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Building momentum in Koshirakura

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Completed over two decades, projects by the Koshirakura Landscape Workshop have slowly accumulated and brought new vitality to this ageing Japanese village

It is easy to be seduced by romantic ideas of rural Japan: the beauty of Koshirakura and its landscape, located on the north-west side of Honshu, easily fulfil the fantasies of a Western gaze. Within Japan as well there is nostalgia for an old way of life, embodied by villages like these. Look more closely, and many of the picturesque buildings and rice terraces in the nearby landscape are falling into disrepair, reshaping the topography. 

With a backdrop of changing economy and trade, agricultural production is no longer viable as a primary way of life. Rather than a food staple, rice cultivated here is often sold further afield as a premium product. Many earn a living through multiple lines of work which, surprisingly, includes the cottage-industry production of metal components exported internationally. Equally surprising is the visibility of global life – modern appliances and satellite dishes alongside the historical. 

As meteorological and agricultural forces sculpt the landscape here, they too circumscribe its inhabitants’ lives. It is not difficult to imagine how harsh winters, in combination with the difficulty of making a living, remoteness and depopulation, can lead to a sense of isolation. An earthquake in 2004, which caused much damage to the village and landscape, also had an effect on the community’s shared psyche. 

‘The structure is simultaneously a monument to the village’s population decline and its optimistic outlook’

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The workshop included 16 AA students and four students from Japanese universities, all of whom had to pick up traditional joinery skills along the way. Photograph by Summer Islam

On one of the verdant slopes surrounding Koshirakura, an incongruous hulking concrete building with many windows peers over the valley below. The structure is simultaneously a monument to the village’s population decline and its optimistic outlook. Once a school, it was closed in 1994 due to the lack of schoolchildren. Like rural communities globally, low profitability of farming has led to high levels of economic emigration. Here, the diaspora of youth has resulted in a reduced and ageing population.

Following the school’s closure, the community maintained the building, determined to give it a positive communal use. Meanwhile, local government had been looking for ways to address the floundering rural economy. Plans to develop the school into a tourist resort were rejected; and strategies to attract businesses to the region failed. It is part of a global question: how can these communities be sustained?

An alternative arrived in the summer of 1996, when Shin Egashira – architect, artist and unit-leader at the Architectural Association – proposed a Landscape Workshop, which despite its risks won regeneration funding. The school became a temporary home to around 25 architecture students studying the region. This number of international participants has since come for three weeks each year.

‘As one resident remarked: “Every summer when the students arrive, our quiet old place feels revitalised”’

It wasn’t just the disused school that made Koshirakura ideal. Unlike a typical rural village, where tradition and conservatism lead to a rejection of outsiders and change, this community is exceptionally outgoing. The villagers are spritely and active despite their average age of around 70. Some, including Haruo-san, a familiar face at the annual workshop, still farm their land. Niigata Prefecture is famed for some of Japan’s most delicious rice, a consequence of the unique environment – characterised by mountainous terrain and some of Japan’s heaviest snowfall, followed by contrastingly humid tropical weather.

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Festivals mark the seasons in Koshirakura, like the traditional Maple Tree Festival. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira

Landscape and seasons are celebrated in traditional festivals, which in the face of post-agricultural decline is the kind of intangible heritage at stake, and significant in uniting local villages. Among others, Baito celebrates winter; Cherry Blossom Festival the spring; c Grass Cutting and the unique Momijihiki (Maple Tree Festival) mark the summer – activities turned ritual. 

In many ways the annual workshop, coinciding with Momijihiki, has become another ritual marking the respite of summer. As one resident remarked: ‘Every summer when the students arrive, our quiet old place feels revitalised’. The workshop’s agenda from the beginning has been to examine the post-agricultural condition of Koshirakura – to understand the symbiotic landscape and culture of this place through careful observation and making. In practice, this has become a long choreography of acts, a village-wide event over 23 years. It has resulted in a diverse array of idiosyncratic objects, structures and interventions, enmeshed with context: extreme environmental demands; remoteness; local culture and building traditions.

Starting on a basis of research and exploratory fieldwork, Reading Chairs (1996) were created in the first workshop. Immediately after, an agreement to continue for the next 10 years suggested that the possibilities of working in this context could be furthered with projects of increased longevity and ambition. Bus Shelter (1997), for example, offered a pragmatic functional piece of architecture not provided by the authorities. Made from details from the landscape – riverbed stones for the floor, clay tablets imprinted with textures of the village and a sliding bench that frames a view – it is a joyful alternative to otherwise mundane infrastructure. 

Projects are often built on in later years, in response to how the structure has been used, folding in new knowledge of the village, tools, materials and skills. Elements have been added to Bus Shelter, such as a heated seat made using a rammed-earth stove, requiring one older resident to dust off their knowledge.

Source: Summer Islam

Other works are event-based and temporary. For the inaugural Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Slow Box (2000), a gigantic timber camera on wheels was built to move between six local villages and a town. Requiring residents to pause and reflect for a one-hour exposure time, it captured group portraits on 1.5 x 1.5m photographic glass plates. Festival Vehicles (2005) responded to peripheral Momijihiki activities, palanquin-like structures lurching behind the maple procession.

‘At the end of the workshop Haruo-san often gives each student a gift. The brown paper packaging printed with calligraphic script is filled with pearly white grains of rice’

After the first 10 years, the workshop has become strengthened in purpose with the village’s support committee. Ambitions for longer-term strategies are made possible. Near the 300-year-old cherry tree, recent projects combine to transform the school’s forecourt into a communal outdoor space. Re-landscaping has increased usability and a European import, in the form of a clay pizza oven, was built under a pitched roof. The school’s disused swimming pool pumphouse was reborn as Azumaya 2 (2015). Removing rusting corrugated sheets revealed a timber skeleton, which was revived with a polished concrete and end-grain cedar floor, projecting window, shuttered, woven bamboo and pivoting facades. Another year, the adjacent empty pool was transformed into a cinema. 

So what significance do these sometimes strange built works have for Koshirakura? Doubtless they have provided new possibilities, such as enabling the use of the school as a community centre for the rest of the year. It became the unlikely location for a pop-up pizza restaurant, thanks to the new oven. The re-clothing of the pumphouse gave it the potential to become useful again, its form suggestive of a teahouse. Other projects strengthen existing rituals and relationships with surroundings. Star-Gazing Platform (2001), was built for a group of villagers who had bought telescopes. Viewing Platform (2003), using the previous year’s cut maple, offered a new village viewpoint. 

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Completed over two decades, the projects by the Koshirakura Landscape Workshop have slowly accumulated in the village. Click to download

The workshop also provides an opportunity to literally participate in building. The uniquely Koshirakuran aesthetic celebrates traditional joinery, local materials and other craft techniques. All the locals become involved in the workshop in some way, offering an antiquated angle-grinder, a stack of cedar beams or to phone a friend who is experienced in polishing concrete. A quick stroll around the village often results in unsolicited gifts: bountiful bags of homegrown produce. Conversations and friendships are instigated by banquets, prepared by students and villagers. 

These are unlikely scenes: elderly Japanese and young students from around the world, toasting each other – perhaps one of the workshop’s less tangible yet laudable outcomes. But to assume that a group of outsiders comes to solve Koshirakura’s problems is a conceit. 

‘The uniquely Koshirakuran aesthetic celebrates traditional timber joinery, local materials and other craft techniques’

The social life that the workshop facilitates has had an effect that arguably equals that of its structures. Yet as Egashira has written, the village doesn’t need new buildings – it needs residents. It was radical to inject an international group of young people into this remote village. For many locals it was their first meeting with a foreigner. Cumulatively it has allowed the village to maintain a dialogue with the wider world. 

At the end of the workshop Haruo-san often gives each student a gift. The brown paper packaging printed with calligraphic script is filled with pearly white grains of rice. Emblematic of this place and literal fragments of the landscape, they are dispersed to homes worldwide accompanied by stories and memories. To locals, that foreigners take such an interest in the fortunes of this place is heartening. The workshop celebrates Koshirakura’s way of life and in doing so, goes some way to nurture its confidence and sustain it. 

Bus Shelter, 1997

In this all-season community bus shelter, the yukigakoi (snow-scattering timber planks) can be dismantled after winter and moved across the road to form an open bench from spring to autumn. The angles of the roof were determined by the angle at which snow settles. Sunlight filters into the sheltered space even when it is covered by snow. Through a combination of openness and the intimacy of its interior, the bus shelter registers seasonal changes.

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The yukigakoi (snow-scattering timber planks) can be dismantled after winter and moved across the road to form an open bench from spring to autumn. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

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The angles of the roof were determined by the angle at which snow settles. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

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The bus shelter provides a combination of openness and intimacy in its interior, registering seasonal changes

Azumaya, 1999

The Azumaya (summer pavilion) is the archetypal garden hut affording shelter from the elements but with no walls, to allow the free flow of air, water and energy. It is asymmetrical (only the upper classes have symmetrical roofs) and should not rest on four columns to avoid parallels with animals. The workshop included 16 AA students and four students from Japanese universities, all of whom had to pick up traditional joinery skills along the way.

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The Azumaya (summer pavilion) is the archetypal garden hut affording shelter from the elements but with no walls, to allow the free flow of air, water and energy. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

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It is asymmetrical (only the upper classes have symmetrical roofs) and should not rest on four columns to avoid parallels with animals

Real Fiction, 2004

Inspired by folk stories, the workshop revisited previous subjects – the Bus Shelter, Viewing Platform, Watermelon Place and Azumaya – with cameras capturing the structures as view sequences. One team filmed and edited, while the other designed and built a local cinema screen structure.

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During the workshop one of the teams filmed and edited previous subjects – the Bus ShelterViewing PlatformWatermelon Place and Azumaya. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

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Another team designed and built a local cinema screen structure. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

Festival Vehicles, 2005

Following an earthquake, the community of Koshirakura were determined not to let it spoil its events, in particular the Maple Tree Festival. The key themes of the project were love, loss and rediscovery, focusing on vehicles for children’s play and safekeeping that could be used in the celebration. The Maple Tree Festival preserves the concept of Mikoshi, a palanquin for the gods, in its original form, with a sacred tree being used as a vehicle for the gods.

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Folding box vehicle. Click to download

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Megaphone vehicle. Click to download

Mansuke House Extension, 2009

The owner gifted this 250-year-old farmhouse to the workshop for conversion into an open-house for semi-communal use. As an inversion of the treehouse, a large tree was inserted to support the house from within while opening a vertical volume of space. A large rear window gives views of the landscape behind and steps lead up to a small viewing platform.

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The owner gifted this 250-year-old farmhouse to the workshop for conversion into an open-house for semi-communal use. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

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A large rear window gives views of the landscape behind and steps lead up to a small viewing platform. Photograph courtesy of Shin Egashira and Carolina Vallejo

Lead image: Village of Koshirakura. Photograph by Summer Islam

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy