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Three way street

Andrew Todd goes Anglo-Franco-Japanese

Andrew Todd gets lumbered in Japan
Andrew Todd gets lumbered in Japan

The Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto – dreamed up by Paul Claudel in 1926, expanded in Ando-ish form in 1992 by the architect Kunio Kato and comprehensively renovated in 2014 thanks to Pierre Bergé –  is, like the magnificent Villa Medici in Rome, something that the French do very well. It is a place to send ‘creatives’ abroad to improve themselves and – in so doing – create soft diplomacy currents of Frenchness in the host nation. I am very fortunate to have just spent two months in residence – 1,200 applied for the reopening year.  I learned much from this priceless luxury of an early-to-mid-career dynamic Nippon mini-sabbatical.

I'm an odd hybrid of French and British, having lived and worked in Paris for 20 years while occasionally putting a professional foot back across the Channel. A current endeavour – the wood and bamboo neo-Elizabethan Theatre at the Chateau d'Hardelot, part of the Centre Culturel de l'Entente Cordial near Calais – gives some measure of this ambiguity. For my Villa Kujoyama residence I partnered with Japanese architect Kiichiro ('Kibo') Hagino, with whom I had studied at Penn in the 1990s, but never met. He too is a bit internally displaced, suffering reverse culture shock on his return from the US. He upped sticks from his native Tokyo and settled into an exemplary life as an architect-farmer-community leader in the remote Noto peninsula, in a house he built for himself. He hosts monthly meetings of local farmers, activists and academics concerned with biodiversity, and has given new form to Shinto rituals addressing questions of fertility and nature.

Our plan was to interrogate the status of bamboo and wood as construction materials between Japan and the West, and to keep an open mind about anything that might show up in such a dragnet on the way. Kibo is a dab hand with a bit of inoki cypress, and uses bamboo principally as reinforcement in earth construction (especially in renovations following a 2007 earthquake in Noto).  

So the first peripheral catch in our net was craftsman Akira Kuzumi, generally regarded as the most important earth and plaster builder in the country. Kuzumi – a wiry, twinkling 60-odd year old who looks at least 10 years younger – keeps alive a craft which could be straight out of the 10th century (AD or BC!), yet is now something of a TV celebrity and national treasure. He also cuts through contemporary timescales, helping Kibo with the renovation of magnificent historic Dozo, and lending much of the character to Kengo Kuma's Buddha statue repository with his hairy adobe bricks in 15 different formats.

  • One-off partnership in Japan - Todd with fellow Penn alumnus Kibo Hagino
    One-off partnership in Japan - Todd with fellow Penn alumnus Kibo Hagino
  • A highlight was learning from traditionalist craftsman Akira Kuzumi
    A highlight was learning from traditionalist craftsman Akira Kuzumi
  • First find your bamboo....
    First find your bamboo....
  • ...then think what you can do with it...
    ...then think what you can do with it...
  • Get the details right....
    Get the details right....
  • Adjust your tension and compression.
    Adjust your tension and compression.

I met Kuma himself, who consciously and polemically rejects much of contemporary Japan, employing materials – especially wood and bamboo – which have been cast aside in the surge towards brutalism, minimalism and miniaturisation. Perceived abroad partly as a class act of 'Japanese' qualities, at home he is a spiky figure, rejecting his immediate progenitors, and ploughing a relatively lonely furrow (among major contemporaries) of sensuality and engagement with traditional crafts and materials, happy to alternate between modest, simple schemes and crazy experiments such as his latticework timber Sunnyhills cake shop in Tokyo. He also flits between France and Japan, giving rise to schizoid encounters with respective building codes and practices (no cross laminated timber – yet – in Japan, no flame spread treatments are allowed on wood, and there is hardly any of that omnipresent, beautiful structural and cladding cypress over here). We shared war stories and pledged to initiate an international architects' wood union; he is personally pushing regulations, industry and government on these questions.

It's interesting that Kuma’s reaction to the dispute with Zaha Hadid over the design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium (in full typhoon-strength stürm while I was there) included an apology for Japanese exclusivism. It's only after a while there that you begin to understand the depth of the gulf separating us. When giving lectures I eventually – because of time constraints – reduced my speech to nouns with the odd adjective ('long bamboo'), and then just nouns ('bamboo!'), but without the translations getting noticeably shorter than when I had given prolix accounts. The Japanese aversion to disagreement ('maybe' is the commonest word, ranging in meaning from 'of course' to 'absolutely impossible') creates wonderfully respectful conditions of encounter, but – maybe – doesn't help get out of an impasse like the Olympic Stadium competition. The upper echelons of the architectural world are very close-knit and chummy, and students in particular seem to maintain warm and familial relations with their teachers decades after graduation. I observed this with Kibo's master Hisao Kohyama (a sprightly 79 year-old, jury member for the stadium and former assistant of Lasdun and Kahn), who has produced a series of tight, intelligent, original theatres around Japan while remaining largely off the international celebrity radar.

The final intervention at the Villa Kujoyama
The final intervention at the Villa Kujoyama

Other marked areas of difference – with architectural ramifications- concern the generation of boundaries, whether interpersonal or constructed: public encounters with strangers are simply totally different to ours, so perhaps it’s not surprising that building thresholds and envelopes are very different, too. The idea of generous thermal insulation is a bit of a non-starter, but, by contrast, habits are adapting to current energy preoccupations (given added piquancy by the national dim-out following Fukushima): people are happy to sweat a bit in their offices for the common good.  An invisible mortar of respect and recognition holds together the fabric of bonkers cities like Tokyo, allowing improbable proximities and densities with perfectly civil conditions. And the otherworldly, exquisite achievement of the Katsura Detached Palace, with its myriad tectonic negotiations of the social, natural and cosmic, speaks volumes about the Japanese capacity to see, hear, welcome and accept, which endure today in daily life.

Kibo and I decided that talk was cheap and we would understand each other much better through action. So we headed into the depths of a bamboo forest with saws and axes, piled about 100 chopped-up 15m stalks onto an improbably tiny pickup truck, organised a deliciously enthused chain-gang to hoist it all up to the Villa terrace, donned our dungarees and gloves and got to it. I refuse – and am ill-equipped – to rationalise what we produced by way of extremely rapid installations around the Villa. All I can say is that, spending my professional life in front of a computer or haranguing builders, it's obviously good to get out. Being able to improvise directly with material with no particular agenda or constraint, changing the subject as we went along, has more relation to rehearsing a play than the deadly process of designing, procuring and executing a building (I gather Kuma often works in a similar way, moving quickly to prototypes). I brought my dungarees back to Paris and am ready for some more action. I'm also eager to take Kuma at his word that Japan should be more open to foreign architects.