Toshiki Hirano on ‘texture without touch’ at London Design Biennale's Japan Pavilion

The Tokyo-based architect recounts the design process of 'Reinventing Texture' at the London Design Biennale 2021, and how it depicts indirect interactions with urban space.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jun 26, 2021

The Japan Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2021, titled 'Reinventing Texture,' is an ode to the spirit of ‘friendship and shared innovation’ that resonates between London and Tokyo. Designed by Japanese architect Toshiki Hirano, the installation merges sights from both cities into an eight-metre-wide textured relief in traditional washi paper - commonly used in Japanese art.

The project began in 2019, when Hirano - in his role as an Assistant Professor at the Kuma Lab in the University of Tokyo - was working with interdisciplinary curator Clare Farrow on Kengo Kuma's 'Bamboo Ring' installation for the London Design Festival at the V&A Museum. During their discussions, Hirano presented his own investigations into material combinations, which later became the impetus for the pavilion's conceptual development. While stuck in Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, he digitally scanned over 100 items across scales, ranging from culinary delights to high-rise buildings. After amalgamating his own findings with those of his London-based collaborators into a collage, he then translated it back into physical form using the age-old technique of papier-mâché. Possessing a creamy, layered character that appears both amorphous and meticulously structured, the immersive installation is brought to life by a digital projection, which imparts colour and symbolic identifiers. An accompanying audio collage, merging sounds from both cities, completes the multisensory experience, depicting a new way to interact with urban spaces.

  • Toshiki Hirano, designer of Japan Pavilion at the London Design Biennale | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    Toshiki Hirano, designer of Japan Pavilion at the London Design Biennale Image: Toshiki Hirano
  • Reinventing Texture by Hirano at London Design Biennale 2021| London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    Reinventing Texture by Hirano at London Design Biennale 2021 Image: Prudence Cuming

In a conversation with STIR, Hirano explains the concept and process behind the pavilion as well as his views on how it might spell out new methods of designing and reading cities.

Jerry Elengical (JE): Could you tell us a bit about your background and architectural practice and what led you to conceive the Japan Pavilion?

Toshiki Hirano (TH): I am an architectural designer based in Tokyo, and I teach at the University of Tokyo where I have been working with Kengo Kuma as an assistant professor at the Kengo Kuma Laboratory since 2017. I also did my PhD there. Kuma-san actually retired from the university after turning 65 last year, but he established a new platform called Sekisui House where I serve as a core director. My work with him explores new material possibilities in architecture using digital technology and traditional techniques and my personal practice is an extension of that. It’s also something I investigated in the Japan Pavilion.

  • Toshiki Hirano digitally collaged over 100 items across an array of scales to create the relief for the Japan Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    Toshiki Hirano digitally collaged over 100 items across an array of scales to create the relief for the Japan Pavilion Image: Toshiki Hirano
  • Hirano explores new material possibilities in his work at the Kengo Kuma laboratory, as seen in ‘Bamboo Ring’ developed with Kengo Kuma for the London Design Festival in 2019 | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    Hirano explores new material possibilities in his work at the Kengo Kuma laboratory, as seen in ‘Bamboo Ring’ developed with Kengo Kuma for the London Design Festival in 2019 Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: Did the notion to combine washi paper with papier-mâché originate from your work in Kuma Lab?

TH: We work with many materials, especially bamboo, which is a traditional material here and something we don't use anymore in buildings. But it used to be very important in Japanese architecture alongside paper. For instance, in Japan, sliding screens are covered with translucent Japanese paper, which diffuses natural sunlight. So, I feel we can really investigate combining Japanese paper and traditional techniques with technology - in this case, 3D scanning and digital fabrication.

Stuck in Tokyo during the pandemic, Hirano collected objects from across the city using photogrammetry | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
Stuck in Tokyo during the pandemic, Hirano collected objects from across the city using photogrammetry Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: How did your idea to combine this concept of frottage with photogrammetry and translating it into a 3D relief come about?

TH: I have been interested in utilising photogrammetry in architectural design for a while, but I don't quite remember how it began. Clare Farrow – the curator of this pavilion - and I were discussing the theme and this concept of ‘texture’ came up, related to new material possibilities. In my case, I have been using both natural and synthetic materials, such as fake fur or synthetic gravel, but I think it was Clare’s idea to use Japanese paper.

Objects from London, such as phone booths, were scanned by students at the Royal College of Art where Hirano did a workshop on photogrammetry | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
Objects from London, such as phone booths, were scanned by students at the Royal College of Art where Hirano did a workshop on photogrammetry Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: Can you describe your experience of scanning objects from the streets of Tokyo during the pandemic and the process of translating these into 3D models?

TH: The pandemic hit Japan and I got stuck in Tokyo and couldn’t really move around or travel out of the city. So, I started thinking, “Why don't I utilise things around me?”, and I realised, “Well, I cannot physically collect objects around me, but I can digitally collect them.” That might be where I decided to use photogrammetry.

For the digital model, I collaged scanned objects from Tokyo and London, like telephone booths or post boxes. I did a workshop with students from the Royal College of Art, where I taught them about photogrammetry. The students then explored the city and collected elements representing London. Then, I put 3D models into a modelling software and started collaging. As I was working with a digital model, I could easily scale and deform - which you can’t do with a physical collage. After collaging everything into a relief, I divided it into 12 panels and the 3D data from each one was sent into a CNC milling machine which carved styrofoam into the required forms. I used those as moulds for the papier-mâché and applied three layers of paper to get the desired stiffness. Then, I detached the paper from the mould and joined the panels together, and that's how it's shown at Somerset House.

  • After collaging the 3D models, a CNC milling machine carved styrofoam to form moulds for the papier-mâché | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    After collaging the 3D models, a CNC milling machine carved styrofoam to form moulds for the papier-mâché Image: Toshiki Hirano
  • Twelve individual moulds spanned the width of the entire relief | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    Twelve individual moulds spanned the width of the entire relief Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: Did the hands-on aspect of papier-mâché come as a relief at a time when we have started to avoid contact with everything?

TH: The technique itself is primitive and traditional. I think it’s used worldwide and there's a kind of papier-mâché everywhere. In Japan, you might learn papier-mâché using a balloon in kindergarten or primary school. Simultaneously, since I am using this highly complex form taken from a digital model, it was quite challenging to make a mould, do the papier-mâché, and then detach it. Basically, you have to get your hands dirty while doing everything. It was really fun, soaking it in this bucket of glue for a whole day. It took me over 200 hours of work with a lot of contact and physical touch to produce the final result. So yes, that was a refreshing aspect during the pandemic when you couldn’t really touch things casually.

Hirano applied three layers of paper, soaked in glue for the papier-mâché, describing the hands-on process as ‘refreshing’ in an age of contact avoidance | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
Hirano applied three layers of paper, soaked in glue for the papier-mâché, describing the hands-on process as ‘refreshing’ in an age of contact avoidance Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: Besides this, how did the pandemic affect your design process and coordination with collaborators back in London?

TH: Due to the pandemic, of course, we couldn't travel. I haven't been to the London Design Biennale since it started and even cannot visit it at this time. I only made the components. That's one unfortunate aspect.

Besides this, we were forced to use Zoom and other communication tools, which actually made it easy to collaborate internationally. In a way, it accelerated paths for us to communicate almost in real time, no matter where we were, which helped us develop our ideas.

If I talk about the concept of this installation, the pandemic significantly influenced my ideas. I adopted the technique of photogrammetry, collecting things around myself because the pandemic forced me to stay in Tokyo for a long time. Reading the city as a collection of textures also came up because people hesitate to touch things now and I think that will significantly impact how we understand and design a city. This idea was a huge driving force for the project, which was affected both logistically and conceptually by the pandemic. And I realise now that it might not have been possible before the pandemic.

The translation of physical objects into digital models, which are then remoulded in Japanese paper, is symbolic of our indirect interactions with cities | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
The translation of physical objects into digital models, which are then remoulded in Japanese paper, is symbolic of our indirect interactions with cities Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: Do you think this could be a new way for people to engage with cities and cultures globally in the post-pandemic scenario? Merging sights, textures, and sounds of things that people both love and take for granted…

TH: Even before the pandemic, the way people perceived a city or a culture wasn't always physical, there were virtual aspects. So even if we are in a city or physical space, we are also connected to virtual spaces with iPhones, constantly tweeting, looking at Facebook or Instagram. I think the way we read a city or understand it cannot be reduced to physical experiments. Virtual or indirect interactions are affecting the way we comprehend urban space, built space or culture.

This installation visually represents the idea that we see a city not only through direct, physical contact between people and objects, but also through indirect means. In this case, physical objects are translated into a digital model, and then back into a physical model with a different material - Japanese paper. There's this indirect contact happening and that's something I wanted to express.

  • As per Hirano, humour is embedded into the relief as seen in the play between snapper fish and Taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped cake) | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview |  STIRworld
    As per Hirano, humour is embedded into the relief as seen in the play between snapper fish and Taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped cake) Image: Toshiki Hirano
  • An interconnected network of everyday objects in different contexts such as vegetable stalls, is deployed in the relief | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
    An interconnected network of everyday objects in different contexts such as vegetable stalls, is deployed in the relief Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: What are some of your favourite objects that have been included in the pavilion?

TH: Well personally, I liked the snapper fish, and another one which is a pancake shaped like the fish. There's this sort of, well not a joke, but like punk. It's a fish but a sweet fish. This kind of humour is embedded in the relief. There is a vegetable stall in London and radishes found in Japanese vegetable stores - the same kind of object, but in different contexts. So, this network between different objects is deployed and that's something I liked.

Hirano included objects, sounds and places that people often take for granted, which are transformed in a different context at the Biennale | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
Hirano included objects, sounds and places that people often take for granted, which are transformed in a different context at the Biennale Image: Toshiki Hirano

JE: How did you record and put together the accompanying sound collage? On listening, it creates a dialogue between public announcements in Japanese and street sounds from London.

TH: We worked with this experimental research group Musicity (MSCTY), based in London and Tokyo. For the field recordings in London, students from the Royal College of Art added their own contributions. But Musicity was the one who mixed and combined them. What is really intriguing about it, as you said, these Japanese announcements - in stations, parking lots, or vending machines - is that these are things which I usually dismiss because I take them for granted. I felt that's something which is interesting since the objects I collected through 3D scanning are also things which people ignore because they are so embedded into our daily lives in Tokyo. However, once they are scanned and transferred into a Japanese paper model, then exhibited in England alongside the sound pieces from Tokyo, they become totally different and uniquely perceived in a new context. This will encourage people to really think about how they didn't notice this kind of sound in Tokyo, and I hope it will trigger musings about what the city really is. It is suggesting new ways of understanding the city, encouraging people to develop different perspectives.

A digital projection adds colour and symbols to the relief, accompanied by a sound collage that completes the immersive experience | London Design Biennale 2021 | Interview | STIRworld
A digital projection adds colour and symbols to the relief, accompanied by a sound collage that completes the immersive experience Image: Prudence Cuming

JE: Would you categorise this Pavilion as a work of art or architecture?

TH: That's a good question. It's something I have been wondering myself. There was a discussion between my colleagues about whether this kind of installation can be read as an art piece or an architectural experiment. It could be more of a generational thing, but I don't see a clear boundary between art and architecture as disciplines. At the same time, I didn't design or produce this installation as a pure art piece. I see this as an experiment to come up with new design methodologies or aesthetics in architecture. I am not saying that this can be literally, let's say, scaled up to become a building, but at least this inspires me to come up with new ways of thinking. In that sense, I will say this is quasi-art/architecture.

Project Details

Name: Reinventing Texture
Location: London, UK
Designer: Toshiki Hirano, Architectural Designer and Project Assistant Professor, The University of Tokyo
Curator: Clare Farrow, Interdisciplinary Curator and Writer, Clare Farrow Studio, London
Partners: MA Interior Design at the Royal College of Art and MSCTY Studio. With special thanks to Professor Graeme Brooker, Vicky Richardson, and MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art, London: Caroline Bang; Rita Louis; Lu Yan; Vanda Hajizadeh; Zhengxiao Wang; Liuxi Lin; Lisa Breschi; Yajing Ding, Ken Man and Xihe Chen
Sound Collage: Nick Luscombe and James Greer
Interactive and Sound Design: Panos Tsagkarakis, KP Acoustics
Supporting Body: Sekisui House – Kuma Lab, The University of Tokyo

Click here to read more about the London Design Biennale.

Comments

Comments Added Successfully!

About Author

Recommended

LOAD MORE
see more articles
2592,2683,2559,2474,2601

Keep it stirring

get regular updates SIGN UP

Collaborate with us

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.
LEARN MORE AGREE