Matthew Barac reports on adaptations Japanese architecture schools are implementing in the wake of recent natural disasters
Muffled chatter is everywhere, like the sound of people talking into mobile phones on a bus. Students pace fretfully at the doorway to the studio, a large, tall space transformed into a labyrinth by screens on mobile stands, all covered with drawings; cardboard models and plastic vending-machine bottles litter tables and stools. A young man is presenting his project to a group of distracted critics but his nerves keep getting the better of him and he falters, forgetting where he is in his exposition.
The air is hot and thick with the anxious exhaustion of the end-of-semester juries, which are today simultaneously reviewing all of the dozen-odd units that make up ‘Studio 4’: a design studio which, for the majority of students, takes place during the penultimate semester of the four-year degree.
Graduates of the University of Tokyo department of architecture will have focused exclusively on architecture for only five of their eight semesters; the first three offer general studies in the liberal arts.Following completion of the final semester − the ‘thesis’ studio, assessed on the basis of an individually-guided project − students go out into practice for two years, after which they are eligible to sit the two-stage test that provides for entry into the profession.
By this time the end may well be in sight, but the struggle has only just begun. Japan’s licensing exams are notoriously difficult, and less than 15 per cent get through the first stage (written paper); of those, half don’t pass the second (design exam).
Here, protection of title is taken very seriously indeed. And yet, according to Kazuhiko Okamoto, an assistant professor at the school, architecture remains a popular subject: ‘our students are exceptional when it comes to learning. Some are very shy, but they are not scared of hard work.’
A good reason to choose Tokyo over other universities is its renowned faculty of leaders in research and in practice − respected academics, including Kazuhiko Nishide and Toshio Otsuki, and well-known designers such as Kengo Kuma and Sou Fujimoto.
This connects the institution to the current scene, but its reputation is also anchored to an auspicious past: the university’s roots can be traced back to theAstronomical and Chronological Institute founded in 1684. The marketplace approach of Studio 4, providing students with a choice of teaching styles and study themes, underwrites Tokyo University’s reputation today. Affording a mix between Masters level and undergraduate students, this format draws on the ‘unit system’ widely adopted internationally. Topics on offer reflect professors’ preoccupations: one emphasises landscape, another the scale of the city.
Conceptual themes are also popular; Fujimoto’s unit recently explored the notion of ‘architecture as a cloud’. This year, four units addressed the architect’s role in reconstruction following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. One of these, steered by Nishide & Otsuki, investigated the problem of temporary housing for those who may have lost not only their homes, but also their loved ones.
As Okamoto explains, the brief that Nishide & Otsuki set their students closely matched disaster-response constraints in Japan, including tight deadlines: a two-week design programme for coastal re-housing, using prefabricated homes in tsunami-hit Kamaishi, and eight weeks for refugee resettlement in Tono.
To allow for future change, student Sachiko Uranishi initially proposed a scheme based on a modular grid, hoping to make the most of local fabrication capacity. But she found out that key timber product factories in the region had suffered earthquake damage, and so relaxed her design to embrace a range of adaptation options.
Yoshinobu Saito’s structural walls of box-shaped shelves articulate the threshold between public and private domains. Although shelter from the weather is paramount, temporary housing must also, according to Okamoto, ‘deal not only with physical barrier but also mental barrier. Refugees can easily become isolated; they might stay in their rooms for 24 hours. We need an architectural solution to take the people out of their houses.’ Saito’s project, which invites residents to populate its densely detailed interiors, encourages collective occupation of its public spaces.
Through the dynamics of Studio 4, students are able to pursue interests that closely match their own. This emphasis on choice has influenced the school for a decade; its pedagogical ethos follows global trends towards personalisation, and yet it is rooted in a local tradition of social obligations. The effects of the recent earthquake were literally felt across Japan; here at the school in Tokyo, despite competing temptations in the studio’s marketplace of ideas, students have been drawn in by a sense of architecture’s duty to engage with the pressing matters of the day.