center. The first two, relatively early, canonical works by the architect were both highly anticipated stops. Church of the Light was impressive, but has been so widely published that there was nothing surprising - we'd all seen the 'money shot' view of the chapel before, and we all dutifully replicated it on our own cameras. In reality, the light streaming through the cut voids of the crucifix was less dramatic than the published photos would indicate: the high contrast of the light in the space makes it difficult to capture both the play of light on the concrete walls and the slice of vegetation and suburban sprawl visible through the slot windows. The former is obviously the subject for most photos of this space; the reality is somewhat less dramatic than I had hoped.

    The Water Temple, buried under an artificial elliptical lake, was impressive for sequence alone, as the procession to the temple's inner precinct took us on a highly choreographed path the culminated in the descent through the pond surface via a long staircase.

    Both small projects, both Ando in his most restrained mode, we were able to appreciate the attention to detail in the materials, particularly the concrete work, which, while excellent here, is not too far removed from standard practice in Japan, where the architectural concrete work is generally of superb quality. In a later discussion, I suggested that the overall quality of concrete formwork in Ando's work draws on the craft traditions of vernacular Japanese architecture, and that the modularity of the formwork panelization owes a debt to the proportions and arrangement of tatami mats... but this may be a facile comparison. Nonetheless, the attention to detail, craft, and material seems to be deeply imbued in the culture here: craft traditions seem to have retained relevancy despite major disruptions in history like the Meiji Restoration (and the subsequent embrace of European styles and building techniques) and of course the war and post-war search for a national identity and style stripped of xenophobic tendencies.

    After a scenic drive, we arrived just before dark at Ando's Awaji Conference Center, a massive complex of a dozen buildings set into a hillside near the sea. The program is essentially a small town, with conference facilities, a hotel, a shopping mall, a number of interesting landscape elements, all existing as a self-contained world on the hill. In material treatment, it's typical Ando: nicely-detailed concrete and not much else. The procession through the space is quite incredible, if confusing at times, as a series of stairs, ramps, elevators, overpasses, underpasses, terraces, and passages between shifted walls serve to alternately block or reveal elements of the architecture and landscape - for example, carefully framed views of the ocean.

    In plan, the Awaji Conference Center is a mess. It's essentially a post-modern collage of differing building typologies drawn from historical sources. (I say post modern, but of course we could also compare to the Roman Forum or Hadrian's Villa, another collage-collection of typologies). The Classical Greek theater appears at several points, as does the agora, the arena, etc, often repurposed as shopping mall. The plan also draws large-scale figural voids into the mix, elements that often act as links between the more typologically-legible elements in plan. A cylindrical void, for instance, contains a multi-story ramp for access to the upper-level gardens. In addition to historical references and simple geometric forms, Ando seems to have pulled other references into the mix. A pair of overlapping bars resembles an airport runway in plan, and the terraced memorial garden resembles a gridded Japanese cemetery. While this is all a bit too late to lump in with historical postmodernism, the project could be read as a pioneer of a new pomo revival, using the collage as planning technique, but rendered with hip, contemporary materials. With historical reference constrained to plan and experience, as opposed to material treatment, projects like this could go a long way towards revitalizing postmodernism in architecture.

    As the sun set, we continued on to our hotel.

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Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.

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