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Architectural Ethnography

Defining Japanese Architecture and the way of architectural practice today, at Venice Biennale Japan Pavilion: from the simple aim of building to the inclusion of a wider spectrum of activities, ranging from observation to investigation and mapping.

by Giacomo Donati

The practice of the architectural studio Atelier Bow-Wow represents the last step so far, the current and in progress result of a continuous process of analysis and elaboration that crosses Japanese architecture from the early twentieth century until today and that, starting from the first modular experiments by Kiyoshi Seike and passing through the lesson of Kazuo Shinohara first and his student Kazunari Sakamoto then, led the office to turn its attention to the dynamics that are established between architecture, places and those who use them.

Ukiyo-e Museum by Kazuo Shinohara

These investigations have led to various works, both theoretical and practical.

The volumes Made in Tokyo and Pet Architecture of 2001, to begin with, in which the Atelier analyzes the peculiar nature of Tokyo urban development since the post-war period, often through actions that were unplanned, but the result of individual activities, yet still amalgamated to the context; then continuing with the influential text elaborated for the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture, Behaviorology, which explores not only the behavior of individuals inside and outside buildings, but also the effect of the natural elements on them and that of the buildings themselves with respect to the surrounding context: this, in order to understand these phenomena to make them an integral part of the project, looking for a synthesis, a real composition that optimizes the relationship between architecture, individual and the context in which it is located.

© Éva Le Roi

The result, in terms of practical design, are several buildings, placed in extremely varied contexts and characterized by solutions and aesthetics that are also very heterogeneous, with frequent references to tradition but also radically innovative expedients.

Momoyo Kaijima - co-founder with Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of the Atelier - together with Laurent Stalder and Yu Iseki wanted to bring the research on at the latest Architecture Biennale - which ended on November 25th, 2018 - curating the Japan Pavilion with an exhibition whose theme is Architectural Ethnography.

A concept already inherent in the work of the Atelier Bow-Wow, but which became more evident when the latter found itself working in the village of Momonoura, in the Prefecture of Miyagi, for the reconstruction of the fishing village severely hit by 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: on that occasion, gathering the testimonies of the local population, it emerged the awareness that "rather than urban studies, it was more like we were getting into the methods of ethnography" and “as soon as you take an ethnographic approach [to study the village life, Ed], you start seeing the industrial world, the city for example, in the same way", with the consequence that "all of a sudden, the space you are living in itself becomes a target of your field survey" (Y. Tsukamoto, Islands and Villages - Atelier Bow-Wow in Momonoura).

Therefore, architecture is no longer to be intended as simply aimed at construction, but also and rather as a set of activities of observation, investigation and mapping, because, in the words of the curators, "life exceeds architecture".

© Drawing Architecture Studio

In the Pavilion 42 projects made around the world in the last 20 years are on display, each of them - through different techniques and approaches - deals with the design canon in a different way than usual, synthesizing more "humanistic", pushing up to levels of extreme detail in order to face more closely, almost intimately the specific aims of the project and its overall impact, even leaving out at first glance the concrete objective of building, in a gesture sometimes purely artistic or of acknowledgement and yet, nevertheless, itself a fundamental principle of the work of an architect.

If the concept of Behaviorology - now a chair held at the ETHZ in Zurich by Kaijima herself - represents, rather than a science, almost a manifesto fused in a single term, the Architectural Ethnography appears as its natural consequence, and the work brought forward around these issues an invitation to all architects to look more closely around, to stick their noses, to wander and be curious about the world, the common knowledges, and to indulge in how things evolve every day for the incessant action of human life on earth; an invitation and an appeal, for an architecture that is more placed in the context and not acephalous, disconnected from the social fabric that receives it.