size, scale and image

The workshop began with very clear intentions. The rejuvenation of post-agricultural communities in rural Japan seemed to be a challenging agenda for new forms of architectural fieldwork that would not be possible in a studio-based, academic environment. Our intentions were soon diverted, however, by the discovery of a fascinating sense of autonomy in the place, as well as by romantic notions of being in a remote village. We were even more seduced by the inherent sense of beauty we found there – the directness of life-expressions, which made architectural formalities seem insignificant, combined with the strange contrast between the place (agricultural and rural) and us (international and urban).

Contrast provided a way to reinterpret things that were familiar to the locals, or to communicate differences. Thus our initial workshop began by documenting what we could see and how we saw ourselves in the details of their scenery. It was an attempt to combine the processes of design and documentation. We made maps and found ways to position our bodies in the landscape by making chairs, documenting the landscape by turning it into forms of communication.

What is design?

In his book Architectural Model as Machine Albert C Smith suggests, ‘The architectural-scale model machine is one of the mechanisms humans create to measure and test their various concepts of the invisible… The architectural model is a thinking mechanism used in making the invisible visible.’

We use objects of various scales to help us learn to recognise the architecture of space before and after building: 3d models, physical models, mock-ups, diagrams, maquettes. It is through these models that we recognise structures that might otherwise be too big, too small, too close, too far away, too fast or too slow to be seen all at once. Models demonstrate combined sets of relationships by bringing things together across distances.

Perhaps it is a set of scales and rules that makes the models architecture. During the workshop in Koshirakura, there is no distance between site and studio, models and site; no difference between local people and the people who represent locals.The meaning of representation changes in face of the ambiguity between designing and making.

We often make models on site and draw full-scale diagrams on the ground. We look at photographs and video footage of the context within the context. We make detail components and then discover possible scales by comparing them to other things. We find the right size by repeating inherent patterns of the detail as we enlarge and shrink its proportions.

Let’s put a few details together and see what they become. And repeat this several times to see if there is any moment at which this collection of things begins to have a particular pattern. Let’s draw a map of the unmapped and see what could not have been mapped with it. And see if we can borrow geometry from the village and rearrange details with it. How far can we push this process? The result will be a continuous project, which never seems to end. Models will become models of others. Every time we arrange details, different scales emerge. Relocating models within the context suggests different sizes. Seen from inside and outside the model, the landscape seems to shrink and expand. Things get bigger and smaller simultaneously. Climatic forces seem to require everything to be in a state of incompletion: stand on the site on a high summer’s day and imagine the whole place submerged by snow, imagine the absent mass and forces. We make full-scale models, details about permeability, angles of slippage and enclosure. And then come back the following summer and see if they have worked, by looking at the snow marks left on the sidings.

This kind of detailed approach can help us to suspend our judgements and avoid a fixed vision. It is in fact a very messy process, but it seems to be the right method for productive teamwork. If the same mistake is repeated more than three times, then it is no longer considered a mistake. If it’s repeated ten times, it becomes accepted as a ritual or perhaps a habit.

Faced with a lack of facilities, we learned to adapt anything available into a tool and ended up mixing various contrasting senses of distance, time, gravity, textural density and modes of communication.
As the economic gap between the country and the city becomes more evident, as the authorities restructure their organisations to move further away from local areas, the village appears smaller and the distance of 200 kilometres from Tokyo seems to create a greater sense of remoteness, yet the laughter of the villagers only sounds louder and happier.