Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Last Night

Wednesday, June 10th, 1:30 am

Today was my last day in Japan. I was pretty tired so I didn't do too much. I spent the day packing and updating my blog, trying to get ready to go home.

We had a group dinner tonight before we all go our separate ways tomorrow. It was one of the nicest meals I've had here, with sashimi and crab...it was really good. Just good food and a couple beers with the people I've spent every day of the past 10 weeks with.

Tomorrow, our sheets are due by 9 am, check out is 10 and our train to the airport is at 12:30. My flight is at 4 pm on Wednesday, June 10th from Narita Airport in Tokyo. I will land in LAX at 10 am on Wednesday, June 10th, which is really crazy. I'll let you know what time travel is like.

This trip has been one of the best experiences of my life, but I am exhausted by it, to be honest. I am ready to come home tomorrow, and I can't wait to see my family. Now, I'm going to try to stay up for a while so that I can fall asleep on the plane...trying to prevent jet lag.

I plan to write one more entry when I get home, but I have at least a month's worth of pictures to post after that, so keep checking up for a while. The next time you hear from me, I will be back in California. Looking forward to it.

Edo-Tokyo Museum and Sumo Pictures

Edo Tokyo Museum and Sumo

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hakone, Fuji and Yokohama Night Shots

Hakone and Yokohama

Day 1 in Hakone Pictures


Odaiba Pictures


Roppongi Museums, Internet Cafe, Shopping and Kamakura

Monday, June 8, 2009, 10:00 pm

I last wrote about Friday, June 5th so let’s talk about my last weekend in Japan.

Saturday (June 6th) I woke up at 8:30 so I could take a shower (which I’m not supposed to do outside the hours between 5 and 11:30 pm by the way), turn in my sheets and finish packing before our check out at 10. After dropping off most of our stuff at the baggage checking area at the Olympic Center, we headed out as a class to Roppongi for a day of museums.

We started at the National Art Center in Tokyo, which was designed by Kisho Kurokawa with a sensuous curving glass façade that was unfortunately dulled by the overcast weather. There was an interesting exhibition by Nomura Hitoshi, who uses photography and sculpture to discuss ideas about the cosmos. The exhibition is a strange mix of observational photography, studies of the celestial bodies, and sculptures involving circling strands mimicking DNA, meteorites, glass and even solar panels. The collection is a retrospective piece comprised of about 130 works from the 1970s onward.

After getting lunch, we went into the Tokyo Midtown complex, done by a collaboration of architects, with Nikken Sekkei playing the role of the core architect. The master planning was done by SOM, and pieces of the large site were done by Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, Sakakura Architects, EDAW Inc., Communication Arts, Inc., and Frank Nicholson, Inc. This list includes some of the most prominent architects in the world.

Our main stop in the complex was the Suntory Museum of Art by Kengo Kuma. The museum was focused on sort of historical art, with an exhibition called Tenchijin-The Life and Times of Naoe Kanetsugu. The interior of the museum was really nice, with a very warm and comfortable palette of materials including wooden slats and a soft white light, reminiscent of the shoji panels of traditional Japan.

Our last stop as a group was at 21 21 Design Site, the museum designed by Ando. The building is, just as we would all expect, beautiful. Most of the space is sunk underground and the form above remains grounded while it seems to reach upwards at the same time, much like a bird spreading its wings before flight.

The exhibition itself is probably the most interesting thing I have ever experienced inside a museum. It is called ‘Bones’ and it was directed by Shunji Yamanaka. All of the works focus on bones, and strives to make a connection between the history and evolution that is contained in our own bones and the implications of the ‘bones’ of technology and machinery. There were skeletal structures of animals reinterpreted, as well as x-rays of machinery, including an airplane. The idea is to expose the beauty of internal structure, and for us to gain a new understanding of the things and creatures that surround us from the inside, out.

Some of the most interesting pieces included a bench that displayed both with light and on a computer screen, where the loads are distributed and where the stresses lie in the structure. It was a structural engineer’s dream. Another was based on the idea of a shadow, and that shadow developing its own ‘bones’ and becoming a separate entity. You stepped out in front of a light that was projecting on the wall, creating a shadow. As you move, the shadow is captured and analyzed by a computer. The shadow then begins to move and dance on its own, based on its own, separate structure. Finally, I think my favorite might have been the piano keyboard which displayed the structure of the music visually through lights that were activated by the hammers of the piano keys. It was a visualization of the music and I really enjoyed it.

After that, the group split up and Jeff and I headed to the Mori Art Museum, designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects. The main exhibit here was ‘The Kaleidoscopic Eye’ which focused on questioning reality and perception. Most of the pieces involved lights and optical illusions. Though some were interesting, the view over Tokyo from the museums Observation Deck on the 52nd floor was much more impressive. Jeff and I spent some time up there, and it was interesting to get to see Tokyo Tower in our cityscape images of Tokyo.

Finally, we were tired so we went to Ikebukuro, near the first place we stayed in Tokyo, to go to an internet café called W.I.P. (What’s up People?). On the way, we stopped at Denny’s for dinner. Don had given us each $50 for the night for lodgings. What is fortunate for us is that there was no way the internet café was going to cost that much, so our meal was paid for by the program.

Now before I go on, I should explain Japanese internet cafés. In the states, an internet café is essentially an open area with a bunch of computers filled with gamers. Here, there are internet lounges, with open computers, but there are also private booths. Jeff and I got a double private booth, which has a couch and a door. Internet cafés here also have showers, free soda, free movies, food for sale, comics and books. This one even had pool and ping-pong tables in another area. It is not uncommon for people to spend the night in internet cafés, if nothing else just to get some privacy. There is a pretty substantial lack of privacy in this country, just based on the density of the population, and it has led to some different viewpoints on public space and what functions are to be found outside of the house. Though our stay was not exactly comfortable, it was cheap and it was fun. All in all, the experience of staying the night in a Japanese internet café was totally worth the inconsistent sleep.

Sunday (June 7th) we woke up at 8 to pay for more time at the café, and then we slept for another few hours. We decided to turn the day into our ‘shopping spree’, buying all the gifts and souvenirs we had yet to buy. We spent most of the day in Sunshine City, Ikebukuro because we couldn’t check back into the Olympic Youth Center until 4. We went to a few department stores, a camera store and a few little shops along the streets. Finally at around 3, we decided to head back towards Yoyogi for check-in.

We got back to the Olympic Center and dealt with the hassle of checking in and getting our bags out of storage and getting our clean sheets. Then we needed a break. It was nice to just hang out for a minute before Jeff and I went to get sushi in Shibuya. We went to a place where the sushi goes by on a conveyor belt and you pick off the plates that you want. These places are, again, not uncommon here in Tokyo. The sushi was incredibly good, too.

After that, we wanted to go to Condomania, which I’m sure you can guess what they sell by the name. There were a bunch of joke gifts and stuff and I spent more money than I probably should have just because the stuff was too funny. Finally, we got home at a little before 11, completely exhausted.

Today our class took a trip to Kamakura, which is where my grandfather was stationed when he was in the army just after World War 2. We went to Kotoku-in temple for the giant Buddha, known as the Kamakura Daiibutsu. It is the second largest Buddha statue in the world and is a national treasure. What was interesting is that you can actually go inside the Buddha, and see the interior form of the casting. As architects of course, we were all fascinated by this.

Kamakura was made the political center of Japan in 1192, under Minamoto Yoritomo. It remained the most powerful city in Japan for over a century under the Minamoto shogun and then the Hojo regents before the center of power was moved to Kyoto. This was long before Edo, the ancient foundation of Tokyo, even existed. Kamakura is still considered the most prominent historical area in Eastern Japan, offering various temples, shrines and monuments. We also visited the Hachimangu Shrine, which was constructed for Hachiman, the patron god of the Minamoto family and a god of war and of the samurai. This explains the shrines construction and importance in the center of power of the ancient shogun.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the entire class just crashed today. I think the trip and our non-stop travelling and work has finally caught up with us. Because we were so exhausted, we did not see anything else in Kamakura today. We spent some time on the streets, wandering through the market and stopping here and there for some coffee or a snack. At around 5, we headed back to the train station to head home.

Tonight, I plan on relaxing and sleeping very soon. We meet tomorrow at 9:30 for our last meeting as a class to discuss our flights and any other final business. After that, I plan on relaxing all day, packing for my flight on Wednesday and maybe doing a little work. I will try to upload pictures tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up before I get back to California, so keep checking my blog for a few weeks after I get home if you are interested.

My adventures in Japan are coming to a close. I look back on my time here and can’t believe how much I’ve seen, and how many insights I have gained. The cultural differences I have experienced here have definitely broadened my horizons and my understanding of the potential of architectural program and space. I am sure that I will miss this incredibly beautiful country, but to be honest, I think I am ready to come home. But don’t cry for me, Japan. If I have anything to say about it, I will definitely be back.

Kuma, Project, KDa, Aoki Jun and Yokohama w/ Koizumi, Mikan and Yamamoto

Friday, June 05, 2009

It has been a week since I last wrote. The past week has been full of work and firm visits. Our final project was due today, so I finally have time to catch up on blogs, pictures and sleep.

Let’s recap…

Last Friday (May 30th) we were lucky enough to go to Kengo Kuma’s office. Unfortunately, he was not available himself, but we were given a tour of the office. In contrast to the open, studio-like environment of Fujimoto Sou’s office, the Kuma office felt very much like…well like an office. There were partitions up and cubicles and it was crowded with books and magazines, but still very organized. To be honest, the tour was a little disappointing because they had very little that they could show us because of the nature of their projects and the confidentiality agreements with clients. They, like many architects in Japan, work through models and do a lot of competitions. It seemed that they weren’t really sure what to show us, so we just kind of looked around and asked some questions, then we were off.

It was rainy and our final projects were due in a week, so the rest of Friday and the vast majority of the weekend was spent in our rooms, working on the design projects. We asked Don to make our deadline Friday the 5th so that we could have our last weekend in Japan to explore and prepare for our flights home. It cost me a lot of sleep, but I’m pretty happy with our decision. It always feels good to be done.

As I said, the weekend was spent working a lot and sleeping very little. On Monday (June 1st) we had our last preliminary meetings with Don before the Friday due date. It was brief, and the rest of the day was spent on work. Jeff and I have worked together pretty well on the project, with him focusing on the model and renderings and me trying to get the plans of our very narrow building to fit all the programmed space. Of course, all this occurred in the midst of technical difficulties, just to make our lives more fun.

On Tuesday (June 2) we met with Astrid Klein of Klein Dytham Architects at Gallery Ma (one of the most famous architectural galleries in the world) in Tokyo. KDa has an exhibition at the gallery right now, so Astrid introduced us to their projects, their process and their design ideals. She is energetic and eccentric and overall, just fun to listen to. She and her partner, Mark Dytham, were educated in London and came to Japan where they worked in Toyo Ito’s office. Toyo Ito is still one of the most renowned architects in Japan. KDa is interesting because they don’t really have any particular style; they tend to take on any project that is new and exciting and approach each one individually. The foundation of KDa was really the first time foreign architects had been able to really establish themselves in Japan. Since then, they have pushed the boundaries, blending the lines between architecture, interior design and furniture. The firm has also founded a series of architectural presentations called Pecha Kucha Night. This is a place for architectural discussion, and the concept has even found its way to the Cal Poly SLO campus.

On a more personal note, Astrid Klein was the first famous female architect that I have met, and I was not disappointed. To be honest, I thought she was adorable, and I loved that she was actually bold enough to be playful with her architecture. As she said, “architecture is just too damn serious”. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves to lighten up and keep an open mind to what it means to create an enjoyable space. Granted, some of the designs were a little kitschy for me, but there were others that stunned me and I think that’s a major compliment to the designers, that they can continuously be surprising and showcase their skill by avoiding becoming “stylized”.

After the meeting, Jeff and I decided to take advantage of what very well might have been our last clear day in Tokyo. We were near Roppongi, a district in Tokyo that I had not been to yet. Of course, we are going there with Don tomorrow, but Jeff and I got a preview and headed to Tokyo Tower to photograph the city from above. The tower itself is a pretty obvious Eiffel Tower knock-off, which has been painted red. Of course, they had to add a spike to the top so that they can technically be 10 feet taller than the original. At first I was nervous because I remember my experience at the top of the tower in Paris, but it was not bad. The upper observatories are all enclosed in glass, unlike parts of the Eiffel Tower, so my fear of heights was somewhat diminished. I even stood on the structural glass “look down” windows in the floor. After taking panoramic photos of Tokyo, we headed back to the Olympic Youth Center for…you guess it…more work.

On Wednesday (June 3rd) we had a meeting with Aoki Jun at his office. He is another pretty well known Japanese architect. His office was interesting because of his own mindset. He considers his office like a university; no employee can stay on longer than 4 years. This offers a constant change in the office, sparking new ideas and new influences. Probably the most famous recent buildings by Aoki Jun are the Louis Vuitton stores in Japan. These stores tend to focus on unique materiality with relatively simple forms. Again, the office was very model intensive and we had a very thorough and informative discussion with Aoki Jun himself, though I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t more interactive because we were all so tired.

Wednesday night was another late work night. I don’t think I went to bed earlier than 2 am this entire week. Luckily, we were meeting later than usual on Thursday, so despite going to bed at 4 or 5 am, I was able to get about 6 hours of sleep.

Thursday (June 4th) was our last day to finish up our projects. It was also the day that we were going to Yokohama for a day with three firms there. We met at Shibuya Station at around 12:30 and headed to Yokohama to meet with Koizumi Masao at his office. The office had planned a whole day for us in Yokohama, which was incredibly nice of them. At his office, Koizumi Masao gave us a presentation in English on his work. His office is somewhat unique in that, since he is a teacher at Kyushu University in Yokohama, he cannot legally be the head or founder of the firm. Of course, in practice, he is the head architect, but on paper he does not run the firm.

Koizumi Masao’s firm, as do many of the firms we’ve seen, design mostly through model. They do not really use any digital techniques and emphasize modeling and sketching more. He has recently won an award from the AIJ, the Architectural Institute of Japan, in 2007. Finally, he designed the Zou-no-Hana (Elephant Trunk) Port Project. The name is based on the nickname given to the port for its elongated and curved shape.

It was interesting also that Koizumi’s firm organized for us to meet with other architects in the area. After we were through at his office, we headed just down the block to meet with Mikan Gumi, a firm made up of 4 principal designers; 3 are Japanese and the fourth is French. We met with Manuel Tardits, obviously the French member of the group. The other members are Kamo Kiwako, Sogabe Masahumi and Tekeuti Masayoshi. This firm focuses not only on architecture, but on design of all levels. They do projects ranging from product design to installments to interiors to actual buildings. It seems like they see architecture in each of these realms of design. It seems that they often design exhibitions; for example they designed an exhibition for the Hakone Art Musuem, which I visited a few weeks ago, as well as the pavilion for the 150th anniversary of the opening of Yokohama Port.

This most recent exhibition is called Hajimari no Mori (Forest of Beginnings) Y150. The design is based off of ‘trees’ of structure, all built out of simple steel pipes. These organically based pavilions relate to the existing trees on the site and recall the time 150 years ago when the area that they stand on was a forest. The goal is to celebrate Yokohama’s growth as a city, as well as the opening of Japan to foreign trade, but at the same time, to encourage future growth in a sustainable and healthy direction.

After the Mikan office, we (including Koizumi and Tardits) went to Yamamoto Riken’s office. This firm is also pretty well known and does some larger buildings. Many of the more recent projects are competition based and are overseas. In fact, they now have an office in Beijing. Their work includes Guan Yuan in Beijing, Yokosuka Museum of Art, Pan-Gyo Housing (competition work, not completed project), and the Odawara Public Hall. They tend to push the bounds in terms of form and materials, but also seem to focus on master planning for some of the competitions. As their work overseas grows, the office works hard to keep up, sometimes putting in as many as 100 hours in a week. As Americans, this was a little intimidating for most of us with our 40 hour work week.

After we were done with the offices, we went to the Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal by Foreign Office Architects. The building is really spectacular. It extends out to the water, but seems to remain part of the landscape. It is comprised of terraces and curved paths, created by wooden slats or grassy mounds. The building itself is sunken under what becomes almost a seaside park.

Next, we visited the work of our guides, including the Zou no Hana project by Koizumi and the Hajimari no Mori by Mikan. Both projects were very well done, in clean, but still somewhat industrial materials. Yet somehow these metals recall organic forms and create a natural feeling in the landscape. I was very impressed with both works and the deep roots of their concepts within the community and the history of Yokohama.

Finally, our touring was done. We went to China Town in Yokohama as a class for dinner, which turned out to be at least a 5 course meal. Unfortunately for me, most of the dishes had pork in them which has a tendancy to make me sick, but still the meal was very nice and the beer was good. Though I’m not sure how good of an idea the beer ended up being since we got home after 10 pm and I ended up having to pull an all-nighter to finish up the plans and presentation stuff for our project that was due at 12 the next day. I finally went to sleep at 7 am and woke up at 11.

Our review today went pretty well. We went pretty early on since Jeff and I were both very tired and we wanted to get it over with. Don requested that we add a little bit to the project before we present it at Cal Poly in the fall, but this was by no means an unusual request. To be honest, I’m surprised that so many of the presentations were as well done as they were. With how little time we had available to design and complete the project, what with moving every few days and trying to see Japan, I was very much impressed with the work of my peers.

Tonight, I need to catch up on sleep, but we have to move out again tomorrow morning. We’re going to go to Roppongi to see Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. Then Jeff and I are planning on either finding a love hotel or an internet café, just for the experience. I will let you know how all that goes in a few days.

Again, sorry for getting so behind, but there you have it.