From Godzilla to Blade Runner, Tokyo is often held as an architectural synecdoche of the future, a city built atop another (Edo) that symbolises the relationship between technology and the metropolis – both seductive and uneasy. Nowhere is this tension more present than in the culture of otaku. As a term that might roughly translate into ‘nerd’, Japan’s otaku population throw themselves into pop culture proliferated by technology, obsessing over virtual anime pop stars, manga, videogame worlds, trains, modified cars or even the recreation of historical Japanese periods.
At best such passion is seen as a driver of the country’s creativity and economy, and at worst, symptomatic of a population withdrawing from the reality of modern Japan, betraying the fragility of the nation’s identity.
The word otaku also means ‘your home’ and is a polite form of ‘you’ – equating a person with their architectural space of residence. The multiple identities of otaku reminds us of the weird and wonderful bastardisations of culture that might sit just beneath the city’s surface. By challenging borders between actual and virtual, fact and fiction, or even author versus consumer, otaku culture has embraced such distortions. How might we also extend such approaches into the design of buildings and spaces?
This year UG4 will look at Japanese architecture, pre and post 20th century, and expose how many of the cultural and technological aspects that form our idea of Tokyo as a city, and what it means to be otaku, did not just emerge from nowhere. Cultural critic Hiroki Azuma argues that otaku creativity may be the heir to the iki (refined uniqueness) of historical Edo-era Japanese culture of ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai, but that it also represents a Japanese domestication of Americanized pop culture. We might trace a line back from Super Mario Bros U with its parallax-scrolling 2D architectures to traditional yamato-e landscape paintings with their cutaway buildings and void-defining clouds, back forward again into the work of a contemporary Japanese artist such as Akira Yamaguchi – who treads the line between traditional painterly techniques and modern otaku culture. This otaku-like blending of real, fictional, technological and historical together appears from Studio Ghibli to the architecture of Terunobu Fujimori, from the ‘reversible destiny’ spaces of Arakawa+Gins to the Tokyo-3 of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
How might architectural design forge similar relationships to history while also addressing the presence of new technologies for seeing, experiencing and constructing space? Traditional Japanese architecture used techniques such as fusuma (paper sliding doors) adorned with paintings to blur the boundary between architecture, craft, nature and super-nature. Likewise the Metabolists used technologies of their day such as superstructures and modular capsules to conceive of cities as living organisms, once more blurring the borders between architecture, nature and society. In light of new technologies, and cultures such as otaku, what might the contemporary and future equivalent be?
Otaku culture also promotes an architecture of niji sousaku – meaning ‘secondary creativity’ or works inspired by an original. We expect you to apply niji sousaku to the city, using Tokyo as the original context that frames and develops your architectural approach. This might mean delving into the past histories of Edo, or the speculative futures of Neo-Tokyo – combining traditional approaches to architecture with the creative and unexpected application of technology.
This year we want you to embrace this search for obsession, tradition, perversion and malfunction in the modern city, throw yourself into the symbolic overload of the modern world and become an OTAKUTECT!
Project 1 – Wabi-Sabi Scenario (2+6 weeks)
Wabi-sabi is a term used in Japanese aesthetics to describe a condition of beauty emerging through impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection. Your Wabi-Sabi Scenario in Term One will be an 8 week research based project where, in an attempt to understand wabi-sabi in the context of the modern city, you will define your otaku obsession.For the first two weeks, you will be assigned a portion of Tokyo as a visual and intellectual starting point. From this, you will start to explore the architectural and cultural landscape of Tokyo through your own unique methods, culminating in the design of an Otaku Object. This might be a kawaii pavilion, a keitai reading device, an algorithm, a deliberate glitch, a videogame, a cuddly toy, a new drawing protocol, a rulebook, an animation, a manga, a cloud, a house, an architectural mascot, a landscape painting or anything you define in between. We expect experimental approaches that define otakutecture through the combination of technology, craft and culture. Your Otaku Object and the wabi-sabi process you undertook to arrive at it, will form the basis for the manner in which you approach the design of the main building project.
Project 2 – Otakutecture (Dec-June)
Having proved yourself an otakutect with the obsessions and peversions of your first project, you will design a public building located in Tokyo. Your unique project informed by your first term, will investigate hybridised ways of designing and representing your architecture, that reflects not only Tokyo as the ultimate urban fantasy, but plays with the interplay between cutting-edge technology, history and context.
Our field trip this year will take us to Tokyo. Tokyo is a city that works on a refresh rate – the land ministry imposing a 20-40 year lifespan on its new houses as a form of protection against seismic activity. Just as it was once claimed that any area of Tokyo demolished in a Godzilla film would emerge from its fictional destruction newly prosperous, many of Tokyo’s buildings exist in the contingency of a pre-defined destruction, whether through enforced demolition or natural disaster. This temporality presents a different culture to the act of building and often allows for architecture to emerge in more freeform ways than a city such as London.
The unique and strange confluence between history, technology and culture seems to be what defines Japanese society from the eyes of the West. We will use the trip to examine and explode these clichés.
Tokyo: 28th Nov – 6th Dec
Our trip will take us to the otaku heartlands of Harajuku, Akihabara and Ikebukuro, on a trip to visit the home of Ghibli studios, and to see strange chapels shaped like spaceships. We will see the traditional crafts and architecture of Tokyo, and attempt to find some of the remnants of Edo scattered across the city.
We will wander the city of nameless streets, photograph weird and wonderful houses, and climb the Tokyo tower to try and discern patterns within the ground-level confusion. We will visit architectural offices and see their approach to an impermanent city and how they combine cutting edge technologies with refined and traditional methods. We’ll see a building shaped like a foaming beer glass and statues of Hachiko, the world’s most loyal dog, as well as the giant Gundam watching over Tokyo.
We will see the architecture of Isozaki, Tange, Ando, Ito, Maki, Ban, Kuma, SANAA, Sou Fujimoto, Jun Aoki, Bofill, Botta, Rossi, Herzog & de Meuron and Le Corbusier, and return to London as Tokyo-otaku.
To help your transition into otakutects, this year we will hold a series of workshops to find your iki – your ‘refined uniqueness’ – with guests from a number of industries. Collaborating with architectural visualizers, videogame designers, animation artists and modelmakers, we will investigate how your otakutecture might come to life through blending the virtual and the actual.
Workshops will include:
German Casado – digital concept art techniques.
Samuel Mcgill – Studio Archetype – CAD tools for hybrid drawing.
Greg Kythreotis – Shedworks – Unity3D and interactive media.
Johan Hybschmann – Archmongers – physical modelmaking.
The UG4 Approach
The UG4 approach is to pursue hybridised work combining drawings and models with technology – taking a critical position on this design process that positions your work as uniquely yours, but aware of its context.
We want you to be able to place your work into the wider situation of Tokyo and Japan, as well as architecture as a broader historical field. It is easy to find thousands of intriguing images online, but the true otakutect will understand their subject and design process in intimate detail, to delve beneath the surface and be able to critically position their work through the creation of a unique speculative portfolio.
Image Credit: Otomo Katsuhiro: Domu – A Child’s Dream 128-129