by Dilpreet BhullarMay 03, 2023
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.